Pumping Irony

Craig Cox, EL’s director of business operations and resident geezer, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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Experience Life Magazine

Shades of Gray

I was scrolling innocently through my emails this morning when I came upon this: “New Pill Promises to Permanently Cure Gray Hair”. Normally, I would just punch the “delete” key, but there was something about this pitch that intrigued me. It was from a company called Go Away Gray, and it featured a testimonial from someone named Elizabeth Skelly, who said she has been taking two of the miracle pills each day for about six weeks and, “now her gray hair is gone!”

My interest in this particular product is not practical or based on some vain hope of deliverance: There is no gray hair in my genes. My father died young (60), but with a full head of black hair. My mother carried but a few flecks of gray when she left us at 82. And her father lived to 93 without harboring even a few strands of gray at his temples. I don’t need this pill, but I have to admit I was a bit curious when the testimonials segued into some actual information about the biology of graying.

It appears that our body naturally produces a certain amount of hydrogen peroxide in the cells of our hair follicles, but it also pumps out some enzymes called catalase and tyrosinase that protect our natural hair color, breaking down the hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen, and producing melanin, the pigment that colors our hair. (This helpful piece in Science Daily explains it all for you.) As we age, however, some of us are less able to produce sufficient amounts of these enzymes to prevent the hydrogen peroxide from overrunning our follicle cells and essentially bleaching our hair from the inside out.

According to the people at Go Away Gray, their product boosts the body’s production of catalase and fends off attacks by hydrogen peroxide. There’s no mention of delivering a helpful dose of tyrosinase, which actually produces the pigment, but I’m no scientist and I’ve never been any good at PR, so what do I know? Maybe it works.

And maybe it’s easy for me, the guy with no gray except in his beard (which My Lovely Wife says makes me look more distinguished than I really am), to wonder why anyone would worry about such things, but I’ve always thought that accepting the gray when it arrives is sort of a badge of honor. It says to me that you’ve been around the block a few times. You’re nobody to trifle with. You’re comfortable in your own skin — and the hair that covers part of it.

After all, when you hit your 60s, you’re not fooling anyone about your age. I was looking in the mirror the other day and amusing myself with the notion that shaving my graying beard would probably present a younger image to the world. Then I noticed the hair sprouting out of my ears. Now if there was a pill for that . . . .

Experience Life Magazine

Coffee and Other Conundrums

When you get to be my age, every new health study feels like something of a ruse. It’s not just because you get inured to the constant “this is good for you/no, now it’s bad for you” refrain so belabored in mainstream health reporting. At a certain age, you’ve settled pretty comfortably into a mix of healthy and semi-healthy patterns of behavior, and I don’t think I’m climbing out onto a limb to suggest that most of us just want those behaviors validated.

I can’t help but perk up, for instance, when I read about some study showing that wine consumption is going to keep me from suffering a heart attack and may even knock out those pesky free radicals that cause cancer. Or that 20 minutes of moderate exercise (like walking across the bridge to the office in the morning and back home again in the evening) is really all a geezer needs to do each day in order boost his immune system, fend off dementia and cure the common cold. I say, “Hey, I’m already doing that!” and I think, What brilliant research!

But, in fact, all I want is for somebody with some academic or professional credentials to tell me to keep on doing what I’m doing now and everything’s going to be hunky-dory. If it’s a randomized clinical study that validates my current lifestyle decisions, all the better. If not, who cares? Randomized clinical studies are overrated. This is all just human nature. I’m sure somebody’s done some research on this.

This all came up the other day, when I chanced upon an interview in the Journal of Caffeine Research (insert your own quip here about jittery editors) with Neal Freedman, PhD, MPH, the author of a new study showing that coffee drinkers live longer. I drink coffee very rarely; maybe once a month I’ll linger over a latté with My Lovely Wife at some coffee shop. I’m more of a chai guy. So Freedman’s study was obviously poorly designed, probably not randomized, and filled with biases. Funded by Folger’s, in all likelihood.

Freedman, as it turns out, works for the National Cancer Institute, and his study followed some 400,000 middle-aged people for 13 years. His team weeded out potential participants with cancer, heart disease, and other chronic diseases so as not to skew the results, and they surveyed them about their diet and various lifestyle behaviors, as well. What they found was that people who drank coffee had a 10–15 percent reduction in the risk of dying during the period they were studied. The more coffee you drank, the less likely you were to kick the bucket.

To my way of thinking, 15 percent is nothing to crow about. And then there’s this, from Freedman himself:

“Coffee drinking, in our study and in many other U.S. studies — though this may not be the case everywhere — was associated with many behaviors that are associated with poor health and with disease. Participants who drank coffee, they were more likely to smoke, they were more likely to drink a lot of alcohol, they were more likely to eat red meat, they were less likely to be physically active. All of those risk factors are usually associated with increased risk of death, which they were in our study too.”

Hmmm. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink a lot of alcohol (except wine, which we all know is good for us). I don’t eat a lot of red meat (except occasionally with a nice pinot noir). And I get at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise every day. So, I’m actually better off not drinking coffee. And I’m not going to die a tragic and premature death. In fact, everything’s going to be just fine.

Experience Life Magazine

An Apple a Day . . .

There are plenty of good reasons for maintaining good dental hygiene, but here’s a new one: A new study from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden suggests that the ability to chew can help aging folks like me avoid or delay dementia.

The study surveyed 557 people aged 77 or older and found that those who had difficulty chewing apples and other crisp foods had a “significantly” higher risk of developing cognitive dysfunctions. That’s because ineffective chewing reduces blood flow to the brain.

This, of course, is cheery news to this geezer, since I happily consume an apple pretty much every day. It keeps the doctor away, don’t you know.

Experience Life Magazine

Strong Medicine for the Aging Muscle

I’ve been preaching for a few years now that the best way to avoid decrepitude in your twilight years is to begin a regular strength training regimen by the time you hit middle age. That might mean cranking out a few pushups and planks every morning before breakfast or swinging a kettlebell around three or four times a week while you’re watching the evening news or actually making the gym a regular destination and hoisting some serious iron. The important thing is to make your aging muscles plead for mercy a few times a week.

It’s way more valuable than steady-state cardio. In fact, an intense weight-lifting session will hike your heart rate into the stratosphere and throw your metabolism into overdrive. It can even help you lose weight! And if you make it a regular habit, you may find when you reach retirement age that you’ve retained a surprising level of agility, endurance, and power. Maybe enough to keep you living independently long after friends and colleagues are confined to walkers and wheel chairs.

And your muscles will love it, even when they’re pleading for mercy.

When you tax your muscles beyond their normal capacity, you cause microscopic tears in the tissue that cause the muscles, once they’ve recovered, to enlarge — and gradually increase their capacity. This process, called hypertrophy, is facilitated by “satellite” stem cells in your muscle fibers that spring into action whenever you’ve pushed them beyond their normal limits.

Here’s the rub: The older you get, the less active these satellite cells become. That’s why, according to new research from Massachusetts General Hospital and King’s College London, your muscles tend to turn to mush once you start cashing those Social Security checks. “Just as it is important for athletes to build recovery time into their training schedules, stem cells also needs time to recuperate, but we found the aged stem cells recuperate less often,” Andrew Brack, PhD, the lead author of the study, explained in a statement released by the hospital.

The primary culprit in this drama is a developmental protein called fibroblast growth factor-2 (FGF2), which tends to become more prevalent in aging muscles and causes a gradual decline in satellite cells. So Brack and his colleagues are predictably looking for substances they can pump into your body to block that annoying FGF2, so geezers like me can stay strong with no more effort than it takes to drive to the local pharmacy.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’m going to keep punishing my muscles the way they were meant to be punished. Innumerable studies have suggested that strength training, even when begun at an advanced age, can have a dramatic effect on your quality of life. I figure I’ve got a pretty good head start, so why show those muscles any mercy now?

Experience Life Magazine

The Elixer of Youth

For several years now, scientists have been extolling the anti-aging virtues of resveratrol, an antioxidant found in the skin of grapes. It’s been shown in various studies to reduce inflammation and cholesterol, thus lowering a geezer’s risk of heart disease and cancer. I like to celebrate these studies with a glass of wine — my preferred resveratrol delivery system.

This research has played a major role in creating the notion that red wine is good for you. It wasn’t until recently that scientists began to note that you’d have to drink a whole lot of wine every day in order to deliver enough resveratrol into your system to notice any anti-aging effects.

But that doesn’t stop resveratrol boosters from continuing to churn out new research to solidify the healthy reputation of this “miracle molecule.” Just last month, a team of researchers from Duquesne University presented a paper at the 244th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society suggesting that resveratrol could help older folks improve their mobility and prevent falls.

“Our study suggests that a natural compound like resveratrol, which can be obtained either through dietary supplementation or diet itself, could actually decrease some of the motor deficiencies that are seen in our aging population,” lead researcher Jane E. Cavanaugh, PhD, said in a statement. “And that would, therefore, increase an aging person’s quality of life and decrease their risk of hospitalization due to slips and falls.”

The research team fed old and young laboratory mice a diet containing resveratrol and observed the older mice gradually improve their balance and mobility until, after just four weeks, they were as adept as the younger mice. Apparently, resveratrol helped the older mice fight off the effects of free radicals in brain cells and vastly improve their motor function.

Of course, that assumes you’re not delivering that resveratrol via a bottle of Pinot Noir. Cavanaugh estimated that a person would have to drink about 700 4-ounce glasses of wine each day to absorb enough resveratrol to see any improvement in balance and agility. It’s an intriguing concept, but probably not one you’d want to test at your local wine bar.

Experience Life Magazine

A Birthday Practice

People tend to see birthdays as milestones, markers that indicate something more significant than the arithmetic of aging. I have occasionally fallen victim to that temptation, but I’m not leaning in that direction this week, as I prepare to enter my seventh decade. Birthday number 61 feels like nothing more than another Thursday.

Which is to say, a little zazen and a workout before breakfast, a bike ride across the river and up the hill to the office, some afternoon yoga, a visit with my acupuncturist, and dinner with My Lovely Wife. Just another day. I think it’s important as we age that we don’t make too much of the accumulating numbers or too little of the moments that combine to create those numbers.

There’s an old saying that “Life is short,” but in fact life is really quite long. Just sit very still in a quiet room for five minutes listening to your breath. It’s interminable. It can feel like the earth has stopped spinning. Most of us seldom notice this space in time; life is just too hectic. But when you do, the results can be transformative. Aging literally stops. The moment — and each successive moment — becomes infinite, yet no time passes.

“We are very good at preparing to live, but not very good at living,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. “We know how to sacrifice ten years for a diploma, and we are willing to work very hard to get a job, a car, a house, and so on. But we have difficulty remembering that we are alive in the present moment, the only moment there is for us to be alive.”

When you look at aging this way, the numbers really melt away. It doesn’t matter if you’re entering your seventh decade or departing your first. Each moment is meaningful, self-contained, distinct. Nothing in the past pertains; nothing in the future matters. Your life is defined each time you take a breath.

It’s not easy to live this way. That’s why Buddhists call this a “practice.” But I’ve found it to be the only way to face the inevitable piling on of years we must all confront. So, when Thursday arrives — like every Thursday inevitably arrives — I’m going to try my best to greet it by being completely present. I can’t imagine a better way to celebrate number 61.

Experience Life Magazine

Who Stole My Testosterone?

An interesting — I’m going to call it a benefit — of aging is how your body’s production of testosterone tends to decline, a phenomenon that tends to allow you just a bit more . . . how shall I say it . . . rationality when dealing with certain aspects of your primary intimate relationship.

Or at least that’s what I thought was the case, until I discovered a new study from Australia that suggests rather strongly that age has nothing to do with it. The study, led by Gary Wittert, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of Adelaide, tracked nearly 1,400 men over five years and concluded that it was changes in health status (especially the onset of obesity and depression) rather than age that caused men to gradually obsess over something other than certain bedroom-centered activities.

“Declining testosterone levels are not an inevitable part of the aging process, as many people think,” Wittert said in a statement released by the university on Saturday. “Testosterone changes are largely explained by smoking behavior [guys who quit smoking apparently stopped thinking about sex as a result] and changes in health status, particularly obesity and depression.”

The average age of the study participants was 54, and if I could remember where my testosterone levels were way back then I guess the study would have a bit more relevance, but I have to admit that I don’t think my health status has much changed a whole lot in the past six or seven years. I quit smoking when I was 22, my weight is actually a bit lower than what it was back then, and I sure don’t feel depressed (even when I wonder where all my testosterone went). So I have to say this latest research doesn’t align with my current reality.

But that’s OK. That’s a powerful hormone, one that governs a whole range of behaviors that don’t’ always reflect positively on their owner. No matter what causes our body to ratchet it back a notch or two is all right with me.

Experience Life Magazine

March Madness?

We’re having an unseasonably warm spell here in the Northland, and it’s really cutting into my TV viewing. Those of you who are basketball fans are no doubt aware that it’s tournament time. The top college teams are vying for a slot among the so-called Final Four, so there has basically been non-stop basketball on the tube for the past couple of weeks. This is like hoops nirvana for a guy like me, but I haven’t seen a single game.

Instead, I’ve been taking the dog for long walks, going on bike rides with My Lovely Wife and puttering around the yard like it’s the middle of June or something. I just can’t persuade myself to burrow into the TV room downstairs and ignore the most beautiful March of all time.

I feel like this is some weird anomaly (I love watching basketball) — and it probably is — but it’s also made me a little nostalgic for the March Madness of my youth. Back in the early ’60s, the NCAA tournament was small potatoes. It competed with the National Invitational Tournament for the top teams and got about as much coverage as the college World Series does today. Much more exciting for Minnesota basketball fans was the mid-March state high school basketball tournament. Back then, there were only eight teams — from large schools and small — and they played to full houses at Williams Arena for three days straight. The games were even televised!

My brother Gary used to take me to watch his high school team play (not out of any fondness for my company; a little grade-school kid attracted a lot of attention from the girls), and these players became my idols. Because I had actually seen them in action, I could mimic their play all winter in our basement, where I had nailed cardboard boxes on opposing walls for a full-court game. I eventually outgrew the low ceiling in the basement, though, and had to take my game outside — which was not always easy in March. One year, we shoveled a path out to the clothesline pole in the back yard, on which we had attached a makeshift backboard and hoop. We cleared the snow away and laid down a few large pieces of plywood and played until the air in the ball condensed from the cold and wouldn’t bounce any more. Another March, we put a hoop up on the inside of the garage. We had to shoot around the metal track that held the garage door mechanism, but at least there wasn’t any snow. We had to play.

I don’t feel the same urgency these days — whether it comes to watching the games or getting out on the court. I enjoy my Monday night games at Anderson gym (when my Achilles tendons aren’t killing me), but I’m just not as susceptible to March Madness as I was as a youth. Back then, I could dream of heroics on the court, play out those last-second buzzer-beaters all day long. Now I know my limitations. And I understand how fleeting a 70-degree day in March can be.

Still, as I was putting away some gardening tools yesterday, I happened to notice how my driveway and the alley combined to form a pretty nice space for a half-court game. All I would need is to attach a backboard and a hoop onto the garage and I could be out there working on my jump shot any time I felt the urge. Maybe coerce my son into a little one-on-one during one of his weekend visits, or reunite some of my old hoops buddies for a two-on-two tournament this summer.

Madness? I know. But it is March.

Experience Life Magazine

How to Grow Old

I’m not the kind of guy who regularly visits the doctor, but if I were and if I lived in Chapel Hill, N.C., I’d look up Nortin Hadler, MD. Hadler is a professor of medicine and microbiology/immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an attending rheumatologist at UNC Hospitals. He’s also the author, most recently, of Rethinking Aging: Growing Old and Living Well in an Overtreated Society (UNC Press, 2011), and one of the most provocative thinkers on the subject of aging and healthcare I’ve come across in a long time.

In Rethinking Aging, Hadler argues that the healthcare industry is essentially abusing aging Americans by medicalizing everyday ailments and forcing them into unnecessary procedures, ranging from mammograms and stents to statins and prostate screenings. “Aging, dying, and death are not diseases,” he writes. “Yet they are targets for the most egregious marketing, disease mongering, medicalization, and overtreatment.”

At the foundation of Hadler’s argument is his view that longevity is seldom enhanced by medical procedures. Take Crestor, for instance. The major clinical trial that AstraZeneca funded to prove the effectiveness of its popular statin drug showed that those who took the drug for a year reduced their risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke by less than 1 percent.

Hadler cites similar study results that argue against cardiovascular stents, oral hypoglycemics (to lower blood sugar), and hypertension treatments — three large and lucrative segments of the healthcare industry. And don’t even get him started on prostate and other screenings: “One never wants to be screened for anything unless the test is accurate, the disease is important, and we can do something of substance for you if you screen positive,” he writes.

There’s a big difference, Hadler notes, between screening and diagnostics. Screening is something doctors do despite the lack of symptoms; diagnostics occurs when you go to your doctor with some specific issues — like a bloody stool. A diagnostic test, in this and other cases, is much more likely to yield useful information. “The degree to which the screening misses the disease you care about and finds a disease you could care less about is the degree to which the screening is useless — or worse than useless if it requires further testing (like biopsies) to validate the result.”

Hadler says that screening is driven by the same “lottery mindset” that causes rational healthcare consumers to tell their doctors to “go for it” when the chances of some life-saving treatment succeeding is so slim as to be nonexistent. And he puts forth some hypothetical questions to help us make more rational decisions. Here’s how it goes:

• If a screening program has been shown to spare one person out of 2,000 from death from a type of cancer, would you do it?

• If it was painless and shown to have no negative side effects, would you do it?

• If the screening mistakenly led to treating five people who would not have died from that cancer, would you do it?

Put me in that position and my response would be: no, no, and no.

In the case of mammograms, Hadler cites a study that suggests that for every woman whose mammogram prevented her death from breast cancer as many as 10 others will be treated needlessly. In the case of prostate cancer screening, a randomized clinical trial involving 75,000 men showed a “relative risk reduction of 20 percent.” In other words, Hadler says, “if you screen 1,400 men for nine years, screening would cause you to treat 48 additional men for cancer but avert death from prostate cancer in only one of them.” In fact, Hadler notes, almost every man in his 60s already has prostate cancer, but in most cases it’s so slow to develop that it will never be the cause of his death.

And then there’s my old bugaboo: colorectal cancer. As I think I’ve mentioned in these pages before, I’m constantly being badgered by my brothers (and sometimes by my friends) about getting to the doctor to have a colonoscopy, because both of my parents had colon cancer. It’s a lovely sentiment, the way these folks care about my health, but this sort of screening is not as clean-cut as you might think. For one thing, the relative skillfulness of your endoscopist is important, and whether they locate polyps on the left or right side of the colon is similarly vital (those on the left are much more likely to be dangerous). Overall, however, studies have shown that colonoscopies are of less value than we’ve been told. “Any advantage to screening is likely to be quite small,” Hadler says. “Screening for colorectal cancer is running into the same block that stumbled mammography and PSA [prostate screening]. For the person at ‘average risk,’ these are very blunt screening instruments. They are very likely to find disease in people for whom the finding is irrelevant and not particularly good at finding the disease that threatens the individual’s life expectancy before it is too late.”

Hadler’s larger point is that most Americans can expect to live into their 80s, and there’s not much the healthcare/pharmaceutical industry can do to extend that — though that industry would very much prefer you to think so. And once in your 80s, you shouldn’t spend too much time or energy worrying about which of the many diseases occupying your body will ultimately do you in. (By 60, he notes, everyone has “significant atherosclerosis” and are harboring various cancers.) “It makes no sense to cure the diseases one will die with in the ninth decade,” he writes, “and little sense to cure the disease that one will die from in the ninth decade if another is to take its place in short order.”

At that point, he notes, it’s the quality of living and the quality of dying that should become paramount.

This all may seem quite a distance away for some of you at this point, but to my way of thinking this sort of approach to healthcare should inform everyone’s decisions — regardless of their age.

Experience Life Magazine

You’re Not Getting Older, You’re Getting Stronger . . .

My daughter, The Boss Mare, called me from Michigan this morning to report that she’d had a flat tire on her way to some horse-related function an hour-and-a-half away from her college apartment. It’s not that she needed advice on how to change a tire (I just assume she orders the tire to change itself); she just needed some dough, as usual. The call interrupted my zazen session, from which I normally segue into my workout, and it woke My Lovely Wife, who requested information. Bottom line: no workout.

It reminded me how easy it is to avoid exercising — especially for older persons like myself. I mean, let’s face it: Spending hours hoisting serious iron or logging miles on the dreadmill isn’t going to radically transform those parts of our anatomy that have succumbed to gravity over the years. And, really, when you get to a certain age you’re not in the habit of taking your shirt off in front of strangers, anyway. It’s not about building a beach-ready body.

In fact, it’s kind of hard to know what benefits all the sweat and soreness actually deliver. Conventional wisdom tells us that when you get old it’s simply inevitable that your body is going to break down, so what’s the point in fighting it?

Well, new research from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that a regular fitness regimen does make a difference. Indeed, those who maintain a regular fitness regimen into their 60, 70s, and beyond can enjoy the kind of strength, energy and vitality of people 20 years their junior.

It’s long been thought that aging brought an inexorable loss of muscle mass and an inevitable infiltration of fat, but this latest study found that, with a regular exercise program, participants as old as 81 could retain the same level of muscle mass as folks in their 60s. “We think these are very encouraging results, lead researcher Vonda Wright, MD, told The New York Times. “They suggest strongly that people don’t have to lose muscle mass and function as they grow older. The changes that we’ve assumed were due to aging and therefore were unstoppable seem actually to be caused by inactivity. And that can be changed.”

While the participants in the University of Pittsburgh study were competitive athletes with intense training regimens, Wright noted that there’s no reason to believe that a more moderate program wouldn’t have similar effects. The key is simply to get up and move your body everyday in whatever way is most satisfying and sustainable. You may find that once you overcome your inertia, exercise will get easier and more enjoyable.

And by maintaining muscle mass you’ll be more mobile and, thus independent, well into your 80s. Because you never know when somebody might need help changing their tire.

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