Pumping Irony

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

Posts Tagged Alzheimer’s

Experience Life Magazine

Some Aging Experts Who Actually Get It

Luigi Fontana: One aging expert who has figured it out — more or less.

Luigi Fontana: One aging expert who has figured it out — more or less.

It’s always heartening to stumble upon so-called “aging experts” who actually know what they’re talking about. And it’s even more exciting when they’re willing to call out other members of the profession for their cluelessness when dealing with the chronic diseases that beset most of the geezer population.

I’m talking about Luigi Fontana, MD, PhD, and his colleagues, who recently published a commentary in the journal Nature taking the healthcare industry to task for its piecemeal approach to treating those maladies that most commonly affect folks my age — heart failure, diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and Alzheimer’s. “Biomedicine takes on conditions one at a time — Alzheimer’s disease, say, or heart failure. Rather, it should learn to stall incremental cellular damage and changes that eventually yield several infirmities,” writes Fontana, professor of medicine and nutrition at Washington University and Brescia University in Italy.

Fontana and his crew, including researchers from the University of Southern California, suggest that the current Big Pharma treatment approach, which tends to go after the symptoms of disease rather than its sources, has only become the dominant paradigm because it’s the most profitable. Research dollars simply don’t go looking for approaches that promote good health when there’s so much dough to be made selling drugs. With 70 percentage of Americans over 65 suffering from at least two chronic diseases, that’s a big market.

“Economic incentives in both biomedical research and health care reward treating diseases more than promoting health,” he writes. “The launch of a few anti-aging biotech companies such as Calico, created last year by Google, is promising. But public money must be invested in extending healthy lifespan by slowing ageing. Otherwise we will founder in a demographic crisis of increased disability and escalating health-care costs.”

Fontana’s research suggests that those numbers could be dramatically reduced — along with healthcare costs — by focusing more on prevention through behavioral changes, such as diet and exercise. “Heart failure doesn’t happen all at once,” he said in a statement released by Washington University. “It takes 30 or 40 years of an unhealthy lifestyle and activation of aging-related pathways from metabolic abnormalities such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes to give a person heart failure in his 60s, so we propose using lifestyle interventions — such as a personalized diet and exercise program — to down-regulate aging pathways so the patient avoids heart failure in the first place.”

It’s an approach that has worked in the laboratory, Fontana says, and one that “functional medicine” activists like Mark Hyman, MD, have been practicing with notable success for several years. It’s just not often that “conventional” researchers come to that conclusion. That said, Fontana hasn’t completely abandoned Big Pharma, as he suggests that a couple of drugs (rapamycin, an anti-cancer and organ-rejection drug, and metformin, used to treat type 2 diabetes) have been shown to be useful in lab tests to increase longevity in mice.

Still, the big takeaway for me is that some folks out there in academia, at least, are beginning to figure out what a lot of us figured out a long time ago: The simple path to a long, healthy life is all about diet and exercise. Here’s hoping that the healthcare industry catches on at some point.

Experience Life Magazine

Can You Say ‘Healthy Brain’ in French?

Last spring, My Lovely Wife persuaded me to attend a community education class so we could learn to speak French together. The idea, as it was presented to me, was that it would be helpful for the next time we visit her sister, who lives in Brussels. With a bit of French, she reasoned, I wouldn’t have to always shrug and mumble “Je suis désolé; je suis Américain.” whenever someone asks us a question. Besides, we could treat it like a weekly date night.

I know that when MLW has her heart set on something it does nobody any good to debate the pros and cons (such as the fact that half of Belgium speaks Dutch), so I signed on and a few weeks later we bicycled over to Theodore Roosevelt High School for our first class.

My high school years, I should note, were not a particularly constructive chapter of my life, so I was not entirely comfortable as I took a seat toward the rear of the classroom. But our teacher, who was young enough to be our daughter, quickly put us all at ease. Slowly and methodically, we worked our way through the basics over the course of several weeks, and I found the entire process to be quite invigorating, so much so that we signed up again in the fall.

I’d like to say je parle Francais trés bien, but that would be a lie. At a party last winter, I found myself trapped in a tiny kitchen with a friend of a friend who, upon learning that MLW and I were taking French, smiled and rattled off a series of unintelligible questions in what I assumed was perfect French while I stood there, dumbfounded, unable even to spit out a feeble parlez plus lentement, s’il vouz plait.

But fluency is not really the point; it’s the effort that counts. The aging brain, like any other part of your body, needs regular exercise in order to stay healthy. And learning a new language is quite a workout. Researchers aren’t ready to say that such activities will necessarily delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s, but it can’t hurt.

According to William Jagust, a professor of public health and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley, people who are more “cognitively active” throughout their life build more efficient brains. And these more efficient brains may generate fewer of the amyloid deposits that are associated with Alzheimer’s. “Older people seem to activate or bring on line brain areas that young people don’t use,” Jagust told the New York Times in a recent article. “They have to work their brains harder. So people who stay cognitively active may use their brains more efficiently.”

And learning a new language, while not easy for the aging brain, is one of the best-preserved skills as we grow older — especially if we’d learned a second language earlier in life. That’s because our brain tends to retain its ability to grasp new rules of syntax and grammar.

So I guess I should continue to slog through my French lessons as best I can — whether or not they will someday allow me to carry on a conversation. It’s like Monday night basketball: I’m never going to play as well as Kobe Bryant (who, coincidentally, speaks Italian and Spanish), but at least I’m getting a good workout. Oui?

Experience Life Magazine

I May Be Crazy, but . . .

I’m not a guy
who visits the doctor very often (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it), but I do
enjoy reading about the Big Medical Breakthroughs that seem to surface in the
newspaper every week or so. It’s comforting somehow to know that there are
folks out there working 24/7 to cure the various horrific diseases that afflict
the populace.


Last week’s Big
Medical Breakthrough was a story about researchers who have discovered a more
reliable method to diagnose Alzheimer’s. In case you missed it, you can read
about it here
. It seems that every pharmaceutical company is experimenting with
a new drug to cure what everyone agrees is a terrible disease (I’ve seen it up
close in my late father in law, and it’s not pretty), but the key is to
diagnose it and treat it in its early stages. Trouble is, doctors aren’t very
good at diagnosing it (which validates my view above, thank you very much).


So now comes Dr.
Daniel Skovronsky and his company, Arvid Radiopharmaceuticals, with what
everyone seems to agree is a promising new process to identify Alzheimer’s.
Here’s how The New York Times
described it:


Dr. Skovronsky thought he had a way to make scans
work. He and his team had developed a dye that could get into the brain and
stick to plaque. They labeled the dye with a commonly used radioactive tracer
and used a PET scanner to directly see plaque in a living person’s brain. But
the technology and the dye itself were so new they had to be rigorously


So, just to review: If your
doctor thinks you may be displaying symptoms of Alzheimer’s — which doctors
admit they really can’t identify with any reliability — they would just inject radioactive dye into your
(emphasis is mine) to see if just maybe their hunch was correct.


Now I don’t know about you,
but I grew up at a time when radioactivity was considered kind of a dangerous
thing. We didn’t stock Geiger counters in our kitchens or anything like that,
but even as a schoolchild I knew that if I ran into a stranger on the street
corner who asked me if he could inject radioactive dye into my brain I
should run home right away and tell my mom.


I searched the Times story to see if maybe the reporter
might have raised the tiniest bit of concern over a process that involves injecting radioactive dye into my brain
(emphasis mine again — sorry) but found no such reservations. After all,
Skovronsky had tested his dye:


“Hospice patients were going
to die soon and so, he reasoned, why not ask them to have scans and then brain
autopsies afterward to see if the scans showed just what a pathologist would
see. Some patients would be demented, others not.”


The dye worked, much to
Skovronsky’s delight. And I’m happy for him — I really am. He was able to show plaque on the brains of those (now
dead) patients who had Alzheimer’s. But, unlike the doctor and his co-workers,
I’m not breaking out the champagne just yet. In fact, I think it would be fair
to argue that if you really wanted a reliable indicator of whether someone was
not quite playing with a full deck, you’d just ask him if you can inject some
radioactive dye into his brain. Those who politely decline, I would venture,
still have all their marbles.


But what do I know about
modern science? Maybe injecting radioactive dye into someone’s brain is not as
big a deal as I think it is. Maybe I’m just kind of wimping out on the whole
radioactivity thing. You know: Man up,
dude! Take your radioactive dye in the brain like the rest of us, ya big baby!!
It could just save you and your loved ones from the heartbreak of Alzheimer’s
in your old age. Or not.


All that may be true, but
while I’m still relatively lucid, I think I’m going to steer away from Dr.
Skovronsky’s approach and keep going to the gym (had a great workout last
night, BTW; still sticking to my post-it note plan described earlier). As noted
in our “Build a Better Brain” piece from a few years back, that seems to be
the most reliable way to stay sharp.