Stop. Breathe. Chronic stress harms the hippocampus, the brain’s main memory center.

Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen

May 27th, 2015

garden 2Planting my garden this past week (so very late due to cold damp May and lots of April travel), I’ve been focused on the future glory of fresh vegetables. Which is much better than focusing on the current reality of thistles and morning glory and slugs. Some produce is startlingly better if you grow it yourself – tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries, for example.  But for other crops –potatoes and garlic come to mind – the distinction between “home-grown” and “store-bought” is lost on me.slug

What about the distinction between “organic” and whatever you want to call the other stuff – “pesticide-enhanced”? There is ongoing unresolved controversy about the distinction (if there is one) between the nutritional value of organically grown produce versus non-organics. There can be a distinction (but not always) in taste. There is always a glaring distinction in cost. So…following the “you are what you eat” motto that is central to living a counterclockwise life, what should we be buying/growing/eating as we move into these months of fruit and vegetable splendor and magnificence?

I wanted to remind myself (and I am now reminding you) about the so-call Dirty Dozen, the fruits and vegetables that you absolutely want to buy organic (or grow yourself) because of pesticide load.

Researchers at the Environmental Working Group, a U.S. non-profit that specializes in research and advocacy, conducted extensive (and ongoing) analysis to determine the most contaminated fruits and vegetables. Here they are (in order): Apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, potatoes, hot peppers. So buy organic or grow yourself. Or, if neither is a possibility, avoid.

You can add to your avoid or buy organic list: beef (strong suggestion of connection between hormones given to cattle and cancer in humans) and milk from rBST or rBGH-treated cows (17% of dairy cows are treated with the hormone). Oh, and by the way: Don’t buy microwave popcorn even if the popcorn is “organic.” The linings of microwave-popcorn bags may contain a toxic chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (used to prevent the food from sticking to the paper), which, according to the EPA, is a likely carcinogen.

And now, for the Don’t Worry list, the Clean 15 with the lowest pesticide load. This is courtesy of Dr, Andrew Weil: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage , sweet peas (frozen), onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe (domestic), cauliflower, sweet potatoes.

Now go plant something.

Eat breakfast. Always.

Isolation

May 20th, 2015

isolationMy mother inherited great genes. Her mother lived a vibrant, socially engaged life until — upbeat, chatty and disease-free — she died in her sleep at age 94. My mother’s great grandmother, known as “Old Oldie,” was the stuff of family legend, a woman who, it is said, awoke before dawn every day, braided her long white hair, wrapped the coils around her head and walked down three flights of stairs (her bedroom was in the attic) to bake biscuits or rolls for breakfast. Until the day she didn’t. She had died in her sleep. She was 97. Or 102. It depended on who was telling the story.

My mother was 77 when she died. In a care facility. Of Alzheimer’s.

Forgive me if this sounds clinical, but my mother was a poster child for Lifestyle Trumps Genes. We usually think of Lifestyle Trumps Genes as taking purposeful, healthy steps to blunt or negate the ills our parents suffered so as to avoid the same “fate.” Her life was the reverse.

My mother smoked. A lot. She drank. More than enough. She was sedentary. But maybe more importantly, or at least new research is suggesting just as importantly, she was socially isolated. She was deep-down lonely.

The new research I’m referring to, conducted by psychologists at Brigham Young University, suggests that social connections (or lack thereof) ought to be added to the short list of lifestyle factors that significantly shorten life.

Well, a lot more than “suggests.” The meta-study – an analysis of 70 studies conducted between 1980 and 2014, including more than 3 million participants – found that social isolation increased the likelihood of premature death by 29 percent. Loneliness increased the risk 26 percent. The data included information regarding loneliness, social isolation and living alone. The analysis controlled for variables such as age, gender, socioeconomic status and pre-existing health conditions. The researchers concluded that social isolation heightened risk for mortality more than obesity, a much studied, widely implicated risk factor. “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously,” said the lead author of the study.

My mother did not live out in the woods somewhere. Isolation is not about geography. It is about lack of connection and meaningful interaction. My mother did not live alone. Loneliness is not about living alone. It is about lack of connection and meaningful interaction. She made choices or failed to make choices or waited to have choices made for her that constricted her life and may very well have shortened it, perhaps by two decades. I realize this sounds as if I am blaming her for her illness. I am not. I am saying that we all have responsibility for our well-being.

Growing up, I thought good health and longevity were my birthright. I don’t think that anymore.

Don’t drink soda.  Ever.  Even (especially) diet soda.

Goodbye, Jan

May 13th, 2015

JanJan Stafl, my friend, died two weeks ago. He was 58. He had lived – and I mean lived – 4 years with an aggressive, incurable form of cancer for which he had received a 9-month prognosis. No, he didn’t die “after a long battle with cancer.” Jan didn’t battle his cancer. He worked with prodigious energy and deep curiosity and extraordinary courage to understand it, to be on speaking terms with it, to learn from it. He worked thoughtfully, patiently, with grace and humor – and I have to say again, with prodigious energy — to teach himself and those around him how to die in full consciousness.

I write about Jan to honor him. But I write about him in this particular forum to make two points. The first is that, sometimes you do everything right, and you still get clobbered. You are physically active, and you eat well, and you have deep and loving connections to family and friends, and you live in a beautiful place, and your work is meaningful, and you have a rich spiritual life. In short, you live the ultimate counterclockwise life. And then you get some weird bad cancer and you die.

I know I am not the only person who works overtime to fool herself into thinking she has the ultimate control, that she can avoid all things bad by doing all things good. Of course I know this is not true. But Jan’s death forces me to feel it and deal with it. This is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Jan’s illness and death, also, I think, puts the correct focus on why we should choose to live healthy, vibrant lives. We choose this life not to avoid death (ha!) or even, it seems, to avoid random illness. We make purposeful healthy choices every day so that we can live wholly and fully during the years we are alive. We make these choices so that we have the energy and resilience and embodied delight to enjoy the world and to do good things in it.

Which is what Jan did.

In spades, as they say.

An anti-inflammation diet is easy: brightly colored veggies, fish, nuts and seeds.

Less is more. Or at least enough.

May 6th, 2015

young-woman-reclining-in-spanish-costume-1863I realize that many people don’t love physical activity and exercise the way I do. Or at all, for that matter. I don’t get it. I don’t get that some people – statistically LOTS and LOTS of people – do not engage in some form of sweat-inducing activity every day. I don’t understand this not because there is so much evidence out there linking exercise to good health. People ignore evidence all the time. I smoked cigarettes all through my 20s despite exposure to revolting pictures of blackened lungs and reams of scientific research linking tobacco to the devil.

Why I don’t understand those who are persistently inactive (note I do not say “lazy”!) it is that exercise, or rather physical activity (“exercise” sounds too much like a specialized class) always, always makes me FEEL good. It elevates my mood, scours me of stress, spurs the creative process. Of course I am well aware of – have written many times about — the straightforward physical benefits (healthier heart, stronger bones, etc.) but it is the mental and emotional lift I get from physical activity that compels me. Why wouldn’t everyone want to feel this way?

Now, good news for those of you who do not share my penchant for perspiration, who have to psych yourself up to get out the door, who have to battle with yourself every day to “make time” to exercise (and often lose the battle).

For women: Less is More.

A University of Oxford epidemiologist and colleagues recently completed a large-scale, 9-year study  involving 1.1 million women in the U.K, average age 56, who were free from cancer, heart disease, stroke, blood clots and diabetes at the study’s start. Women who performed strenuous physical activity – sufficient to cause sweating or a faster heart beat – two to three times per week were about 20% less likely to develop heart disease, strokes or blood clots compared to those who reported little or no activity. Interestingly, among active women, there was little evidence of further risk reductions with more frequent activity.

In other words, you can reap significant health benefits from far less frequent bouts of physical activity than you thought. (The psychological benefits come with the package. Once you experience them, you’ll want to be active every day, with or without added risk reduction. )

“Inactive middle-aged women should try to do some activity regularly,” said the study’s lead author.

Duh.

A fast, easy, nutrition-rich, anti-aging breakfast: Plain Greek yogurt, blueberries, chopped almonds, green tea.

Eat for your MIND

April 29th, 2015

berriesA “diet” – as in lifelong way of eating – that significantly reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s? A non-trendy eating plan that does not depend on drinking the milk of raw cashews dripping from a muslin bag or consuming fruit grown only on the western slopes of inaccessible mountains in a faraway land? A, you know, research-based plan?

Could be. Listen up.

It’s called the MIND diet, a clever (and necessary) acronym given its lengthy, tongue-tying moniker: Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. It is a combination of the NIH-endorsed DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and the much-heralded Mediterranean diet with a few nice tweaks. Developed by a university-based nutritional epidemiologist, it focuses on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Fish: good; red meat: not so much. Butter: nope. Olive oil: yes and more of it than you use unless you happen to be Greek or Italian. It goes without saying that the MIND diet, like DASH and Mediterranean is anti- that crap you know you shouldn’t be eating even if you weren’t terrified of getting Alzheimer’s (fried and fast food, pastries, etc.)

What separates the MIND diet from its well known antecedents is its particular focus on leafy green vegetables (more than other vegetables) and berries – particularly blueberries and strawberries – above other fruits. These particular foods have been hailed for their brain benefits in past research.

Okay…so what happens if you eat the MIND diet?

That’s the question researchers at Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center asked as they followed almost 1000 participants, aged 58 to 98 for an average of 4.5 years, tracking their eating habits and incidence of Alzheimer’s. The study
found that strict adherence to any of the three diets – DASH, Mediterranean or MIND — lessened the chances of getting Alzheimer’s. But only the MIND diet seemed to help counter the disease even when people followed only some of the diet’s recommendations. The research was observational, not randomized or controlled, and therefore isn’t evidence the MIND diet caused a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s. Instead, the research shows there is an association between the two.

Subjects whose diet choices adhered closely to the MIND diet had a 53% reduced risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Risk was reduced by 54% with the Mediterranean diet and 39% with the DASH diet. But here’s the deal: Even moderate adherence to the MIND diet helped lessen the risk for Alzheimer’s by 35% while moderate adherence to the other diets didn’t seem to affect the chances of getting the disease.

The study controlled for genetic predisposition, physical activity, cognitive activity, education and various chronic medical conditions. The researchers also analyzed consumption of green leafy vegetables in particular in relation to cognitive decline and found that participants who ate one to two servings of greens a day had a “dramatic decrease in the rate of cognitive decline” compared with people who ate fewer greens. The “dramatic decrease” was the equivalent, noted one of the researchers, of “being 11 years younger in age.” Wow.

This study is one of many – and many to come – that look at Alzheimer’s and controllable lifestyle choices. Positive and empowering news…stay tuned.

If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, don’t eat the food or use the product.

Older is cheaper (for society)

April 22nd, 2015

Elderly Woman Smiling Wearing a Swimming Cap in a Swimming PoolMost medical research focuses on understanding and combating disease. That’s good, especially when it alleviates suffering and leads to insights about prevention. But here’s something you will find very very interesting (well, at least I did). Delaying aging – that is, slowly the aging process, living the counterclockwise lifestyle –would have a greater impact on health, longevity, disability and quality of life than reducing heart disease and winning The War on Cancer. Wow.

This is according to a wonky big data study by a team of health economists at UCLA, Harvard, Columbia, University of Illinois and elsewhere. They used the “Future Elderly Model”—a microsimulation of the future health and spending of older Americans—to compare optimistic “disease specific” scenarios with a hypothetical “delayed aging” scenario. I like reading this stuff but sure am glad I don’t have to do it. Imagine spending your days running disease specific scenarios.

What they found was the delayed aging could increase life expectancy by an additional 2.2 years, most of which would be spent in good health. In contrast, projected gains in life expectancy from further reducing the incidence of cancer or heart disease were only about half of that. They also ran the numbers in terms of economics – looking at the greater outlay for Social Security, etc. as people lived longer contrasted with the reduced outlay for medical costs as people became disabled or fell prey to the “diseases of aging” later in life. Also, if people were healthier and more vibrant longer, the normal retirement age could be older so more money would be going into funding Social Security and what our country continues to call “entitlement programs.” The economic benefit to society would be about $7 trillion over 50 years, say the researchers.

“The health gains [of delaying aging] are so overwhelming that they make this worth pursuing,” says lead researcher, Dana Goldman of UCLA.

And this, my friends, could spell revolution with a capital R:

Revolution in the lives of older people as they enjoy additional healthy, vibrant years, years during which they can contribute their talents and energies to doing good in the world.

Revolution in our culture as the meaning of “old” is detached from frail, fragile, dependant and takes on a new, powerful meanings, like knowledgeable, engaged, contributory.

Revolution in our attitude toward health care reflected in the approach of doctors, hospitals and insurance companies (and even, yes, Obamacare) as we switch to focusing on and funding prevention.

You say you want a revolution?

Take 10 deep, slow from the belly breaths.  Do this as often as you can during the day, especially when you feel stressed.

Peak Performance

April 15th, 2015

smart brainAging is, at best – if we are lucky and if we work hard at it – a long slow decline, right?

Wrong.

Well, at least partially wrong. Consider this really interesting new study about the age at which the brain reaches peak performance. Researchers at Harvard and Mass General Center for Human Genetic Research looked at evidence from almost 50,000 online participants who had visited the website TestMyBrain.org and then tested close to 22,000 of those people (aged 10 to 71) on vocabulary, the ability to encode strings of numbers into symbols, working memory and something called the “mind in the eyes,” an emotion-recognition test which asks people to identify someone’s feelings using only a picture of that person’s eyes.

They found “considerable heterogeneity” in when cognitive abilities peak: Some abilities peak and begin to decline around the end of high school; some abilities plateau in early adulthood, beginning to decline in our 30s; others do not peak until 40s or later. On at least one important cognitive measure, researchers found almost no decline (in fact, an increase) with age. Their conclusion: “These findings motivate a nuanced theory of maturation and age-related decline.”

Yay for nuanced theory! We need more nuanced theory. We need to understand the many and varied ways in which the mere passage of time (chronological age) does not easily (or sometimes at all)correlate with the aging of the body (biological age). We need to stop thinking that the passage of years spells doom and disaster.

Athletes reach peak performance in their mid- to late 20s. Men’s sexual desire peaks at 30 (poor them). Geniuses often peak in their mid-40s. Our brains have different peaks depending on the tasks we ask of them and, I think it goes without saying, depending on how biologically youthful they are.

So, it turns out that our number-to-symbol coding abilities peak in our late teens. (But who needs that anyway?) Our working memory peaks (much earlier than you thought, I bet) between mid-20s and mid-30s. (So please, let’s 86-it on the “senior moments,” since 35 year olds can have those too.) Our ability to read emotion in faces doesn’t peak until almost 50, and then the decline is very slow, very gradual. In the study, vocabulary climbed with age and showed no signs of decline at all.

It’s time (past time) to stop expecting ourselves to fall apart as we age. We don’t. We don’t have to. This nuanced look at brain function is yet another example.

 

Eat curry! Curcuminoids, the active ingredient in tumeric, has proven anti-inflammatory and liver-cleansing properties.

Why do we age?

April 8th, 2015

Systemic_1What causes aging?

A simple question… without a simple answer. That’s because there is no one answer. Aging is a complex, convoluted still-not-well-understood series of interconnected processes. And the more we discover (we know a lot more about aging now than we have ever known), the more complicated it gets.

So where does that leave us — ”us” being those who want to continue to live vibrant, energetic, engaged, useful lives for a long, long time? We know that aging results in (and is the result of) the accumulation, over time, of detrimental changes at the molecular and cellular level that eventually affect tissues and organs. But the process (both “natural” and of our own making) is very very complicated. What seems to stand out from everything I’ve been reading, a kind of aging “refrain” if you will, is inflammation – the many and interconnected links researchers have been finding between aging and inflammation.

I don’t mean acute inflammation…the heat, swelling, redness that happens when you hurt yourself or get an infection. I mean invisible, systemic inflammation that affects body organs and physiological processes without us even realizing it. Until, that is, we DO realize it because something is going seriously haywire. As in cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, etc. In fact, many diseases common to older people have clear inflammatory components. Researchers strongly suspect that inflammation both reflects the development and progression of disease and promotes disease evolution itself. Exactly how, and for which diseases, is the subject of intense study. For now, here are a few very specific and helpful things we know about inflammation and choices we make that can help with counterclockwise living:

>Smoking (and, to the same extent, exposure to second-hand smoke) stimulates inflammatory responses.

>Physical activity lowers levels of inflammatory markers.

>Diets low in fiber, high in processed grains, saturated fat and – particularly – red meat (aka the typical American diet) are strongly associated with inflammation.

>Conversely, diets rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish are associated with low (or reversal of) inflammation.

>A pessimistic (or I-am-victim) attitude is associated with inflammation.

>The inability to creatively deal with life’s stressors is associated with inflammation.

Maybe some day there will be definitive answers to this huge, important “what causes aging?” question. But while we’re waiting, we can — and should – do whatever we can to control and mitigate our inflammation responses.

Packaged foods?  Oh no you don’t.  Unless you want trans fats, refined grains, HFCS.

Sloth = Health

April 1st, 2015

Jonas_0Whaaaaat?

Can there really be anti-aging and longevity benefits to indolence, inactivity and torpor?

What about all that extraordinary, highly credible evidence to the contrary? I’ve written extensively about the powerful and salubrious effects of physical (and mental and creative) activity. Exercise is “the only anti-aging regimen that actually works,” concluded the ground-breaking MacArthur Foundation Study of Successful Aging. “There is not single thing that will increase vitality at any age other than exercise,” said the renown scientists who head the USDA Human Nutrition Center on Aging at Tufts.

So this new study from Duke University is a shocker.

Okay, the research subjects were fat-tailed dwarf lemurs. But before you dismiss the results, you might want to keep this in mind: Lemurs are more closely related to humans than mice. And we jump on mice studies ALL the time. Case in point: resveratrol.

So about those lemurs. Smaller species almost always live much shorter lives than larger ones. Humans can live to 120. Lab mice don’t live much beyond their 3rd birthday. Now consider Jonas, a hamster-sized lemur, who died a few months ago just short of his 30th birthday. Yes, 3-0.

How did he do it? How did he (and his fat-tailed lemur compadres) live so long? And…more importantly, live such extraordinarily healthy lives? (Jonas’ clan staved off cataracts, apparently a big thing in lemur circles, and enjoyed more than double the number of reproductive years.)

The answer, my friends, is torpor. These long-lived, uber-healthy lemurs spend half a year (in the wild) and three months (in captivity) hibernating. Hibernating dwarf lemurs can reduce their heart rate from 200 to 8 beats per minute. Metabolism slows, breathing slows, and the animals’ internal thermostat shuts down.

Duke researchers think that torpor boosts health and increases longevity by protecting cells against the buildup of oxidative damage that is a normal by-product of breathing and metabolism.

“If your body is not ‘working full time’ metabolically-speaking, you will age more slowly and live longer,” said study co-author Marina Blanco.

The couch is calling my name.

Eat breakfast. Always.

Dancing, dancing, dance the night away

March 25th, 2015

me spreadleggedFile this under Health News I Love to Share: Research suggests that regular dance classes can improve cognitive function and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

This is not why I started taking ballet classes more than a year ago, or why I sweet-talked artistic director Toni Pimble into allowing me to join the Eugene Ballet Company last fall. It is not why I went on to attend company classes every morning, angle for a part in the holiday production of The Nutcracker, rehearse with the company for a month and dance in the ballet for 16 performances in 9 cities in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

Nope. I did all that for other reasons – which I hope you’ll want to read about in my upcoming book: Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts and My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker.

And yes, that was shameless self-promotion. Allow me to continue in that vein by telling you the book will be out in November just in time for the 2015 Nutcracker season.

Back to science.

Dr. Joe Verghese, associate professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University in the Bronx, conducted a study comparing the effects of different types of physical and mental activities on cognitive function. His subjects – close to 500 men and women between 75 and 85 years old – were followed (detailed clinical and neuropsychological evaluations) for up to 21 years. Researchers tracked the subjects’ participation (and frequency of participation) in 11 physical activities: tennis, golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, group exercises, bowling, walking for exercise, climbing more than two flights of stairs, doing housework, and babysitting.

Dance was the only physical activity that was found to reduce the risk of dementia.

Here’s what Dr. Verghese thinks about these surprising findings: “Dance is a complex activity. You have to follow the music, remember the steps and improvise. And it’s a physical activity so it also increases the flow of blood to all parts of the body, including the brain.”

And here’s what I say… Actually, it’s what famed dancer and choreographer Agnes deMille said: “To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power. It is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.”