Pumping Irony

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

For Pain Relief, Cross Your Fingers

Ferré: cross your fingers for pain relief
Ferré: cross your fingers for pain relief

It is one of the sad realities of life in the aging lane that some sort of pain is pretty much a constant companion. On this quiet Sunday afternoon, for example, both my knees are sore from a bicycle ride yesterday, my lower back is telling me to leave that kettlebell on the floor, my left ankle is a bit stiff, and the index finger on my right hand is feeling downright arthritic.

None of this is particularly bothersome; mostly, this stuff just comes and goes. I don’t need pharmaceuticals to cope. But it does serve to remind me how the whole pain-management paradigm tends to dominate the lives of folks my age and older. A recent study from New York University found that the elderly are more likely than younger people to be undertreated by doctors for their pain — primarily because there’s an assumption that chronic pain is “normal” for us geezers. We’re just supposed to deal with it as the cost of living past our prime.

At some level, I get that. Of course, that’s easy for me to say, given that I’m not racked by unbearable pain most of the time. (I have some familiarity with “just kill me, please, and get it over with” pain, by the way. Kidney stones will get you there in a hurry.) But I was also intrigued to discover some new research that suggests we may be able to manage pain by simply manipulating the brain’s pain systems.

The study, conducted by scientists at University College London and published in the journal Current Biology, used what’s called the “thermal grill illusion” to shift the brain’s reception of pain signals. They applied heat to the ring and index fingers while cooling the middle finger. When applied simultaneously, the middle finger feels a burning sensation. This works because warming the two fingers blocks the brain from receiving the signals from the middle finger. “Cold normally inhibits pain, so inhibiting the input from the cold stimulus produces an increase in pain signals,” said Elisa Ferré, the study’s co-author. “It’s like two minuses making a plus.”

It gets weirder, though. Ferré and her colleagues found that, when the painful middle finger was crossed over the index finger, the burning sensation subsided. “Our results showed that a simple spatial pattern determined the burning heat sensation,” Ferré explained. “When the cold finger was positioned in between the two warm fingers, it felt burningly hot. When the cold finger was moved to an outside position, the burning sensation was reduced. The brain seemed to use the spatial arrangement of all three stimuli to produce the burning heat sensation on just one finger.”

The study’s senior author, Patrick Haggard, admits that the findings are only “laboratory science,” but suggests that it “raises the interesting possibility that pain levels could be manipulated by applying additional stimuli, and by moving one part of the body relative to others.”

Go ahead and try this at home, if you like, but you might want to lower your expectations. I crossed my middle finger over my arthritic index and held it there long enough to begin feeling foolish. It didn’t seem to make much difference. Maybe if I made a wish.

Cynical Presumptions

Haase: The elderly are less cynical than you may think.
Haase: The elderly are less cynical than you may think.

I spent an enjoyable hour over coffee last week with my old buddy, The Beast, and his 7-month-old son, Connor (AKA CDBG). TB introduced me to the youngster as “The Cynical Reporter,” a nickname I earned a decade ago as a City Hall beat writer. It’s a moniker I’ve always embraced, at least as it describes my view of the political sphere, but I don’t really think of myself in those terms.

Oh sure, my tennis nemesis, The Baseline Machine, has on more than one occasion called me a “curmudgeon,” but that may have more to do with my mood on those occasions when I’m futilely chasing service returns into the far corners of the court. To many of my other friends and colleagues, I think I present a generally upbeat, sunny temperament (though I’ve never conducted a thorough survey). And My Lovely Wife thinks I’m a swell companion (most of the time, as far as I can tell).

This all gets me to thinking that maybe it’s my advanced middle age that is working to my disadvantage. It’s pretty common for the general populace to assume that old folks are prone to crankiness. I don’t think this is necessarily due to some blind prejudice; it’s sort of a cultural assumption cemented by youth-addled perceptions. When you’re 28 years old and waiting not so patiently behind some senior citizen who’s clambering precariously up the steps and onto the bus, it’s easy to presume that geezer is not having much fun.

But new research suggests that folks my age and older are actually much less cynical and suspicious than we might think — and a lot happier, as a result.

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University at Buffalo, followed nearly 200,000 people from 83 countries, including the U.S., and concluded that we become more trusting as we age, even if our trust is sometimes violated. “When we think of old age, we often think of decline and loss,” study co-author Claudia Haase, an assistant professor of education and social policy at Northwestern, said in a statement released by the university. “But a growing body of research shows that some things actually get better as we age. Our new findings show that trust increases as people get older and, moreover, that people who trust more are also more likely to experience increases in happiness over time.”

Those levels of trust grow as we get older, Haase surmised, because the older we get, the more we feel an inclination to give back to others. “We know that older people are more likely to look at the bright side of things,” she explained. “As we age, we may be more likely to see the best in other people and forgive the little letdowns that got us so wary when we were younger.”

At one point during our coffee shop get-together last week, TB handed young CDBG over to me, and went across the street to run an errand. We eyed each other a bit warily at first (especially the youngster), but by the time TB returned we were yukking it up pretty good and making plans to hang out some down the road. By the time the little guy understands what cynical means, I’m guessing he’ll be asking his dad why he wants to call me that.

To Live Longer, Drop the Late-Night Noshing

Robert "Tractor" Traylor: on the cutting edge of weight-loss science.
Robert “Tractor” Traylor: on the cutting edge of weight-loss science.

Back in the ’90s, I followed with slightly more than idle curiosity the career trajectory of a basketball player named Robert Traylor, whose considerable girth earned him the nickname “Tractor” during four mostly memorable seasons at the University of Michigan. Traylor was drafted by the NBA Dallas Mavericks and quickly discovered that the heft that aided him in college was less effective in the pros. So he decided he would shed some of his 300-odd pounds.

As you know, there are nearly as many weight-loss strategies as there are people who want to lose weight, but Tractor employed one that was more interesting than most: He refused to eat anything after 8 p.m.

I can’t recall the actual number of pounds Traylor lost during that particular bout with his bathroom scale, but he did slim down some and managed to stick around the NBA for seven seasons, so it probably had some affect on his career. Not that he became a star or anything: His major claim to fame was that Dallas traded him on draft day to the Milwaukee Bucks for Dirk Nowitski, a skinny kid from Germany who turned out to be one of the greatest players ever to play the game. Still, the odds that he would survive at his original poundage were pretty long.

(Sorry for all the sports trivia. Now you know what My Lovely Wife has to put up with all the time.)

Like most guys who haven’t had to deal with weight issues, I tend to be pretty skeptical of any dietary regimen. But I was intrigued by a new study out of San Diego State which suggests that Tractor was onto something: Turns out, it’s not so much what you eat, but when you eat that most affects your overall health as you age.

Researchers observed two sets of fruit flies — one that was only allowed to eat during a 12-hour period each day and another allowed to eat anytime. Each group ate the same amount of food, but the flies that were limited to a specific eating period were much healthier than those that ate all the time. “In very early experiments, when we compared five-week-old flies that were fed for either 24 hours or 12 hours, the hearts of the latter were in such good shape that we thought perhaps we had mistaken some young three-week-old fruit flies with the older group,” lead study author Shubhroz Gill told Science Daily. “We had to repeat the experiments several times to become convinced that this improvement was truly due to the time-restricted feeding.”

Upon further observation, Gill and his colleagues discovered that the time-regulated eating regimen switched on some genes that led to healthier outcomes. Here’s how Science Daily explains it:

“They identified three genetic pathways that appear to be involved: the TCP-1 ring complex chaperonin, which helps proteins fold; mitochondrial electron transport chain complexes (mETC); and a suite of genes responsible for the body’s circadian rhythm.”

This approach has been shown to be effective in treating metabolic diseases and type-2 diabetes in lab mice, and Girish Melkani, a SDSU biologist specializing in cardiovascular physiology, believes it could translate to humans. “Time-restricted feeding would not require people to drastically change their lifestyles, just the times of day they eat,” he said. “The take-home message then would be to cut down on the late-night snacks.”

Sadly, that late-night noshing eventually caught up to Tractor Traylor.  He died in 2011 of a heart attack at the age of 34.

Stressed About Stress Tests

Sen. Reid after his resistance band altercation
Sen. Reid after his resistance band altercation

Exercise can be dangerous, especially for older persons like myself. You might have heard about Sen. Harry Reid’s recent altercation with a resistance band, which broke several bones in his face along with a couple of ribs. I have some resistance bands at home, but I’ve resisted the temptation to use them, because I can just imaging one of them whacking me in some vulnerable body part when I least expect it.

But I reserve my real paranoia for the dreadmill, partly because it’s associated with two activities that have never made much sense to me — (1) running and (2) going nowhere — and partly because when I’m running to nowhere I can get distracted, and when I get distracted I can do things that I wouldn’t normally do, like forget I’m running to nowhere on a circulating rubber mat that will continue circulating even if I forget to keep running or happen to stumble or lean a bit outside the straight path to nowhere I’m supposed to be following.

This is no idle anxiety, by the way. I looked it up. Hundreds of people every year end up in the ER after tumbling off their dreadmill. Here’s one particularly ominous example I scraped up from NBC News:

Joy Fruehauf, a mom and yoga instructor who lives in Mill Creek, Wash., has been running on treadmills for 20 years without an incident, until one day, her Walkman (yes, Walkman) fell when she was running at a 9-minute-mile pace. “I remember trying to, like, swoop down and grab my Walkman, and I just lost my footing, and I was down,” says Freuhauf, who’s 40. She fell face-first into the heart rate monitor bar and immediately passed out.

“When I came to, I was laying on my back, and there were four or five gym members around me,” she recalls. She vaguely remembers feeling pressure around her nose and eyes, but what she really remembers feeling is total humiliation. “I was more embarrassed than anything else. I wasn’t even thinking about the pain.”

So I found it slightly intriguing that cardiologists at Johns Hopkins had developed a formula to determine mortality risks based solely on dreadmill stress tests. Thousands of people are subjected to these tests each year as a marker against heart conditions, but the Johns Hopkins docs believe they can be a valuable predictor of mortality for anyone curious enough about their long-term prospects to climb onto the dread machine and switch it on.

“The notion that being in good physical shape portends lower death risk is by no means new,” Haitham Ahmed, MD, told the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, “but we wanted to quantify that risk precisely by age, gender and fitness level, and do so with an elegantly simple equation that requires no additional fancy testing beyond the standard stress test.”

What Ahmed and his colleagues found was that a 45-year-old woman who scored 100 or more points (out of 200) faced only a 2 percent chance of cashing in her chips during the next decade, which it turns out is not that much better than one scoring between 0 and 100 (3 percent). Where it gets dicey is when her score heads into negative territory: 0 to -100 equals an 11 percent chance of death; -100 or less and she’s looking at a 38 percent chance of imminent demise.

The whole purpose, of course, is not to stress you out about your number or the limited time you may have remaining on this mortal plane. It’s all about encouraging folks with bad numbers to ramp up their fitness regimen so they can avoid that early engagement with the Grim Reaper. As senior study author Michael Blaha, MD, put it, “We hope that illustrating risk that way could become a catalyst for patients to increase exercise and improve cardiovascular fitness.”

I’ve never taken a stress test, so I don’t know what my number is, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know if it means I need to spend any time at all on that rubber belt, which moves relentless forward, unconcerned whether I’m doing the same. I’m sure that Sen. Reid and Ms. Fruehauf would agree.

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.


“Um, fine.”


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.