Pumping Irony

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

Lift to Live

I'm growing old with Charles Atlas.
I’m growing old with Charles Atlas.

After probably way too many months away, I wandered back into the gym this week — and I’m glad I did.

For last several months, I’ve been working out (sporadically) at home in the mornings before work. Body-weight and kettlebell stuff between 7 (sometimes 8) and breakfast. I don’t have a long commute — 10 minutes max on my bike — but there were days, more frequent than I’d like to admit, when I just didn’t pick up the iron because I didn’t want to be late for work (gotta read the sports section first, you know). And, to be completely honest, flinging around a 25-pound kettlebell after awhile loses its appeal. Most fitness experts will tell you that you need to shake up your routine or you’ll find yourself marooned on some fitness plateau — wandering around looking for the benefits you once took for granted.

When you hit that plateau, what tends to happen is that you lose momentum in your muscle-building program. And, when you get to be my age, good health and longevity is all about building muscle. This remains a mystery to most geezers. I was drinking beers with my brother, The Tin Man, last week after a round of golf (in which, as usual, he crushed me — which has nothing to do with muscle mass), and he asked me what I did to stay in (such great . . . I’m extrapolating here) shape. And I told him you’ve got to lift weights as you get older. Here’s why:

It’s the plague of sarcopenia (significant loss of muscle mass) that contributes to a variety of chronic illnesses among geezers. I’m talking about diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. It’s also a major reason why folks take a tumble at advanced ages and end up getting their hips replaced.

This is not just me talking. New research from Tufts University not only endorses the idea of strength training for geezers, but identifies the mechanism that helps older muscle grow.   The study’s lead author, Donato Rivas, PhD, can explain it better than I can:

“In order for the body to make proteins that build muscle, certain genes need to be turned on. We noticed that older people had a lot fewer genes turned on compared to the younger people, showing us their muscles weren’t responding as well to the exercise.”

The problem is that geezers like me have fewer small RNA molecules in our muscle tissue, hence we don’t respond as well as young people to strength training. So Tufts researchers are thinking that gene therapy, nutrient supplementation, and hormone replacement therapy might be the answer.

Not for me. The big upside to going to the gym is that there’s a lot heavier iron to lift than what I find in my feeble workout room at home. And after 45 minutes communing with the iron there, I come home feeling like Charles Atlas and not worrying at all about diabetes, proprioception, or heart disease. I just want a cold beer. Which is not really an appropriate beverage before breakfast.

The Soccer Solution

The great Pelé, circa 1960. I did not aspire to such heights.
The great Pelé, circa 1960. I did not aspire to such heights.

When I was in grade school in the 1950s, our recess activity during the warmer months always included a soccer game. This was odd for several reasons: No one I knew played soccer back then, there were probably 200 kids on the field chasing the ball around, and the goals were chain link fences that stretched the width of the field — maybe 200 feet. Tough on a goalie’s self-esteem.

It was during one of these post-lunch contests that I lost any enthusiasm I might have generated for the sport. At some point in the random stampede that passed for play, someone gave the futbol a good kick, it ricocheted off my head, and knocked me out cold. At least that was the report from the field relayed to my mother when she came to pick me up from the nurse’s office. I had no recollection of any of it. Only that one minute I was running around trying to kick the ball and the next I was waking up somewhere on a strange bed.

Years later, it became obvious to me that my initial contact with something resembling soccer didn’t really resemble soccer. Our principal, who presided over this chaos, was just trying to give the kids a way to blow off some energy midway through the long school day. Still, childhood experiences can have an impact on the way one sees the world, so I focused my feeble athletic aspirations on good old American games — Little League baseball, and junior high basketball and football. This was a bit ironic, given that my (lack of) size and (lack of) strength were probably more suited to futbol than to any other sport.

Of course, there were no soccer teams in my part of the world until I reached high school in 1966 (no one knew who Pelé was), and only because I had by then realized my relative limitations (see above) did I sign up for a tryout with our inaugural squad. I didn’t make the team for a number of reasons, the chief one being that I didn’t know how to play soccer. But I had apparently overcome any residual psychological effects of my grade-school collision with the sport, and while I never played the game again, I grew to appreciate its subtle pleasures vicariously, watching my kids chase the ball around from the sidelines when they were young, and tuning in every four years to the World Cup.

I’m not seriously considering taking up the sport again at this point in my life, but a new study out of Denmark suggests that it’s never too late to kick it around a little. Researchers at the Copenhagen Centre for Team Sport and Health found that untrained guys as old as 75 can gain dramatic health benefits by playing soccer a couple of times a week.

“The study revealed that inactive elderly men improved their maximum oxygen uptake by 15 percent and their performance during interval exercise by as much as 50 percent by playing football for one hour two times per week over four months,” lead author Professor Peter Krustrup reported in a statement released by the center. “Moreover, muscle function was improved by 30 percent and bone mineralization in the femoral neck increased by 2 percent.”

It makes sense, of course (except the bone mineralization thing). There’s a lot of running around in futbol, a lot of stops and starts and turns. All accomplished on a field of soft grass that’s probably not too hard on aging knees. Probably a lot more prudent for a guy my age than trying to hit a 15-foot fall-away jump shot over a 6-foot-something teenager on the hardcourt.

Except that I know something about basketball. I’ve played the game for years. Never been knocked out. And that probably counts for something.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

A large part of my admittedly lame social life involves monthly lunches with two old colleagues of mine who have more time on their hands than is sometimes advisable (hence lunches with me). Both are in their early 70s, have tasted success on the big stage, and now find themselves seriously worried about the future.

Not worried in the way most of us worry about stuff — jobs, bills, kids — but chronically anxious about big things they have little control over. The kind of anxiety that often plagues geezers and, if the research is to be believed, can seriously impact your quality of life and, in some cases send you to an early grave.

I was particularly struck by this during my last two get-togethers with these old friends. Some of this anxiety is understandable: My old friend The Prairie Editor has navigated the political and literary landscape for the better part of the last half-century with no visible means of financial support. I’ve been in his shoes, financially, so I know what it’s like to wonder where the next paycheck is going to come from. But he’s also become more frail in recent years, and like the rest of us in Geezerville, he’s discovering that mortality is less theoretical than it once was.

Then, just last week, while lunching with The Captain, an old publishing pal, I learned that he, too, was struggling to untether himself from the weight of the world. The Captain worries about lots of things he has no control over, stuff like Tea Party politics, the Keystone pipeline, the NRA, Ukrainian sovereignty, and the like, but his anxieties incline more toward the existential: What role is he supposed to play in the world, now that he’s a decade into retirement? How can he still contribute in a meaningful way? Plus, why do all his friends have cancer?

I’m not much good in these situations — not because I don’t care about my buddies, but because I have a little trouble relating these days. That’s not to say I haven’t sailed through these stormy seas myself in the past. It was only eight years ago that I gave up our home to foreclosure and filed for bankruptcy after the newspaper My Lovely Wife and I launched went belly up. I know something about angst. And maybe because my two old pals have never been through that financial cleansing experience, they’ve never had the opportunity to come out clean — and clear — on the other side, where you really begin to understand the power of that old question: What’s the worse thing that could happen?

That’s all economics, though. Which, in a lot of ways, is less worrisome than the angst that many of us pack into our bags when we embark on our journey to Geezerville. That baggage is all about purpose, path, and, most urgently, mortality. We want to know if we can still make a difference in the world and whether we’ll be around long enough to figure out how.

These are all good questions to ask, all good intentions to have. But when I looked across the table at my anxious pals, all I could say was, “Don’t worry. It’s fatal.”

I know it sounds too simple, but it’s backed up with research. Numerous studies have shown that anxiety actually shortens your lifespan. A 2012 study from Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that chronic anxiety may be a risk factor for premature aging. (Do you worry too much? Check out this site for more information.)

An ancient Buddhist axiom tells us that we are all going to suffer in our lives. It’s just the way life works. The key is to be unattached to outcomes, because we really don’t have that much control over the way things play out. So enjoy the good when it comes and work through the bad in its turn. You’re going to get plenty of both as you pile on the years. Just don’t worry about it.

Stairway to Heaven

To climb or not to climb as we age? That is the question.
To climb or not to climb as we age? That is the question.

My Lovely Wife and I were chatting the other night about our upstairs bedroom project. The offspring having flown the coop a few years ago, we’ve been debating the pros and cons of creating a master bedroom suite up there.

Among the pros:

• It would be awfully nice to have a second bathroom.

• It would add value to the property.

• We could finally remove the knotty pine paneling in our current place of repose.

And the cons:

• It would be pricey.

• It’s not absolutely necessary to our enjoyment of the house.

• Do we really want to be walking up a flight of stairs to bed when we’re 80-something?

The latter point is one that is often raised when folks enter into Geezerland. And it’s not a new debate. MLW’s grandparents built a home with just that in mind back in the 1950s — a one-floor rambler with wide doorways to facilitate the movement of wheelchairs. And they were prescient. During her last years, Grandma Parker got around the house on four wheels.

So it’s not an imprudent discussion, especially with MLW’s bum knee and her altogether rational preference to avoid people with scalpels who would like to cut it open and replace it with something mechanical. But the more we talk about it, the less the stairs thing enters into the mix. Because, as MLW pointed out just last night, the last thing you want to do as your body ages is to give it excuses for doing less. In other words, if you want to be able to scale a flight of stairs when you’re 80 years old, you shouldn’t stop climbing them when you’re 75.

There’s plenty of research to back her up on this point. Most recently, Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times reported the results of a landmark study by researchers at the University of Florida’s Institute on Aging showing that regular exercise reduces the chances that even the most frail oldsters will become physically disabled. “For the first time,” the study’s lead author, Marco Pahor, MD, told Reynolds, “we have directly shown that exercise can effectively lessen or prevent the development of physical disability in a population of extremely vulnerable elderly people.”

The participants in Pahor’s study, 1,635 couch potatoes between the ages of 70 and 89 who were tottering on the edge of decrepitude, were simply asked to do some walking and light, lower-body strength training. Thirty months later, they were almost 30 percent less likely to become disabled than a control group. Imagine the gains they would’ve made if they were climbing stairs.

Our upstairs bedroom discussion will continue, I suspect, until one of us gets excited enough to start calling contractors and taking bids. But the whole climbing-the-stairs-at-80 question is now another reason in favor of pulling the trigger on this thing. Besides, the knotty pine is really starting to get to me.

Start the Revolution Without Me

This could be the ideal patient for the next medical revolution.
This could be the ideal patient for the next medical revolution.

Whenever I feel as though our troubled healthcare industry may be pausing for just a moment to reclaim some sense of proportion or practice just a smidgen of humility, I stumble upon yet another reason to stay away from the doctor’s office. This time it was a report in the Washington Post that breathlessly heralded the development of “smart pills” that “many predict will be a revolution in medicine.”

Here’s how reporter Ariana Eunjung Cha, put it:

“As the size and cost of chip technology has fallen dramatically over the past few years, dozens of companies and academic research teams are rushing to make ingestible or implantable chips that will help patients track the condition of their bodies in real time and in a level of detail that they have never seen before.”

Cha profiles a 91-year-old California woman, into whose heart and thyroid pills a computer chip has been embedded. Once she swallows the pills, the chips send a signal to her computer telling her she’s swallowed the pills.

I’m not making this up.

Now, to be fair, lots of people have to take lots of pills every day, and I can see how you might lose track. And, in fact, doctors are constantly encouraging their patients to take their pills, because patients either forget to take them or can’t afford to pay for them in the first place. And when the only tool you have in your toolbox is a prescription pad, well, you can imagine the angst.

But that makes me think that maybe the computer chip has been planted in the pill mainly to make the doctor feel better, which makes me wonder what the upside is for the patient. But, of course, that would be thinking logically. And if we were thinking logically, what might first come to mind would be: You’re asking me to swallow a computer chip?!?

Cha allows that “the idea of putting little machines into the body makes some uncomfortable,” but goes on to quote advocates, who say the technology (which includes everything from the aforementioned ingestible computer chips to cameras and robots) could cut costs and “save countless lives.”

As Eric Topol, director of Scripps Translational Science Institute, notes, “The way a car works is that it has sensors and it tells you what’s wrong. Why not put the same type of technology in the body? It could warn you weeks or months or even years before something happens.”

I love how those warning lights work in my Honda. They tell me when it’s time for an oil change or if my tires are low. But, at the risk of being labeled as an anti-revolutionary, I’d just like to point out something that might not be obvious to revolutionaries like Topol: I’m not a car.

The Pressure’s Off

Here’s a cheery thought for all of you who have not yet reached advanced middle age: 65 percent of Americans over the age of 60 have high blood pressure.

I’m one of them — at least according to my last interaction with a healthcare professional. At 148/88, I fall into a category called “isolated systolic hypertension” or, appropriately enough, ISH. Now, I would argue that if My Lovely Wife walked into the room as I’m typing this and slapped the cuff around my bicep, that reading would slide down into a more “normal” range. For some reason, whenever I walk into a doctor’s office my heart rate soars. It’s called “white coat syndrome”.

Still, I could be fooling myself. My dad had high blood pressure, a trait I know he passed on to my older brothers. I wouldn’t be surprised if my two younger siblings are stuck with it as well. So, I was encouraged the other day when I stumbled upon the results of a study from George Washington University (GWU) suggesting that ISH-inflicted geezers like me aren’t necessarily going to keel over from a stroke or heart disease anytime soon. All we have to do is exercise a little.

And it doesn’t matter how fit you happen to be at the moment. Researchers surveyed 2,153 men over the age of 70 at all fitness levels, measuring their peak MET levels, or metabolic equivalents (the amount of oxygen your body uses per kilogram of weight per minute of exertion) and herding them into four fitness groups: very low (1–4 METs), low (4.1–6), moderate (6.1–8) and high (8 or higher). They found that raising your activity level by even a single MET lowered your risk of dying by 11 percent.

That may not seem like a major longevity bonus, but Peter Kokkinos, Ph.D, a professor at GWU’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center and senior author of the study, noted in a statement released by the university that the exercise remedy is particularly stunning when you compare those who do it regularly with those who don’t. Here’s how these groups compared with the most sedentary men when they added 1 MET to their activity level:

• Low-fit men had an 18 percent lower risk of death.

• Moderately fit men lowered their risk by 36 percent.

• High-fit geezers dropped their risk by almost half (48 percent).

A 50-year-old couch potato registers a peak MET level of 5 or 6 (you can check your METs here, if you’re curious), so I figure my basic fitness regimen would put me in the 8-to-10 range, among the more active oldsters. (Kokkinos notes that endurance runners and cyclists can have METs in the 20s, so I can’t be too smug.) No matter where you fall on this fitness continuum, remember this: All it takes to raise your MET levels when you hit middle age is a little more moderate exercise. Even a brisk walk around the block can make a difference, if done regularly.

I can feel my blood pressure dropping already.

Smugness and Denial

Last week, I received the results of my annual health check-up, a ritual that elicits a wondrous combination of smugness and denial. My score this year was 84 out of 100, down from 92 last year, but still not bad for a geezer whose butt spends a good portion of each day plastered in a chair.

The nice thing about these snapshots is that you can pretty much translate the results any way you like: blood pressure of 148/88? White-coat syndrome. Glucose reading of 107? Way below a high-risk level (126). Cholesterol at 269? Doesn’t mean a thing, since it’s the ratio of total cholesterol to “good” cholesterol that matters and at 3.2:1, mine is way under the 4.4:1 considered low risk for heart disease. And would you look at that Triglyserides number? Anything under 149 is considered low risk and I’m sitting here at 55, which is slightly lower than my resting heart rate (58), which along with my body-fat percentage (23.0) can only mean that I am, given my age, pretty much a freak of nature.

Gotta feel good about that.

The report is always accompanied by a call from a wellness coach, who is ready to help you address any problem areas that may have emerged. They ask you what you tend to eat during a typical day and how much exercise you get, so there is a completely understandable inclination to slightly embellish your description of reality. It’s just human nature; folks want to represent themselves in a positive light. Who’s going to tell a health coach that their favorite meal is a bag of Doritos washed down with a couple of Budweisers?

So, when my coach asked me about a typical day in the life of the plate in front of me, I talked up my yogurt and fruit breakfasts and mostly skipped over those Chipotle lunches and pizza dinners. I described in probably more detail than was necessary my 20-year meditation practice, my morning bodyweight/kettlebell workout, and the daily bicycle commute up that nasty hill on the other side of the river. Oh, and did I mention the weekly yoga class, my basketball league and tennis bouts with a certified USTA player (the formidable Baseline Machine)?

“Sounds like you’re doing an awesome job,” he replied, before I began back-pedaling, admitting that I try to get that morning meditation/workout in at least three times a week, the bike ride is really only about a mile, and I’m lucky if I make it to yoga three times in a month. TBM is actually a USTA player, but her serve is nothing to crow about.

“Awesome,” he reiterated, which for a brief moment made me feel like I should maybe be more forthcoming about my blood pressure and alcohol consumption, but the feeling quickly passed.

The Hazards of Hard — and Soft — Labor

After a hard day wrestling beer kegs off his truck, Dad's favorite leisure-time activity was practicing his 12-ounce curls.
After a hard day wrestling beer kegs off his truck, Dad’s favorite leisure-time activity was practicing his 12-ounce curls.

My long-departed father supported a family of seven by delivering beer to taverns and restaurants in St. Paul. I can still picture him sitting at the kitchen table after work on a hot summer day, nursing a Grain Belt and smoking a Marlboro in his sweat-stained shirt. It was a tough job, wrestling those kegs off his truck, and it seemed obvious to me that this was a guy who didn’t need a weekend softball league to feel like he was getting enough exercise.

That was a different era, of course. Every breadwinner on our block made a living doing manual labor of one sort or another. Exercise was something Jack LaLanne did on TV to entertain housewives.

I was recalling those golden years the other day after learning about a Finnish study showing that the sort of work middle-aged guys like my dad and his neighbors did can limit their mobility as they head into their retirement years — unless they balance it with some “leisure-time physical activity” that consists of something more demanding than 12-ounce curls with their favorite pilsner.

While manual labor and recreational exercise may each require muscle activity, explained Taina Rantanen, a professor at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and lead researcher for the study, when you’re doing it on the job that activity often is repetitive and can wear your body down, affecting your overall mobility as you age.

The solution: Get a little exercise after work or on the weekend. “A person doing heavy manual work may compensate for its detrimental effects by participating in brisk leisure-time physical activity,” Rantanen said in a statement released by the Institute.

This is not a recommendation my old man would’ve followed. Like I said, it was a different time. And he didn’t make it much past 60 before cancer cut him down, so we’ll never know whether mobility would’ve been an issue in old age. I’m guessing he would’ve found his way to the refrigerator without any help.

I’m fortunate enough to make a living wrestling with words and budgets rather than beer kegs — an occupation that delivers its own health hazards. Sitting for long periods of time every day can kill you, I’ve heard. So, a little leisure-time exercise is probably still a good idea. In fact, it might be even more important for us desk-jockeys than for the guys who deliver our beer.

My Incredible Shrinking Brain

Don Carter rolled a 300 game 13 times. Did anyone like it on Facebook?
Don Carter rolled a 300 game 13 times. Did anyone like it on Facebook?

My old buddy M.E., AKA The King of Nordeast, bowled a 300 game awhile back. This is apparently a pretty big deal among bowlers (Don Carter threw 13 of themyawn), because he called me from a bar later the same evening to report the news and invite me to join him for the celebration. I demurred; it was late, and though I was happy for him, I wasn’t that happy.

Later TKN chided me for not “liking” his accomplishment on Facebook, an internet destination I visit about as often as he bowls a perfect game. “Just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean I didn’t like it,” I explained.

But does it mean my brain is shrinking and I’m sinking into depression? Could be, according to a couple of new studies I stumbled upon last week. The first, published in the journal Neurology, found that older people who exhibit apathy may have less brain volume than those who care more about stuff. And a shrinking brain might just be an early indicator of brain diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. “Just as signs of memory loss may signal brain changes related to brain disease, apathy may indicate underlying changes,” said Lenore Launer, PhD, of the National Institute on Aging.

So I may need to care more, which for a curmudgeon like me is a tough pill to swallow. It’s a little depressing, actually, but not nearly as depressing as discovering new research from Michigan State University showing that hanging out online is now being touted as a way to lower the incidence of depression among retirees. Falling into the Facebook vortex, the thinking seems to be, will help geezers stay connected to friends and family and fight off the loneliness that contributes to Prozac-level blues.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for older folks staying current with the latest technology. Email and social networks can provide a vital link to the outside world — especially for those who are homebound. (I really do care!) But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that even moderate physical activity is one of the best ways to boost your spirits. Get outside for a walk, go for a bicycle ride, dig around in your garden, go bowling. Maybe you’ll crank out a 300 game.

Just don’t expect me to like it on Facebook.

Bicycling and Bistros

Is this exercise? Navigating Uptown traffic on the way to another culinary detour.
Is this exercise? Navigating Uptown traffic on the way to another culinary detour.

My Lovely Wife and I are what you might call “recreational bicyclists.” No spandex shorts or shoes that attach themselves to the pedals (?!?), no colorful shirts with the cute little pocket in the back. You won’t find us on a Saturday morning pedaling feverishly in the midst of a peloton whooshing along a country road at 20 MPH halfway into a casual 50-mile jaunt.

But that’s not to say we aren’t serious cyclists. I’ve commuted to work on my bike for the better part of the last 35 years. We’ve both pedaled through Minnesota winters and MLW once bicycled from our Minneapolis home all the way out to suburban Roseville to wish her mom a happy Mother’s Day. There’s nothing we like better than pedaling from Point A to Point B. Or, as we demonstrated last Friday, from Point A to Point G.

We don’t really do this for the workout (though it’s great exercise for MLW and her gimpy right knee); we tend to need an added incentive to saddle up. It’s just human nature. People often need extra encouragement to make healthy choices. It’s something our dysfunctional medical system knows only too well (more on this later).

Anyway, I took the day off on Friday ostensibly to ride with MLW over to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), about 5 miles distant, to wander through the new Matisse exhibition. By the end of the day, we’d logged more than 14 miles. That may sound impressive until you learn that it took us about nine hours to make the trip.

First, the de rigeur coffeeshop stop about 3 miles into the trip for a cup of espresso. I could produce studies showing the salutary effects of caffeine on athletic performance, though my latté had more to do with washing down the chocolate chip cookie. Then, up and over the Martin Olav Sabo bicycle bridge (lovely view of the Minneapolis skyline), which spit us out onto the Midtown Greenway. A half-hour or so later, we pulled up to the MIA, where we lunched at the mezzanine restaurant before making our way through the Matisse show.

I don’t know if Henri was a bicyclist, but he was French, so I assume that he would’ve approved of our post-museum itinerary: a glass of wine on the sun-soaked patio at the venerable Black Forest Inn, a futile search for a couple of books by the late Peter Matthiessen at an Uptown bookshop, a light mid-afternoon snack at Lucia’s Wine Bar, followed by a calorie-crunching, car-dodging dash through the East Calhoun neighborhood, landing at a bistro called The Blackbird just as dusk was descending.

I’m guessing we’d covered about 10 miles by this time without working up a sweat, so it’s hard to count it as exercise, but we definitely worked up an appetite between stops. And now, with darkness setting in, we headed east to our favorite neighborhood bistro for a little dessert and to toast our little adventure: nine hours, 14 miles, six culinary detours.

It’s those detours that tend to persuade us to get off our duffs and get on the road these days. Just that little extra incentive. Our Medical-Industrial Complex understands that too, which is why I wasn’t surprised to hear recently that researchers at Rutgers University, concerned that guys my age aren’t taking their cholesterol-lowering statins as religiously as they should, are now touting these drugs for their ability to improve our sexual performance.

I’m not going to go into all the reasons why statins may not be the best way to lower your risk of a heart attack or boost your boudoir behavior (you can read about that here). I’ll just say that everybody gets to choose their preferred pathway to good health and the incentives that help them on their journey. For myself, nothing beats a day of bistro-hopping on my old Schwinn.