Take intelligent, calculated risks.  A no-risk life will age you.

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.

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

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.

 

Weight training helps boost metabolism.  Add it to your routine 2-3 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.”

Eat 30g of cholesterol-lowering, happy-colon fiber every day.

Supplement fraud

February 4th, 2015

lydiaWe Americans spend about $30 billion a year on dietary supplements. Yes, you read that right: $30 billion. This includes everything from the prosaic one-a-day vitamin pill to exotic herbal concoctions, from mineral blends to multisyllabic probiotics that you need a Latin scholar to translate, from fish oils to pulverized mushrooms, plus all manner of ancient elixirs, botanicals and an extraordinary variety of “essential” thises and “crucial” thats that we had no idea were either essential or crucial. Dietary supplements promise to cure what ails you: arthritis, cardiovascular disease, fibromyalgia, migraine, adrenal fatigue, failing eyesight, high cholesterol, low libido. They promise health and high-level wellness, boosted energy, enhanced concentration, and, of course, a litany of anti-aging benefits.

Protestations to the contrary, supplements and nutriceuticals are a largely unregulated industry – which is why I was neither shocked nor surprised at the report released Monday by the New York State Attorney General. In case you missed the news, the AGs office accused four major retailers of selling fraudulent and potentially dangerous herbal supplements and demanded that they remove the products from their shelves.

Here are some highlights from that report: A popular store brand of ginseng pills at Walgreens, promoted for “physical endurance and vitality,” contained only powdered garlic and rice. A gingko biloba supplement (the herb is touted as a memory enhancer) sold at Walmart contained only powdered radish, houseplants and wheat. Three out of six herbal products at Target — ginkgo biloba, St. John’s wort and valerian root, a sleep aid — contained none of the herbs listen on their respective labels.

In the world of supplements, it is absolutely caveat emptor. The buyers (us) should beware for two very BIG reasons: First, good, solid science about supplements is hard to find. Does ginko biloba enhance memory? Does ginseng increase vitality? We really don’t know. The careful, long-term studies that would investigate such health effects are extraordinarily expensive and not particularly attractive to Big Pharma (which undertakes and funds much of the pills-for-ills research) because there’s not much money to be made manufacturing pills that contain unpatentable herbal substances.

The second reason we should be on high alert speaks directly to the New York AG’s report about fraud. The supplement industry is, as I’ve said, pretty much unregulated. The FDA “regulates” dietary supplements as a category of food, not drugs. Pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and sell drugs are required to obtain FDA approval before bringing the drug to market, which involves assessing risks and benefits – generally through extensive, wide-scale testing, first in the lab, then in lab animals and then in humans. Manufacturers of dietary supplements, on the other hand, do not need to be pre-approved by the FDA before marketing their wares. If there’s a new ingredient in the supplement, the manufacturer notifies the FDA beforehand, giving the agency 75 days to do a little homework. Basically, it’s the FDA’s responsibility to prove that the supplement is unsafe, not the manufacturer’s responsibility to prove it is safe.

But really it is our responsibility to be as knowledgeable as we can be about supplements – both their potential health benefits (look here) and their purity (look here).

 

Looking younger is not the same as being younger.  Focus your efforts on heart, lungs, arteries and muscles – not crow’s feet.

Clint

January 28th, 2015

clintSetting aside the politics, I want to say a few things about Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper.” I promise this has something important to do with aging. Just stay with me for a moment.

The movie knows what it’s about and goes for it. Where it could be arty and dramatic, it is blunt and unsentimental. We know what we need to know just when we need to know it. The acting does not feel like acting. The skirmish/ battle scenes, which need to communicate confusion and randomness without themselves being confusing or random, do just that. The movie, with very few glitches, is a sharp, clear, sure-handed, finely crafted piece of work, professional and powerful from beginning to end. It is the directorial work of a master.

That master happens to be 84.

What I have been hearing (from friends who’ve seen the movie, from media commentary) is how amazing it is that an 84-year-old could do something like this. Wow. He is an old guy and, gee, he is in top form. Isn’t that astonishing! As if being old is an obstacle to excellence as opposed to a contributor.

Clint Eastwood could make this kind of movie because he is 84 not despite the fact that he is 84. (And, anyway, who knows how old he really is…as in biologically. His chronological years make far less difference to his energy, vitality and creativity than his biological age. That’s the counterclockwise message I’ve been preaching in these columns. That’s the counterclockwise message the science of aging communicates unequivocally.)

I want to repeat: Eastwood is capable of such work because – not despite of – his age. Can we please please stop playing the age card, stop assuming that people past a certain chronological age are diminished? Can we please please stop viewing those who continue to contribute as “exceptions to the rule”? It may be that they ARE the rule.

Here’s what Pablo Casals had to say about age and excellence: “The first twenty years you learn. The second twenty years you practice. The third twenty years you perform. And the fourth twenty years you play.”

Play on, Clint.

And consider the lives of these “elderly” folks.

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

I (heart) yoga

January 21st, 2015

yogaHow could you not want to start the day with something called “Happy Baby”? I mean, really. Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana) is a yoga pose. You lie on your back, draw your knees into your chest, fan open your legs and reach down to grab the outsides (or insides) of your feet, making sure your feet (alas not the cute chubby little feet of a real happy baby) are parallel to the ceiling. And then you rock, gently, from side to side. And you breath.

Yoga teachers and instructional websites will tell you that Happy Baby has the following benefits: It opens and stretches the hips, stretches and releases the lower back, lengthens and helps to realign the spine, and strengthens the arms and shoulders. I don’t doubt it. I will tell you that it scours the mind and makes you feel both happy… and like a baby.

Lately, I’ve been starting my days with Happy Baby followed by cat/cows and pigeon, various spinal twists, and three lengthy sun salutations. I love the irony of doing the sun salutations in the pre-dawn (no sun) in the Oregon winter (with no hope of sun once the day begins). I love the flow from posture to posture. I love that the postures have names like cobra and down dog and warrior one, two and three. And I love how I can lose myself in the flow – even though, every morning, I have to persuade myself anew to spend these 30 minutes.

That’s because for decades I’ve thought (even as I’ve taken my share of yoga classes and gone through asanas in the living room while following yoga DVDs), that yoga isn’t real exercise. That my time would be better spent sweating or grunting or, preferably, both. Yes, I know it’s wrong-headed to think of yoga as “exercise.” It is a philosophy, a way of being, a connection to self. Still, I’ve not given it its due because I have been unable to appreciate the physical benefits.

So, if you need convincing about the importance of yoga to a counterclockwise life, breath deep and read on:

Balance  “Help I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons estimates 1 out of every 2 women and 1 out of every 4 men over 50 will suffer a fracture related to a fall. Balancing poses in yoga can keep us aligned and steady on our feet

Flexibility  That happy baby doesn’t just grab her feet in the crib, she nibbles on her own toes. You try that now. A certain amount of inflexibility does come with age, but most of it comes from inactivity. Every yoga posture helps with flexibility, especially hips and spine. And posture! Oh yeah.

Strength  Yoga builds strength slowly and safely (unlike, say, CrossFit) through weight-bearing postures like downward dog, cobra and plank. It’s okay – and for some folks preferable – to avoid high impact, high intensity strength-building exercises. Yoga does the trick.

Body awareness  Through the postures and the poses and the movements and the breathing, we notice where we hold tension – and release it. We feel – and can correct — the slouch. We deepen the shallow breathing. The stronger the connection we build between body and mind the less likely we are to, essentially, punish our bodies with destructive habits like all-day sitting, mindless eating.

So, tomorrow morning, join me in saluting the sun. I know it’s up there somewhere.

YES!  There is an anti-aging “magic bullet.”  It’s called physical activity.

Feeling good

January 14th, 2015

amazing dawnI awoke this morning feeling…good. Deep-down, to-the-core, easy-breathing, clear-headed, for-no-particular-reason good. And, instead of rushing out of bed as I usually do, I lay quietly for maybe as long as five minutes. Which is a very long time when you are motionless in an inky black room at 5:45 in the morning, and you know you’ll have to hoof it to make it on time to the pre-dawn Barre3 class to which you are (happily) addicted.

But I stayed put. I was, for some reason, struck by how good I felt. It wasn‘t the endorphin-high good of an intense work-out or the I-just-accomplished-something good of a self-esteem high or the warm body rush of a great-hug high. It was a quiet, solid, embodied good. Emphasis on the embodied. As in: in the body.

I stretched out long, pointing my toes, reaching my arms above my head. I flexed and pointed. I rotated my arms in wide circles, careful not to whack my sleeping husband. I shrugged and released my shoulders. I took big, deep breaths. The air in the room was chilly, just like I liked it. It tickled and cooled my nostrils but, when I released through my mouth, it was soft and warm.

I hadn’t just awoken from a lovely dream, or even had a great night’s sleep. I wasn’t anticipating a particularly wonderful day. I merely awoke into my body, into the good health and banked energy of my body.

When people ask me what I do or what I eat or what supplements I take, and then ask (of course) “Does it make a difference?” I can’t answer in the way they want me to answer. I can’t say “Why, yes, since I starting taking CoQ10 I have more energy.” Or, “Sure. My daily work-outs have increased my bone density by 2 percent.” Or, “Absolutely. Eating kale has made a new woman of me.” Because everything I do, everything we all do (or don’t do) is part of a much bigger, still pretty mysterious mix. Everything we do (don’t do) is more than a sum of its parts in ways we don’t understand and cumulative in ways we won’t discover for years. Or until one morning when we awake into our own wellness.

Indoor job? Northern hemisphere?  Supplement with vitamin D.

The OVER-examined life

January 7th, 2015

self-tracking-3-219x300“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates (according to Plato). But what about the over-examined life?

Socrates meant examining your beliefs, ethics and morals, your behavior towards others, your actions in the world. At least that’s what I think he meant. Unlike Plato, I did not sit at his feet and listen. Why I’m writing about this now is to comment on our current-day fascination/fixation – mania? — with over-examining our lives, particularly the many many ways we have of tracking and quantifying the health-conscious (counterclockwise) lives we would like to be living. I am the last person to argue against making every effort to live a healthy, mindful, body- and soul-enriching life. But I’m concerning about the obsessive tracking of such a life.

For Christmas this year Santa presented me with a Garmin Forerunner 620, a sophisticated wrist and chest-band tracking device that measures my heart rate, miles run, split times, calories expended. The usual. But also offers such information as my cadence (steps per minute), vertical oscillation (my bounce while running), my ground contact time (amount of time in each step spent on the ground measured in milliseconds). Not to mention my VO2 max, predicted race times for 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon, recovery check (real-time indication of my state of recovery within the first several minutes after a run), recovery time (optimal time until next hard work-out). It also tracks me on GPS and sends all this info to my phone. I can share it with you!

Don’t worry, I won’t.

You can buy devices, download apps and join online groups that will help you track your food intake, water consumption, alcohol intake, volume of oxygen consumed (and air quality thereof) metabolism, blood pressure, skin temperature, sleep time/ quality/ phases, moods, time spent waiting, time spent doing whatever it is you spend your time doing that isn’t waiting. If this interests you, you might want to check out The Quantified Self.

For me, there’s a line – and not really the proverbial “thin line” — between mindfulness and obsessive self-tracking. It’s important to eat clean and healthy, but is it important (or healthy) to quantify every phytochemical you ingest? Yes, we should move our bodies every day, but do I really need to know my vertical oscillation while running on the beach? I care about sleeping well, but I know when I do (or don’t) without tracking how many minutes I spend in various sleep phases. Etcetera, etcetera.

All this self-tracking, all this technology may just rob us of enjoying and experiencing life in the moment – which, really, is the core on counterclockwise living. Or so it seems to me this morning as I resist the temptation to strap on the Garmin before my foggy run.

Indoor job? Northern hemisphere?  Supplement with vitamin D.

A new day

December 31st, 2014

news years

You could make any number of counterclockwise-y New Years resolutions. You know what they are, and you know from past experience which ones will stay with you past, say, January 7.  So you could resolve to:

 

Get to the gym three times a week or
Eat six servings of vegetables

Or you could vow to:
Get another hour of sleep or
Give up _______ (fill in with favorite bad-for-you indulgence)

Some people disdain the whole resolutions thing. I personally think January first lists are phony and set us up for failure or guilt (probably both). But I do love the idea of intention that powers action. And I love the idea of self-direction. So I am, in fact, thinking of starting the new year with a plan.

But more and more I am convinced that “staying young” (as in vibrant and active and engaged, curious and challenge-seeking) is about attitude and affect as much – or more – than it is about kale and kettlebells. I don’t mean that good health isn’t important. Certainly it is. And I don’t mean that we should shirk our personal responsibility to promote, enhance and maintain good health. Of course not. So yay for those six servings of vegetables or that pledge to work out more.

But that’s not all there is to counterclockwise living, and resolutions (if you are the resolution-making type) that focus only on the physical are not as life-enhancing as maybe we think (or hope ) they are.

So what is? Waking with energy and purpose, eagerness and curiosity into each morning. That is my “resolution,” and, yes, I know there’s a disturbing whiff of bumpersticker-ese about this. Allow me to replace that unpleasant scent with this quote from John Updike:

Each day we wake slightly altered and the person we were yesterday is dead.

Which means we are reborn. New to the experience of that day. And that, my friends, is counterclockwise living.