Use a moisturizer/ sunscreen (SPF 30) always, regardless of season.

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.

 

Combine physical flexibility with emotional resilience and you’ve got a powerful turn-back-the-clock strategy.

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.

Eat a pound of produce a day.  It’s not as hard as it seems.  One good-sized apple is a third of a pound.

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.

Set your phone or computer to beep at you every hour, reminding you to GET UP AND MOVE for 5 minutes.

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.”

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

Oh, Kylie…

March 18th, 2015

kylie-jenner-1Kylie Jenner Promotes Anti-Wrinkle Skincare Line: Is The 17-Year-Old Too Young? is the headline. Is there any possible response to this question that isn’t “yes”? Well, okay, in fairness, there are also these responses: Are you kidding me? WTF? Who cares? And, why, Lauren, do you even know this?

Kylie Jenner, by the way, is the 17-year-old reality star and Instagram queen who is little sister to the infamous Kardashian women. And, just to get this out of the way, I don’t follow her on any of her multitudinous social media platforms. I receive daily Google Alerts for “anti-aging,” most of which alert me to crap like this.

Kylie is apparently “very concerned about the signs of aging” (shame on you for even thinking about clicking on that link!) and has been named the new brand ambassador for a British cosmetic company. Her favorite skin care product, should this for some reason interest you, is Viper Venom Wrinkle Fix Cream. I don’t know if real vipers are involved, but given what we know about the labeling of ingredients in non-regulated industries, I kinda doubt it.

Why am I even writing about this today? I’m writing about it because it allows me to pounce on this dangerous, ill-informed definition of “signs of aging.” No, in fact, 17 is NOT too young to care about “the signs of aging” – the important, life-changing signs that affect heart, lung, artery, muscle, bone and brain health. Notice I did not include wrinkles, which, as far as I know, never killed anyone or slowed anyone down or made anyone less creative, curious, resilient or engaged.

Kylie should care about building bone density while she can. She should care about establishing exercise, eating and sleeping habits that will set the stage for slow, healthy aging in the decades that follow. She should care about the quality of the air she breaths and the water she drinks. She should care about developing a variety of coping mechanisms that will help her handle life’s stresses and challenges. She should care about UV exposure.

I wish people – even 17-year-old people – if they are going to obsess about aging, obsess about actual, harmful, internal biological aging. Be a brand ambassador for that, Kylie.

Forget fads. Eat (mostly) plants. Eat nutrient dense, calorie controlled foods. Simple.

Diet Fads

March 11th, 2015

cigsMarch is National Nutrition Month.! Let’s all celebrate by 1) eating a wonderfully nutritious, real foods/ whole foods meal 2) enjoying this brief romp through the history of diet fads.

1820: Vinegar and Water diet made popular by Lord Byron, who, I must add, died at the age of 36. So maybe not.

1825: Low Carb Diet (that’s right, in 1825). It first appeared in The Physiology of Taste by Jean Brillat-Savarin, a more-than-pleasantly plump French lawyer and politician who pretty much invented the gastronomic essay, aka food writing.

1830: Graham’s Diet, invented by the man who would found the American Vegetarian Society and, more importantly, invent Graham Crackers, without which there would be no s’mores. PS: He believed vegetarianism was a cure for masturbation.

1863: Banting’s Low Carb Diet, which was so popular that “banting” became a common term for dieting during this time period.

1903: Fletcherizing. Horace Fletcher’s dietary advice to insure high-level wellness: Chew your food 32 times. No not 33.

1917: The birth of “calorie counting” (damn) with the publication of Lulu Hunt Peters’ book, Diet and Health.

1925: The cigarette diet, as in “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Really.

1928: The Inuit Meat-and-Fat Diet calling for consumption of raw fish, caribou and whale blubber. Not wildly popular.

1930: The first of the liquid diet drinks, courtesy of a Dr. Stoll and – 1930 being a big year for fad diets – the Hay Diet which proclaimed that carbohydrates and proteins could not be consumed at the same meal. Whaaat? No steak and potatoes?

1934: Bananas and Skim Milk Diet (backed by – here’s a surprise – United Fruit Company)

1950: Another hallmark year: The Grapefruit Diet and the Cabbage Soup Diet. And people say the 1950s were boring.

1964:The Drinking Man’s Diet (like on Mad Men)

1967: Birth (that’s a pun) of the hCG diet, a combination of injections of Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (produced in a pregnant woman’s placenta) and a 500-calorie diet.

1970: The Liquid Protein Diet. One version was marketed as The Last Chance Diet, a name it earned when several people died using the product.

1976: My favorite: The Sleeping Beauty Diet in which the dieter is heavily sedated for several days (and thus doesn’t eat).

1981: Beverly Hills Diet. Unlimited quantities of fruit – and only fruit – for the first ten days.

1985: The Caveman Diet in which one enjoys foods from the Paleolithic Era. Yes, the Paleo craze has been around for this long, longer if you count the whale blubber version.

1987: The Scarsdale Diet – low carb, low-cal. Its originator, Dr. Herman Tarnower, was famously murdered by his mistress, the head of a posh private school.

1988: Calorie Restriction (CR) Diet in which you satisfy all nutritional needs while consuming 30 percent fewer calories than your body requires. Forever. This is very to do. The good (and bad) news? This diet works.

1990: Return of the Cabbage Soup Diet. Because it worked so well the first time.

1994: The high-protein, low carb Atkins’ diet.

1996: Eat Right for Your Type, a diet based on your blood type.

1999: The holy triumvirate: Juicing, Fasting, Detoxing.

2000: Raw Foods.

2004: Coconut Oil. It’s all about Coconut Oil.

2006: No, it’s really all about Maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne

2010: Baby Food Diet: 14 jars of baby food a day. Diapers optional.

2012: The ascent of Gluten Free.

Not to mention: tape worms, Bile Beans, cotton balls, feeding tubes…What’s next? Don’t answer that.

Sitting is BAD for you. Use a standing desk. Stand when you talk on the phone.

Due Diligence

March 4th, 2015

red-flagWith the recent brouhaha over store-brand supplements that were found to contain NONE of the ingredients listed on the label, I thought it might be a good time to review some of the red flags concerning supplement (and other anti-aging treatment/ therapy) claims.

The Internet, in case you haven’t noticed, is home to over-hyped, underregulated marketers who have positioned themselves to cash in on our aging angst. Products (like the ones found wanting at Target, Wal-Mart and Walgreens) promise vitality and robust health – along with a long list of other salubrious anti-aging effects. Some of the ingredients in the products (assuming the ingredients are actually in the products, that is) have good science behind them. Some have made cages of rats very happy. Some have proven their worth in Petri dishes. Some are wishful thinking.

Out there in the alternate universe that exists along side the internet (I call it reality), credible, careful, conscientious researchers are hard at work delving into the mysteries and complexities of how we age and how we might exert some control over that process. The research is exciting, ongoing, promising – and, to tell the truth, is not all that encouraging about supplements, special treatments and therapies. Physical activity, mindful eating of whole foods, restorative sleep and optimistic attitude remain our best bets.

That said, I know, personally, how hard it is to resist those dazzling claims accompanied by the powerful testimonies of gorgeous celebs who appear not to age. Here, according to Thomas Perls, MD, MPH, of the New England Centenarian Study, Boston Medical Center and Boston University’s School of Medicine, are 10 red flags that should tip us off to potentially bogus anti-aging claims:

1. Pitching claims directly to the media without supportive evidence of a medical or scientific and unbiased third party review.
2. The claim that the seller’s work or message is being suppressed by the scientific establishment. That they are being persecuted by the establishment, but in the end they will be vindicated.
3. Use of phrases like “scientific breakthrough,” “exclusive product,” “secret ingredient,” or “active remedy.”
4. Pervasive use of testimonials and anecdotes, including statement like “sold to thousands of satisfied customers.”
5. Attempts to convey credibility, such as wearing white lab coats and stethoscopes, posing with microscopes, claiming to be a medical doctor or referring to “academies” and “institutes.”
6. Not mentioning potential side effects and making claims that sound too good to be true.
7. Using simplistic rationales; anti-aging quacks claim that that the answer is as simple as manipulating a single hormone.
8. Using celebrities and attempting to connect the product to well-known legitimate scientists.
9. Conflict of interest. Those individuals selling their own products are the same people claiming to provide unbiased, trustworthy information.
10. Telling misleading interpretations of studies or outright lies about effectiveness.

Ask: Where is the proof? Is there credible research? Has an unbiased lab or third party conducted supporting studies? Do a quick check of the Better Business Bureau and FTC to make sure no claims have been filed against the manufacturer. Don’t rely on Internet reviews (often created by and/ or paid for by the manufacturer). Keep in mind that most celebs are compensated to endorse a product.

Bottom line: Slowing or reversing the aging process takes work and commitment on our part. The answer is NOT a magic detox regimen, human growth hormone therapy or an ancient-food-of-the gods supplement capsule.

Thinking young keeps you young.  Yes, the mind-body connection is real.  When you think young, you can become biologically younger.

Are you STILL sitting?

February 25th, 2015

officeStand up!

Yes, I am talking to you.

Stand up right now.

I fear you didn’t take to heart the anti-sitting research I summarized a few months back in Sitting is the New Smoking. Because if you did, I wouldn’t have to be yelling at you right now. (Apologies to the upright-eous.)

Here’s the harrowing recap of a recent meta-analysis (18 studies, close to 800,000 participants): Those who spent the most time sitting increased their risks of diabetes (112%), cardiovascular diseases (147%), death from cardiovascular causes (90%) and death from all causes (49%) compared to those who sat fewer hours. In a 12-year study of more than 17,000 Canadians, researchers found that the more time people spent sitting, the earlier they died—regardless of age, body weight, or how much they exercised.

Got that? Are you standing yet?

And here is more damning data on the health effects of sitting.

Sitting is bad for your brain. A Michigan State University study found that college students who were less fit (thanks to sitting longer hours) had a harder time retaining information than their more physically active classmates. Long-term information, which is anything from more than 30 seconds ago, was more difficult for the lower-fit individuals to remember.

Sitting is bad for your circulation. Those who sit too much have poor circulation in their legs, which can lead to varicose veins and deep vein thrombosis. An Indiana University study found that even just one hour of sitting can impair normal blood flow by up to 50 percent.

Sitting is bad for your spine. Moving around allows soft discs between vertebrae to expand and contract naturally, soaking up fresh blood and nutrients. Sitting causes discs in the back to become squashed unevenly. When that happens, collagen hardens around ligaments and tendons, making your spine less flexible. Chronic sitters are far more at risk for herniated lumbar discs (the most common cause of lower back pain).

Sitting is bad for your hips. Hip flexor muscles – they provide both mobility and balance — stiffen during long periods of sitting.

So it is time – past time – to get yourself a standing desk. Or, as in the photo that companies this post, an inexpensive platform to place on your old desk. I have a true standing desk in my writing office. For my university office (the photo), I requested a standing desk and, after eight months of bureaucratic run-around, I decided that if I wanted a healthy environment I’d have to create it myself. It may be that your employer, like mine, talks about a healthy work environment but doesn’t pro-actively (or even reactively!) provide one. Do it for yourself. My platform (at amazon) was around $125. There are smaller ones for under $100. This is possibly the best investment you can make for your health.

(btw: That’s a poster of a window looking out onto water. My office is actually windowless.)

Eat a pound of produce a day.  It’s not as hard as it seems.  One good-sized apple is a third of a pound.

Forgetting Alzheimer’s

February 18th, 2015

Still_Alice_-_Movie_PosterGood news about Alzheimer’s?

Please say yes. After wincing and weeping my way through Julianne Moore’s sure-to-be Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice, I am more than ready to hear it. And I bet you are too.

It is true that I have maintained an as-positive-as-possible outlook on this horrific disease. I wrote a book, Dancing with Rose, (re-named Finding Life in the Land of Alzheimer’s in paperback) based on my experiences as an in-the-trenches caregiver at an Alzheimer’s care facility. I wrote that there is life after Alzheimer’s. I wrote that we are more than just the sum of our memories, and that when you lose your memory, you do not lose your self. Your personhood. And I still believe that. But I also know, up close and personal, the devastation of this disease. I am therefore thrilled to tell you about this new research from Stanford.

But first I have to say those words you don’t want to hear: It was conducted on mice.

Which means that, game-changing as the findings of the study may be, we are still many years from effective treatment or, dare I say the word, cure. But this is very very exciting stuff.

It turns out that brains contain cells called microglia that chew up toxic substances and cell debris, calm inflammation and make nerve-cell-nurturing substances. They work as garbage collectors, getting rid of molecular trash strewn among living cells — including clusters of a protein called A-beta, notorious for aggregating into gummy deposits called Alzheimer’s plaques, the disease’s hallmark anatomical feature. We love these microglia. We want these guys vigorously and tirelessly working for us.

The new research from Stanford (published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation) suggests that the massive die-off of nerve cells in the Alzheimer’s- affected brain may be due to these microglia falling down on the job. Most excitingly, the researchers found that, in mice, blocking the action of a single molecule on the surface of microglia restored the cells’ ability to get the job done — and, even more excitingly, reversed memory loss and myriad other Alzheimer’s-like features in the animals.

Yes, reversed.

The ground-breaking idea here is this entirely new approach to preventing and/or curing Alzheimer’s by boosting the brain’s own immune response.

I wish Julianne Moore the best of luck on Oscar’s night. But I wish more that, in the near future, such a portrayal will seem absolutely archaic.

 

You’ve heard it before … Now do it: Make time for 30+ minutes of cardio-vascluar activity 3-4/x week.

Re-thinking “old” now that Annie Lennox is 60

February 11th, 2015

oldAgeism: Alive and well? Hell yeah. It is, in fact, more vibrantly alive and a whole lot healthier than our culture believes older people themselves are. Which I guess wouldn’t be difficult, as our culture equates “old” with any or all of the following: weak, frail, ill, forgetful, slow, cranky, crabby, creaky, stodgy, stuffy, sexless. Am I leaving anything out? Oh yeah: Useless. In the way.

Here’s Annie Lennox, who just turned 60: “There’s this youth culture that is really, really powerful and really, really strong, but what it does is it discards people once they reach a certain age. I actually think that people are so powerful and interesting – women, especially – when they reach my age. We’ve got so much to say, but popular culture is so reductive…”

You’ve got that right, Annie.

But: Do you realize that there are societies where our concept of “old” never took root? In these cultures, aging is not associated with a diminution of vigor or, more important, of usefulness. Activity, involvement and engagement continue unabated throughout life. Older people are as integral to the health and welfare of these societies as younger people — and it may be that this belief (even more than healthy behaviors) keep those older people demonstrably, verifiably biologically young.

Could this attitude about aging and older people ever be part of our culture? It would mean an extraordinary, dare I say mind-blowing, change: politically, culturally, economically, and every other way imaginable. Because I am trying hard to make “optimism about the future” a part of my constellation of youthful habits, and because this applies not only to my personal future but to The Future, I am going to say that such change is possible. And I am going to say that right now, at this moment in time, this change may be the most possible it will ever be.

Why? Because between the (frequently ridiculed and more-often-than-not dismissed) Baby Boomers and the (all-but-forgotten) Gen Xers, the oldest of whom turn 50 this year, there are considerably more than 100 million Americans alive and kicking (creative, active, involved, interesting) in their 40s, 50s, 60s right now. (Not to mention the pre-Boomers now in their 70s, 80s and beyond). And we are hardly “old and in the way.” We are, in fact, in the thick of it.  We can dismantle this damaging “old” stereotype by example, by continuing to actively contribute to and engage with the culture, by choosing not to live in isolated, gated, same-age communities, by embracing change, by staying both physically and intellectually resilient. By using our added years of youthful good health to be useful and do good. There are a lot of us, and we can do this.

If this sounds like a call to arms, it is.

And btw, Jerry Garcia was 33 when he put together and started recording with the group “Old and in the Way.”