Pumping Irony

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

Courting Disaster?

Last Monday, I stepped onto a basketball court for the first time in 10 months. In the ensuing two hours, I’m happy to report, I did not totally embarrass myself among the lanky teens and twentysomethings who flitted effortlessly from end to end. I also did not die — an eventuality that seemed a distinct possibility about 90 minutes into the game.

At one point in the evening, I turned to Jerry, one of the other two geezers on the court. “Maybe basketball isn’t the best sport for guys in their 60s,” I said. He just smiled.

I’ve been playing with Jerry and a dwindling group of old guys on this court for 30 years and always enjoyed the competition, such as it is. But last week’s session had me seriously questioning my sanity — especially in the days that followed as I struggled to get out of bed each morning with my aching knees, sore ankles, and stiff back. Maybe, at 63, it’s time to focus on more moderate exercise.

Then I stumbled on a piece in the NY Times that suggested I was part of a larger trend among Boomers who push their physical limits in an effort to ward off the effects of aging. “There’s a dramatic shift taking place because more older people are adopting the attitude that I can — not that I’m unable because I’m older,” aging expert Colin Milner told the Times.

The article profiles several folks who took up competitive sports in middle age, including 61-year-old Catherine Wilson, of McLean, Va., who fell in love with the triathlon in her 50s. Like lots of middle-aged folks, she worried about slipping into decrepitude if she didn’t make an effort to find a sport she could love. “When you’re going to be 50, you realize you better get on it,” she said.

I don’t disagree, but I’m never going to be as obsessive as someone like Wilson, whose weekly triathlon training schedule includes three hours of swimming, three hours of running, and five hours of biking. Nor am I going to follow in the trail of My Fitness Guru, whose idea of a good time is to ski 50 kilometers up and down the hills of northern Wisconsin.

Of course, everything’s relative, isn’t it? I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a little weird for a guy my age to be setting picks, scampering after rebounds, and contesting shots against players younger than my own children. My Lovely Wife always seems slightly pleased when I return from these adventures with all my body parts intact (which I’ve always thought was kind of sweet). My friends think I’m completely insane.

And they may be right. Someday, my body just may not be able to stand up to the pounding it takes on the hardcourt. Until then, though, I’m going to hang in there, because there are things about competitive sports — the camaraderie, the physicality, the emotions — that encourages me to stay active. Even if it takes a little more effort to get out of bed the next morning.

Faulty Connections

Nothing like a great party to keep you feeling young, right?
Nothing like a great party to keep you feeling young, right?

Among my more challenging character flaws is my disinclination to socialize. It’s not that I dislike people; it’s just such a chore to be around them in social settings. I’m completely useless at small talk, and if I should fall into a deep conversation on a topic of great importance, I can be annoyingly strident — even halfway through my first beer.

So, when my pal, The Commissioner, called me Saturday night and asked me to meet him over at a local taproom to hear some band he liked, I was conflicted. We hadn’t talked in a while and I genuinely felt like it would fun to catch up, but it was 10 p.m. and I was curled up on the couch with a cat on my lap listening to the sub-zero winds rattling the windows. The bar was only 10 minutes away, though, and TC promised he wouldn’t keep me up too long past my bedtime, so I grabbed my jacket and headed over.

Some part of me tries to rationalize these kinds of otherwise irrational outings by recalling the reams of research showing how vital it is that we stay connected to friends, family, and community as we age. Social disconnection is pretty common among the elderly, and it can lead to serious mental and physical health problems. (Some basic tips here on how to connect more effectively.) And, while it’s good to keep this sort of thing in mind, more immediate challenges — like trying to get from the parking lot into the brewery without losing an ear to frostbite — tend to grab my attention on these occasions.

The place was packed with the usual post-punk crowd: aging hipsters, young poseurs, and guys who hadn’t shaved since the Red Sox won the World Series. (What is it with this beard thing, anyway?) I spotted TC over by the bar, cradling a glass of some exotic brew, and chatting up a vaguely familiar figure wearing an Arctic Monkeys stocking cap.

I pushed through the crowd, acknowledged the vaguely familiar guy — who turned out to be one of those freelance writers I never hired back when I was editing the local alternative weekly.

“Hey — long time,” I said, vaguely.

He nodded in a way that said, It’s OK, I don’t remember you, either. before resuming a conversation apparently centered around his close friendship with the late David Carr and a new book he was working on. I escaped to the makeshift bar for a glass of Divine Oculust or whatever.

By the time I returned, the Vaguely Familiar Guy had moved along, surreptitiously planting ear plugs in place as the tsunami of noise began to roll from the small stage across the room. Wimp.

“WHY ARE YOU SO GRUMPY?” TC attempted.

“WHAT?” I screamed.

The conversation pretty much proceeded along those lines. I never quite caught the name of the band or recognized any of the graying fans who came up to shake TC’s hand and tell him how much they loved his band, but I did manage to escape an hour or so later with my hearing mostly intact. I’m not sure I can say the same for my faith in the restorative powers of socializing.

But that’s probably just me. Everyone else seemed to be having a great time (though the Vaguely Familiar Guy left before the end of the first set). I probably shouldn’t give up on what little social life I have just because this little adventure was less than satisfying.

TC called the next morning while I was lounging on the couch, cat on my lap. “You were so grumpy last night,” he said.

“Well, I was up past my bedtime,” I explained, more apologetically than I’d intended. “But it was OK. It’s good for me to get out and socialize. Stay connected, you know.”

“Yeah,” he agreed.

“Why don’t you swing by Wednesday night? We’ll catch the Wolves game.” I offered.

“Uh, don’t know if I can make it. I’ve got something else going on.”

The Other Drug Problem

Schoenbaum: Shedding light on a new wave of drug addiction among the elderly
Schoenbaum: Shedding light on a new wave of drug addiction among the elderly

Pharmaceutical recreation was a trendy avocation during my formative years in the early ’70s, and I was enough of a conformist back then to indulge in various mind-altering substances. The effects were not always sublime. I recall sharing a joint with a friend of mine while riding a ski lift to the top of a very steep mountain in California, paying no attention to the fact that (1) I hadn’t been on a pair of skis for at least 10 years and (2) I had never been on a pair of skis on a real mountain. The subsequent descent was remarkable only for the fact that I did not collide with any stationary objects.

I could list several other ill-conceived, drug-induced adventures during that mercifully brief chapter of my life, but you get the point. It was, for me, the “adolescent” indulgence of a mostly oblivious twentysomething — an excursion common to most of my peers at the time. That most of us managed to survive those days I can only chalk up to dumb luck.

That’s why I’m so dumbstruck when I run into old pals from back in the day who are still imbibing on a semi-regular basis. I want to say, “Hello?? You are pushing 70 and still acting like a 20-year-old hippie???” But I don’t, of course, because I believe everyone, including myself, has the right to occasionally act like an idiot, as long as they don’t hurt anybody.

Besides, the allure of pharmaceuticals is not peculiar to the young (or to geezers who still think they’re young). We’re immersed in a (legal) drug culture that makes our silly foray into hallucinogens in the ’70s seem trivial by comparison. Seven out of 10 Americans take at least one prescription drug each day, and some of those drugs can be as hard to kick — and as harmful — as some of the stuff I was smart enough to avoid back in the day.

The New York Times ran a piece last week describing the rising concern over benzodiazepine use among older folks. Prescribed for anxiety and insomnia, this category of drugs (sold under the brand names Valium, Xanax, Ativan, and Klonopin) has become extremely popular among the 65-to-85 set; about 10 percent of geezers in this age group use them regularly — “an extraordinarily high rate of use for any class of medications,” Michael Schoenbaum, a senior advisor at the National Institutes of Mental Health told the Times.

This despite years of studies showing that benzodiazepine users are more likely to suffer from reduced cognition, falls and the resulting fractures. As D.P. Devanand, MD, director of geriatric psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, puts it, “Even after one or two doses, you have impaired cognitive performance on memory and other neuropsychological tests, compared to a placebo.”

But a large number of geezers don’t seem to care about the risks. Schoenbaum and his colleagues found that benzodiazepine use actually rises as folks get older. And it’s often pretty tough to get them to lay off the pills. Just one example from the Times piece:

Consider a pilot study that Dr. Gregory Simon, a psychiatrist and senior investigator at the Group Health Cooperative in Seattle, and his colleagues decided to undertake nearly 20 years ago.

They planned a program to help people discontinue chronic benzodiazepine use and sent letters announcing it to 50 older patients. “Half the people called and said, ‘Don’t contact me. I don’t want to talk about stopping,’” Dr. Simon recalled. Only five people agreed to discuss the pilot; two actually showed up. The study never took place.

Years ago, long after I’d taken my last toke from a crumpled joint, I edited a profile of a guy who studied the history and culture of ecstatic experiences around the world. It was a fascinating glimpse into what he believed was an innate psychological drive common to all humans — as innocent as a 5-year-old spinning around for the joy of feeling dizzy and as serious as a ragged junkie shooting up in an abandoned warehouse. It’s probably what compels my old hippie pals to fire one up every so often.

But it seems to me that this benzodiazepine trip is a little more complicated. Maybe you get to a certain age and all you want from your doctor is a pill that will make you feel better or different or . . . something. Even if it doesn’t actually work the wonders you expect it to, it’s easier than talking with a shrink about what’s really keeping you awake at night or anxious all day.

The real addiction problem, it seems to me, isn’t the pull toward some feel-good pharmaceutical; it’s our habit — especially as we get up there in years — of always looking to our doctor to make everything better. I know life can feel like a slippery slope sometimes, but most of us have the ability to steer clear of obstacles and even apply the brakes when we need to.

The Brain Shrinkage Solution: Sit Still

This may be all I need to save my aging brain.
This may be all I need to save my aging brain.

Conventional wisdom tells us that we’re all going to lose brain tissue as we get older. It’s just a sad fact of the geezer life, like creaky knees and a general cluelessness about popular culture. I haven’t given this much thought because, frankly, I don’t give much thought to anything (could be a shrinkage issue), but for the rest of you it might be a concern, as it can bring on cognitive problems you might want to avoid in your golden years.

Despite my admitted cluelessness about Beyoncé’s latest album and the looming threat of brain shrinkage, I recently discovered that I’ve actually been doing something during these last 20 years to save my pea-sized brain. Most every morning, I drag out a lumpy old exercise mat and a small wooden bench (of my own design!) where I place my aging butt as I spend the next 15 minutes or so following my breath while observing random thoughts and plans and other ephemera passing through the drafty space between my ears. I’ve long been aware of meditation’s many benefits — lower blood pressure, stress management, increased compassion and empathy, awesome cosmic insights, etc. — but a new study out of UCLA suggests that the practice may be helping to bulk up my geezer brain.

Scientists there had earlier noted that meditation could prevent the white matter in the brain from shrinking, but these recent findings indicate that it has a similar effect on gray matter, the part of the brain where your neurons operate. Researchers conducted brain scans of 100 people ages 24 to 77 and found that those who had been practicing meditation for many years (20 years on average) had retained more of their gray matter than those who had not meditated.

“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” study co-author Florian Kurth, PhD, said in a statement released by the university. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

Kurth and his colleagues don’t actually explain why this occurs, but other research has suggested that meditation can help our aging telomeres (the protective caps shielding our chromosomes) by lowering various levels of stress. Here’s how a team of researchers from the University of California – San Francisco summarized it:

“Given the pattern of associations revealed so far, we propose that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.”

This is good news for this small-brained geezer, and it might encourage other folks to make zazen a regular part of their daily routine as they move into and beyond middle age. It requires no particular effort, apart from sitting still, and it can sometimes help you put things in their proper perspective. Stuff like shrinking brains, creaky knees, and maybe even pop music.

The Power of Suggestion

Lamont: Stereotypes can have a powerful influence on old folks.
Lamont: Stereotypes can have a powerful influence on old folks.

I was reclining in the comfy chair at my dentist’s office the other day, my aging choppers freshly cleaned by the efficient and chatty hygienist, when my dentist arrived to have a look. She’s quite a bit younger than me, but not so much that I should appear ancient by comparison. Still, she greeted me as if I was not all there.

“HELLO, MR. COX. HOW ARE YOU TODAY!!”

“Um, fine.”

“THAT’S GREAT! LET’S TAKE A LOOK AT THESE TEETH!”

By the time we were finished, I felt 20 years older.

Now, to be fair, I do have some hearing issues, but she didn’t know that. She was just assuming that this geezer, like all geezers, needed a little more volume.

We are all susceptible to knuckling under to stereotypes. Kids who are treated like thugs tend to act that way, even if it’s against their better nature. And old folks who are treated like decrepit husks of their former selves more often than not will find themselves descending to that level, at least temporarily.

I’m not sure exactly why this is, but I know it’s happened to me. On the tennis court, my (relatively) young nemesis, The Baseline Machine, is in the habit of reminding me of my advanced middle age, a ploy that invariably leads to weak serves, putrid volleys, and an avalanche of lost points. In other words, I start playing like an old man because TBM gets me thinking I am an old man. (It can’t be about talent, right?)

And there’s fresh research to back this up. In England, University of Kent scientists conducted a meta-analysis of 37 previous studies and found that geezers were particularly susceptible to “negative age stereotypes”. As lead researcher Ruth Lamont noted in a statement released by the university, “. . . even subtle differences in the way people behave toward older people — such as being patronizing or speaking slowly — could be enough to make them underperform when others are testing their abilities, either formally or informally.”

One of the things I really like about going to the gym to work out is the anonymity of it all. I just go through my routine without any interaction. Nobody’s telling me what they think I’m capable of doing — or not doing — because of some perception of my age-related limitations. And what happens as a result is that I can sometimes push through those limitations.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t some youngster over there bench pressing 250 who thinks I’m this close to cardiac arrest, it just means nobody’s treating me overtly like I’m too old to be there. Nobody’s messing with my normally delusional sense of myself as a freak of nature who’s defying all stereotypes of aging boomers.

That’s a stereotype too, I suppose. But it’s mine. And I’m OK with that.

Of Bicycles and Biology

Bicycling in January: Enjoy it while you can.
Bicycling in January: Enjoy it while you can.

We’ve been basking in our annual January thaw this past week, that brief period of mild temps that never fails to get me thinking that maybe this winter is not going to be as brutal and interminable as every other winter I’ve ever lived through and then quickly reminds me what a fool I’ve been to even consider that such a thing could be possible. The upside before the downside, however, is that I was able this past weekend to convince My Lovely Wife to drag her neglected bicycle out of the garage and hit the road (figuratively; it’s icy out there) with me.

We pedaled north to our local bookstore and camped out for a bit at the coffee shop nearby. The sun was out, the streets were mostly clear of the kind of glacial ice native to this season, and we sat there enjoying our coffee and wondering why we hadn’t done this before — of course knowing full well why we haven’t. It’s been too cold, too icy. It’s January.

We are constrained by conditions beyond our control. And sometimes that’s hard for geezers to accept. We want stuff to work out. We want winter to end in mid-January so we can ride our bikes to the coffee shop. We want telomeres that never shorten.

I’ve brought the whole telomere thing to your attention before. These are the protective ends of our chromosomes that keep our DNA from breaking down and, thus, slowing the aging process. The longer your telomeres, the longer you get to live, or so the theory goes. Size, as someone used to say, matters.

Helen Blau, PhD, director of the Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology at Stanford University, is the latest to peddle this idea. She and her colleagues were able to rapidly lengthen the telomeres in a set of cells by injecting a particular enzyme (TERT). “It might not be the Fountain of Youth to keep us young forever, but this discovery is a real shot in the arm. This work is a game-changer,” said FASEB Journal editor Gerald Weissmann, MD, who published Blau’s findings. “Biologists have long guessed that the key to a longer lifespan is figuring out how to extend telomeres. Helen Blau and her colleagues have just done that.”

It’s not completely clear to me at this point how this research might be translated into action for folks like me, whose telomeres are no doubt shortening, but if I exert a little biological visualization, I can imagine telomere-lengthening clinics popping up at strip malls in inner-ring suburbs all over America. Make an appointment, roll up your sleeve, that sort of thing.

I think I’ll pass, though. There are some things that aren’t made to control, and growing old is one of them. Like a Minnesota winter, you’re better off just enjoying what you’ve got at the moment.

Living Too Long

Atul Gawande
Atul Gawande

On the Sunday after Christmas, My Lovely Wife and I traveled to a northern suburb to gather with her clan at the nursing home where her mom now resides. It was a noteworthy gathering in many ways: Shirley’s grandson, Andy, and his wife and son had come all the way from South Korea, and Shirley shared a table with her sister Charlotte and sister-in-law, Lois, who hadn’t seen her since Shirley’s stroke, nearly four months earlier.

At a certain point, one of the grandkids gathered everyone together for a photo — four generations of Parkers surrounding three elderly women who represented pretty well the promise and peril of living a longer-than-expected life. There in the center was Shirley, 85, active and independent until a stroke paralyzed her right side and sent her, in rapid order, to the ER, hospice, and finally this nursing home in Roseville; her older sister, Charlotte, who lives in an assisted-living facility south of the city and gets around as best she can with a walker; and Lois, who still lives independently in her own home, still drives to her volunteer activities each week, and who, on her 90th birthday a couple of years ago let everyone know she’s still open to dating. (I’m not so sure she was kidding, either.)

It was a fun and frenetic afternoon, what with toddlers and infants belonging to grandkids I remembered as toddlers and infants mingling among the suddenly (and not-so-suddenly) aging in-laws I first knew as twentysomethings. I’ve been thinking about that gathering lately as I read Atul Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, a masterful exploration of aging, death, and dying — and our culture’s struggle to accept it.

I’m not going to go into a full-on review of Gawande’s book here (read Marcia Angell’s take on it from The New York Review of Books), but I was struck by a couple of major points he makes:

Our healthcare system is not designed to help the elderly live well in their final years.

“The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all. Medicine’s focus is narrow. Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul. Yet — and this is the painful paradox — we have decided that they should be the ones who largely define how we live in our waning days. For more than half a century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, aging, and mortality as medical concerns. It’s been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.”

As a culture, we are not prepared to talk about death in a way that allows doctors to recommend treatment approaches that ensure a peaceful end-of-life journey.

“Two-thirds of the terminal cancer patients in the Coping with Cancer study reported having had no discussion with their doctors about their goals for end-of-life care, despite being, on average, just four months from death. But the third who did have discussions were far less likely to undergo cardiopulmonary resuscitation or be put on a ventilator or end up in an intensive care unit. Most of them enrolled in hospice. They suffered less, were physically more capable, and were better able, for a longer period, to interact with others. In addition, six months after these patients died, their family members were markedly less likely to experience persistent major depression. In other words, people who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.”

There are good reasons, though, to begin the conversation before a health crisis strikes, not the least of which relates to a single sad fact of life few of us want to accept: Very few of us will end up like Lois. No matter how healthy and active you believe you are at this moment, at some point in the future your body will break down. And, for most of us, it won’t be a sudden end to things; the vast majority of deaths, Gawande tells us, come after months and years of gradual deterioration. Most of us will at some point lose our ability to live independently before we die. How we face that eventuality will greatly impact the quality of our lives toward the end.

Shirley’s handled it all about as well as can be expected since the stroke. She’d made it clear years ago that she wanted no extraordinary measures used to keep her alive, and we believe that’s why she’s still with us today. When she moved into hospice, she was ready to go and, given Gawande’s research, it’s not surprising that brief vacation from doctors helped her recover her strength enough to settle into her current residence. She’s still ready to go, and we know it. Which makes every gathering — big or small — something to treasure.

The Billiards and Beer Workout

Everything a geezer needs for a healthy workout.
Everything a geezer needs for a healthy workout.

I woke up Friday morning facing the same debate I encounter pretty much every weekday morning. This is how it sounds in my head while I’m shaving:

Me: I don’t think I have time to work out before breakfast and still get to work on time.

My Better Self: You shouldn’t have slept so late.

Me: So what! I need to sleep.

My Better Self: You said you were going to work out.

Me: I know what I said.

My Better Self: So, you should get in there and just do it.

Me: What — now you work for Nike? I also need to have breakfast, and it will take me a half-hour to walk to work in the snow. It’s like 26-below!

My Better Self: Uh-huh.

Me: Besides, I’m still sore from Wednesday’s workout.

My Better Self: Sure you are. By the way, when was the last time you meditated?

Me: None of your business. I need to get to work on time.

My Better Self: You should get up earlier. Have a little discipline. You know, you’re not getting any younger.

Me: Shut up! You’re stressing me out. I need to reduce my stress.

My Better Self: I’ve heard meditation is good for that. So is exercise.

Me: I hate you.

If this sounds familiar, you have my sympathy, and I’ll assume I have yours. Everyone has to deal with schedules and obligations that get in the way of healthy pursuits. But sometimes we can get sidetracked by trying to be too perfect in our approach. As annoying as my morning debate can be, it’s helpful sometimes to really listen to it — and realize that My Better Self is really just seeking an ideal scenario that isn’t always possible or maybe even necessary.

Yes, I know that a regular fitness routine is an excellent way to maintain our vitality as we age, and I’ve been practicing that routine in various forms for the past eight years with what appears to be decent results. At 63, I feel pretty great most of the time. But I don’t think geezers should fret too much over missing a workout or gaining a few pounds over the holidays. And, as I think I’ve mentioned before in these pages, we all need to do stuff we enjoy. If that includes training for a triathlon, go for it, pal. Just don’t expect me to be your training partner.

The older I get, the more convinced I become of the value of joyful activity. Some mornings, there’s nothing I like better than 15 minutes of zazen followed by a killer kettlebell workout. Other mornings, not so much. The key, it seems to me, is to move your body every day in a way that makes you happy.

So I was glad to see new research from the University of Copenhagen that validated this view. The study, conducted by PhD candidate Aske Juul Lassen, suggests that even an evening of billiards and beer can be a healthy option for geezers like me.

Lassen observed a group of men, ages 70 to 95, who met four times a week to play pool at a neighborhood senior center and argues that the activity should be considered healthy exercise for folks at a certain age:

“Playing billiards often comes with a certain life style – drinking beer and drams for instance — and I am quite sure this was not what WHO and EU meant when they formulated their active ageing policies. But billiards does constitute active ageing. Billiards is, first of all, an activity that these men thoroughly enjoy and that enhances their quality of life while immersing them in their local community and keeping them socially active. And billiards is, secondly, very suitable exercise for old people because the game varies naturally between periods of activity and passivity and this means that the men can keep playing for hours. Not very many old people can endure physical activity that lasts five hours, but billiards enables these men to spread their physical activity out through the day.”

I’m not a big billiards fan, but Lassen’s research tells me that I shouldn’t take my morning debate so seriously. If I don’t have time to work out in the morning, I can always hit the gym after work (which I’ve been doing some lately) when I’m not so rushed. Besides, my 1-mile walk to the office — especially in winter — never fails to get my heart pumping at a good rate. And there’s always my occasional tennis struggle with The Baseline Machine, basketball with my old geezer mates, and come spring a little golf (and beer) with my siblings.

My Better Self will always be there to remind me of all the things I ought to be doing to stay healthy as the years pile on, and I’m grateful for his good sense and virtuous instincts. But nothing works for very long if it’s not something that makes you happy.

All You Need Is Love

Vaillant: Love conquers all.
Vaillant: Love conquers all.

In 1938, researchers began tracking 268 Harvard undergrads with the intention of learning the keys to a long and happy life. Seventy-five years and $20 million later, here’s what they found:

  • Have a happy childhood.
  • Don’t be a drunk.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Get married.

Oh, they unearthed a few other nuggets, like the fact that IQ above a certain point doesn’t translate into more income, guys who hated their mother tended to develop dementia, and liberal geezers had sex more often than their conservative counterparts. (You can check out a summary here.)

All of this simply confirms the results of dozens of other studies in recent years (except maybe the mom-hating/dementia thing, which makes me glad Mom and I always got along), but what’s interesting to me about the results is that, despite arguing that longevity depended more on behavior than genetic makeup, researchers did not highlight exercise or diet as key factors. “It’s good health that makes it possible for you to exercise at 60; it isn’t exercising at 60 that creates good health,” says George Vaillant, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Triumphs of Experience, a recent book based on the study.

The real key is loving relationships, Vaillant says. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that strong relationships can help you live longer. But I’ve yet to see research that shows that a great marriage will overcome the sort of life-shortening chronic illnesses that afflict aging couch potatoes these days. These are Harvard guys, though, so who knows?

Thumbs Up!

Using this phone will make your brain work harder. And that's a good thing.
Using this phone will make your brain work harder. And that’s a good thing.

I’m not what you would call an early adopter when it comes to technology. When I went to work for the local alternative weekly 30 years ago, I brought my manual typewriter with me, because I didn’t trust the first-generation word processors to save my stories. So, when I finally broke down and traded in my old cellphone for a smartphone last summer, I figured I might’ve been one of the last people on earth without one. These phones are expensive, for one thing, and I had a little trouble justifying the upgrade, since my old phone did everything I thought I needed it to do — like make and receive telephone calls.

Then there’s the whole logical-progression-of-technology thing. A wise former colleague of mine once pointed out, rather accurately I would say, that certain digital advancements — email and texting — really should’ve arrived prior to the telephone, since dialing up a friend and actually speaking to her is far more technologically advanced than typing out a message with your thumbs.

But now I see that there may be some real health advantages that come along with smartphone use. A team of researchers at the University of Zurich has found that any tapping I manage to do on my phone’s touchscreen is actually good for my aging brain.

It’s all about brain plasticity, how the command center in our noggin becomes more agile the more we force it to learn new stuff. As lead researcher Arko Ghosh puts it in a recent issue of Current Biology, smartphone use is particularly effective at blazing new neural pathways: “I was really surprised by the scale of the changes introduced by the use of smartphones.”

Ghosh and his colleagues used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity when smartphone users tapped their screens with their thumbs, index and middle fingers and then compared it with the brain activity of old-school cellphone users. Here’s what they found:

“. . . the electrical activity in the brains of smartphone users was enhanced when all three fingertips were touched. In fact, the amount of activity in the cortex of the brain associated with the thumb and index fingertips was directly proportional to the intensity of phone use, as quantified by built-in battery logs. The thumb tip was even sensitive to day-to-day fluctuations: the shorter the time elapsed from an episode of intense phone use . . . the larger was the cortical potential associated with it.”

In other words, the more time you spend on your smartphone, the more you’ll improve the connection between your brain and your hand — and, one would hope, the less likely your brain will turn to mush in your later years.

“We propose that corticol sensory processing in the contemporary brain is continuously shaped by personal digital technology,” Ghosh argues.

That’s kind of a scary thought for a lot of late-adapting geezers like myself. I’ll never be the kind of guy who plays video games on his phone, but I’ve been known to send a text or two every so often, and I can reply to emails when necessary. So maybe there’s hope for my old brain yet. If not, I may have to take up Soduko.