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

The Sun: Yes or No?

July 23rd, 2014

bright sunSummertime means fun in the sun. Or does it?

It’s complicated. More complicated than you think.

Gone are the days (for most of us) when we brazenly sunbathed, slathered in baby oil, holding aluminum foil-covered reflectors to our faces. (Or was that just me?) We have been well schooled in the evils of El Sol these days, the big one being skin cancer. It is the most common cancer, and far more common in the gray and misty Northwest (where I live) that you would think. It may be that we Northwesterners are so thrilled when we see the sun that we celebrate its appearance with an overabundance of enthusiasm.

The other, less dire message about sun exposure concerns aging, as in premature aging of the skin, aka photoaging. Sun exposure dries out the outer layers of the skin (moist skin is youthful skin) and does damage to the deeper collagen layer that gives skin its resilience. Dermatologists believe that photoaging trumps chronological aging in terms of those sags and wrinkles you don’t want to see. Add to this the solid research that sun exposure may contribute to the development of cataracts, and it’s enough to make you want to live in a cave all year.

Ah, you say, “Not me. I use sunscreen. I’m safe.” Sorry to deliver some potentially bad news on this front. You may want to take a deep breath:

The titanium dioxide nanoparticles increasingly used in sunscreens to protect the skin (the tiny particles directly absorb the radiation from sunlight) are so tiny that some scientists are raising concerns about whether they might do harm by seeping through the skin and into the bloodstream. Back in 2006, the International Agency on Cancer Research classified titanium dioxide as a potential human carcinogen (based mostly on inhalation studies in animals). Although these concerns has been largely dismissed (whew), there are now new concerns focused on the possibility that these nanoparticles could promote skin aging.

Yes, that’s right: The stuff we slather on our skin to prevent damage may, in fact, promote it.

So…sun BAD; sunscreen BAD.  Stay out of the sun entirely?  Not so fast. There are extraordinary benefits to sun exposure, according to ongoing research. Sunlight is the major source of vitamin D-producing Ultraviolet B radiation. At least 1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body are now thought to be regulated by D3, the active form of the vitamin, including: calcium metabolism, bone health, neuromuscular and immune system functioning, regulation of hunger, fertility, post-work-our resilience and, get this, the inhibiting the growth of some cancers. There is also research on the possibility of sun exposure reducing blood pressure, cutting heart attacks and reducing the incidence of strokes. (In fact, Scientists at the University of Edinburgh in the UK suggest that the heart-health benefits of sun exposure may outweigh the risk of developing skin cancer.) And, as you probably know, sun exposure has also been associated with reduced risk of seasonal affective disorder.

What to do?

Maybe this will help: Dr. Michael Holick, a vitamin D researcher with Boston University School of Medicine says that “the alarmist view that you should never be exposed to one ray of sunshine without wearing sunscreen has led to a pandemic of vitamin D deficiency and health problems.”  We should be cautious.  Not freaked.

How about 20 minutes of unprotected basking — unless you 1)  have had skin cancer or 2) are very light skinned.  Then 1) it’s the cave for you and 2) 10 minutes?

Summertime when the livin’ is easy?  Yeah, right.

Non-solar sources of D coming up next.  Stay tuned.

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

All hail the blueberry

July 16th, 2014

blueberryMy husband, daughter and I spent a few hours last Saturday picking blueberries in the cool of the morning, alternately intent on the task and zoning out to bird songs and soft breezes. Blueberry picking is a delightful activity. Quiet, contemplative, rewarding. Unlike strawberry picking, you get to stand up. Unlike blackberry picking you get to not bleed. And, of course, you get blueberries which, in my opinion, are the apex of deliciousness.

How wonderful, then, that they are also the apex of healthiness. Here are five reasons to enjoy blueberries – lots and lots of them – right now:

1. Blueberries protect against memory loss.
A 2012 study suggested that eating at least one serving of blueberries a week slowed cognitive decline by several years. These promising results came from work by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School researchers which was published in the Annals of Neurology. (Read: high cred) It may be that blueberries protect the brain by clearing toxic proteins that accumulate there, which was the finding of a 2013 mouse study.

2. Blueberries are heart-friendly. Very friendly.
In repeated studies, blueberries (1-2 cups a day) have been found to lower total cholesterol, raise HDL (that’s the good one) and lower triglycerides. At the same time, blueberries have been shown to help protect LDL (the bad one) from damage that could lead to clogging of the arteries. Blueberries powerful antioxidant phytochemicals also help protect the cells lining the blood vessel walls. And the most recent research points to blueberries’ role in increasing the activity of an enzyme associated with better cardiovascular function. And then there’s blood pressure. In those with high blood pressure, blueberries have significantly reduced both systolic and diastolic blood pressures. In those with health blood pressure, blueberries have been shown to help maintain these healthy pressures.

3. Blueberries provide antioxidant support throughout the body.
Blueberries’ phytochemicals don’t just work wonders within the cardiovascular system. They provide support for virtually every body system studied to date. That includes muscles, nerves and the digestive tract. In preliminary animal studies, one of the powerful antioxidants in blueberries (anthocyanins) helped protect the retina from oxidative damage.

4. Blueberries help with blood sugar regulation.
A recent study that included blueberries along with other low Glycemic Index fruits, found the combination to have a favorable impact on blood sugar regulation in those already diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Participants in the study who consumed at last 3 servings of low-GI fruits per day (including blueberries) saw significant improvement in their regulation of blood sugar over a three-month period of time.

5. Blueberries might have important anti-cancer benefits.
It’s too early to tell, but the studies done on human cells in the lab and on lab animals appear promising. So far breast cancer, colon cancer, esophageal cancer, and cancers of the small intestine have been studied. The hope is that blueberry consumption may lower the risk of these cancer types.

Unlike other foods that are packed with healthy benefits – like nuts, for example, or que lastima, chocolate — blueberries are not packed with calories. One cup has only 80-85 calories. That serving provides 30 percent of your vitamin K needs, 25 percent of manganese, 20 percent of vitamin C and a surprising 15 percent of daily fiber requirements. Such a deal.

And, new studies make it clear that we can freeze blueberries without doing damage to their delicate antioxidants. Which is a relief, as we picked about 35 quarts Saturday morning.

Sun exposure is the #1 cause of premature skin aging. Hard to hear but: TANNED SKIN IS DAMAGED SKIN. Cover up. SPF, always.

Biomarker #6: Strength

July 10th, 2014

muscleFor years and years — okay decades — I was a cardio-only exerciser.  I swam.  I biked and hiked.  I treadmilled and EFXed.  I cross-country skiied.  Now that I understand the importance of muscle building and maintenance to overall fitness, health and vitality, I train with weights three times a week.  At home, I like the 7-minute workout (app is free), which I repeat three times.  At the gym, I alternate between free weights and machines.  I also take classes at Barre3, an studio routine that uses very light weights and very small movements and is probably the hardest (and most satisfying) exercise I do right now.  All help build muscle, which is far more metabolically active than fat.  That means  muscle burns more calories, even when you’re not using it — so muscle-maintenance is weight maintenance.  But, more important, building and maintaining muscle is a major anti-aging strategy.

More muscle.  Less fat.  That’s the idea.  I’ve written before about the fat-to-lean ratio as a biomarker of aging.  Here I want to talk about strength (as a consequence of muscle) as a biomarker.

Older people are “weaker” than younger people because older people have less muscle mass, and the muscle they do have is less dense and works less efficiently.  Between the ages of 30 and 70, the average person loses 20 percent of the “motor units” (the bundles of muscle fibers and the associated nerves that make up a muscle) in large and small muscle groups, and 30 percent of all muscle cells.  And the cells that remain get smaller. And are marbled with fat.  Less muscle equals less strength.  Less strength leads to “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” and other such horrors of old(er) age.  Less muscle means less endurance.  Less endurance leads to less activity which leads to decrease in muscle…and so it goes.

The beauty of this — I know this doesn’t sound beautiful, but hold on — is that the progression (or, really, regression) is linear and logical, and therefore both understandable and fixable.  So we can reverse it.  Much of the weakness of older people has less do to with the passage of time than it has to do with the passage of time spent on the couch.  Lack of strength is not a “natural” consequence of aging.  It is a natural consequence of not actively building and maintaining muscle.  Emphasis on the actively.  Want the energy, stamina, strength and endurance that will keep you healthy and vital?  Build muscle.  Want a youthful fat-to-lean ratio?  Build muscle.  When you build muscle you build endurance which helps you…you guess it, build muscle.  And you know what?  It’s even kind of fun.


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

Chocolate? Yes, please.

July 2nd, 2014

chocolateAs part of my on-going anti-aging-lifestyle-can-be-fun campaign, I offer you the ultimate in counterclockwise pleasure, the indulgence with benefits, the no-no that is now a yes-yes. That’s’ right: Chocolate. No not candy (still a no-no).

Real chocolate.

Dark chocolate. At least 65 percent cacao chocolate.

Here some sweet results to ponder as you savor your square of chocolate:

The Mayo Clinic gives its highest rating of “strong” to the scientific evidence linking flavonols (the phytochemicals found in cacao) with decreases in blood pressure. (Remember that blood pressure is a biomarker for aging.) The University of Michigan Medical School has placed dark chocolate on its “Health Foods Pyramid”– a list that “emphasizes foods that nourish the body, sustain energy over time, contain healing qualities and essential nutrients” – because of evidence that it decreases LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, reduces the risk of blood clots and increases blood flow in arteries and the heart. Some research has linked chocolate consumption to reduced risks of diabetes, stroke and heart attack.

Also very promising, according to early research, is dark chocolate’s affect on chronic liver disease (due to decreased high blood pressure and improved blood flow in the liver. High blood pressure in the veins of the liver is commonly associated with cirrhosis.)

And there’s more: In early research, a drink with cocoa flavonols improved mental performance in people with mildly impaired mental abilities, so there’s now ongoing research about dark chocolate and dementia. We’ll have to wait to see about that. (I intend to wait while eating chocolate.) Also, to quote Mayo, “limited study suggests that chocolate may improve mood for a short period of time.” I’m not buying that. I think many of us have “studied” the mood-altering effects of chocolate over time – and found clinically defensible results.

Remember, we’re talking DARK chocolate here. Not milk chocolate (Milk binds to antioxidants in chocolate making them unavailable) or so-called white chocolate (which isn’t chocolate at all and contains no cocoa solids). If you are accustomed to milk chocolate or “semi-sweet” chocolate, the 65 percent–plus stuff will at first taste strange because it is denser, harder and so much less sweet. It is, however, intensely, wonderfully, gloriously chocolaty. Once you try the dark stuff, milk chocolate begins to taste fake and sicky-sweet.

Several caveats before you run out to the story to stock up on bars of 65 percent-plus (I like 77 myself) organic, fair trade chocolate bars: There are measurable amounts of caffeine in dark chocolate – which I think is a good thing. But, if you are sensitive to caffeine, watch it. Also, if you know you’re prone to kidney stones, be careful. Chocolate contains a substance that increases the risk of kidney stone formation. And be aware that chocolate may be a trigger for some (but by no means all) people who suffer from migraines.

That said, the biggest caveat is probably this: The amount of (dark) chocolate studies have found to be most helpful, around 3 ounces (85 grams) a day, can provide up to 450 calories. As my dear friend Jenn Morton says: You can wear it, or you can work it off.

Think twice, thrice — and then again — about hormone therapy for anti-aging. HGH is serious (and bad) business.

Fish Kiss

June 25th, 2014

fish kissWhen I wrote about the Anti-aging Ick Factor almost a year ago, I never dreamed that I would personally ever participate in any such ickiness. But there I was strolling down Strøget, Copenhagen’s assertively commercial, seemingly endless pedestrian street when I passed a place called Fish Kiss Spa. I assumed it was an unfortunate translation and had nothing to do with actual fish, or kissing, neither of which seemed spa-related.  In Stockholm I had noticed a furniture studio with the unfortunate name, Acne. So why not Fish Kiss?

I walked in.

It turned out to be a small room lined with fifteen large fish tanks positioned on a long low ledge that ran under fifteen throne chairs. Not actually thrones but the kind of oversized, quasi-fancy seats you find in upscale pedicure places. Six or seven women were sitting on these throne chairs with their legs submerged in the fish tanks.

fish tankAnd what was in the fish tanks you are wondering? Well, fish, of course, small, dark fish, maybe an inch long. Each tank had perhaps a hundred or so of these fish. It was hard to make an accurate count as most of them were attached to the feet and legs of the women. They were, in fact, nibbling at the skin of the feet and legs of these women.

These fish, the salon attendant told me, were special dead-skin-eating fish from Turkey. They had no teeth. They attached themselves to your submerged parts and… well, ate at you by a combination of gumming and sucking. This process of exfoliation was supposed to make your skin smooth, increase circulation and rejuvenate (as in make young) your feet. “It feels a little weird at first,” the salon lady told me.

Had I not been on vacation, had I not just walked close to 20 miles, much of it on ankle-twisting cobble stone, had I not made the mistake of wearing 15-year-old Chacos with seriously worn webbing, had my husband not dared me…I would have swum right by Fish Kiss Spa.

I didn’t.

LK fish feet 4You can gauge the level of enjoyment I derived from that experience from the photos I’m including here. The spa woman who told me it would feel “weird” at first, said after you got used to it, it would be “relaxing.” Apparently, I never got used to it. Do you remember how it felt when you were a kid and you went swimming in some murky lake and minnows darted around your legs and you screamed? That’s how it felt. Only worse and for 20 minutes. (Hey, I paid for 20 minutes, I was going to get 20 minutes.)


LK fish feet 1Did the treatment turn back the feet of time (sorry, I couldn’t’ resist). Nope. My feet looked like the same slightly scaly, well used, in severe need of a pedicure feet they were when I walked into Fish Spa.



fish feetBut I did walk 18 miles the next day.

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

Traveling turns back the clock

June 18th, 2014

propellerMany of us travel when we’re young, bumming around Europe in our 20s.  Some of us travel, later, and generally joylessly, for work. Others, like my in-laws, wait until they’re old to travel, booking passage on cruise ships and seeing selected port cities in a single afternoon.

We travel for many reasons: employment, enjoyment, enrichment, adventure. But traveling as an anti-aging strategy? Really?

Yes, really.

Like sipping a cappuccino or two (or three) a day or nibbling on dark chocolate, an anti-aging/ counterclockwise lifestyle means more than gym time, treadmill desks and Krunchy Kale. Actually, I love the gym. I love my new standing desk. About kale, krunchy or otherwise, the less said the better.

But the point is, it’s wrong to think of an anti-aging/ counterclockwise lifestyle as a series of must-dos, chores to tick off – from taking supplements to drinking 8 cups of water a day to getting in your 10,000 steps. A physically, intellectually and creatively youthful lifestyle is, well, fun.

I am writing this on a bus traveling from Parnu, a little town in Estonia, to Riga, the capital of Latvia that calls itself the “Paris of the Baltic.” On this trip, part business, part pleasure, I’ve spent time in Vienna, London, Stockholm, Tallinn and Parnu. After Riga I’ll have a week in Copenhagen before heading home.

Can traveling be physically tiring? Sure. It’s a chore to heft bags around. It’s sometimes hard to get a good night’s sleep in a strange bed in a strange town. Walking everywhere the way I do to explore a new place (sometimes up to 20 miles a day) is physically challenging.

So I get a work-out, which is great. But I can do that at home. The true anti-aging benefits of traveling are cognitive (both psychological and creative). Scientific research has demonstrated that travel can open up neurological pathways in our physical brains, benefitting – and, I would argue, counterclockwise-ing — our overall mental health in many ways.

We spend every day of our lives not only in a particular physical climate but also in a particular mental climate determined by our familiarity with our surroundings. Break the mental shackles caused by familiarity, and we open up a world of wider mental associations. We can’t operate on auto-pilot. We are suddenly, voraciously curious. We are a bit more daring. Our imagination takes flight as we attempt to make sense of, say, the Estonian language which seems to have more diacritical markings than it has vowels. Mental acuity, boldness, curiosity, hunger for experience, intellectual vitality, imagination — these are the markings of an energetic and youthful brain. These are the keys to an anti-aging attitude toward life. It’s not all about CoQ-10, Krunchy Kale and ab crunches. Not hardly.

Indoor job? Northern hemisphere?  Supplement with vitamin D.

Coffee? Yes, please!

June 11th, 2014

coffee in StockholmI am writing from Scandinavia where coffee consumption is the highest in the world: Four-plus cups a day compared to U.S.’s measly 1.5 cups (although undoubtedly higher in Portland and Seattle, #2 and #1, respectively, for the most java consumed per capita in our country). Let’s just say I am doing my part to maintain the Scandinavian average by enthusiastically partaking in the national pastime of Sweden, the fika, or coffee-and-bun break.

This activity can be enjoyed many – too many — times a day. Yesterday, I fika-ed at 10, 2:15 and 4:30, resisting the kanelbulle, the cardamom/ cinnamon buns that are the bun part of “coffee-and-bun break,” two out of three times. So not bad. But, with my coffee consumption suddenly way up, I became particularly interested in finding good news about coffee and health. I am happy to report that I found it.

It’s important to note that coffee has had a bad rap for a long time. When I was a kid, the word was that drinking coffee would stunt your growth. Then news came from scientific studies that coffee drinking was associated with heart disease, cancer and shorter life spans. It turns out that those dire stats were an artifact of the coffee-drinking lifestyle not coffee itself. Coffee drinkers – at least when these studies were being conducted years ago – tended to smoke more cigarettes, exercise less often and eat a less healthy diet than non-coffee drinkers. The early studies didn’t separate the beverage from the lifestyle.

Today, the news is much different. And far better. As Frank Hu, MD, MPH, PhD, nutrition and epidemiology professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, says, “There is certainly much more good news than bad news, in terms of coffee and health.”

First, the lack of bad news: Drinking up to six cups a day of coffee is not associated with increased risk of death from any cause, or death from cancer or cardiovascular disease.

Now, the actual good news: It may be that coffee drinkers have a somewhat lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than those who rarely drink coffee, according to the latest research. Other research suggests that coffee consumption may protect against type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, liver cancer and liver cirrhosis. For women, coffee may mean a lower risk of stroke.

Coffee also appears to improve cognitive function and decrease the risk of depression. It has been linked to lower risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. A 2009 study from Finland and Sweden showed that, out of 1,400 people followed for about 20 years, those who reported drinking 3-5 cups of coffee daily were 65% less likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, compared with nondrinkers or occasional coffee drinkers.

Okay then. Time for another fika. Now if only I could find good health news about pastry consumption.

Yes, go exercise.  But just as important:  Integrate movement into your regular daily life.

Who knows where the time goes?

June 4th, 2014

McK pass BikeTime is the strangest of measurements. We act as if it were precise: My flight is scheduled to arrive at 11:11. I run a mile in 9:19:32 (Yes, that slowly). I am instructed to steep my tea for 4.5 minutes.

But time is also utterly malleable. Consider the obvious. (Well, obvious if you’ve read Counterclockwise and/ or a number of posts on this site. Hint. Hint.) The measurement of your time on earth – your chronological age – is a precise number. It is the exact moment of your birth, noted diligently in hospital records. But that number does not measure your true age, the age of your body. That age – your biological age – as I have been arguing (and as the evolving science of aging clearly states) – can be considerably older or younger than your birth date age.

You can manipulate (biological) time. You can fast-forward it by –choose your poison — smoking, sitting on your butt, isolating yourself socially, handling stress poorly, eating Doritos. Or you can turn it back by being physically and intellectually active, nurturing relationships, eating healthy and staying engaged in the stuff of life.

That’s malleable time. Then there is the deep subjectivity of the experience of time. We often say – I say this, and feel this, all too frequently – that time has “speeded up” as I’ve gotten older. I don’t know where the day went, the week. Is it really almost summer…what happened to spring, to winter? How can my daughter have a driver’s license already? Where does the time go?

And it’s not like I live life in the fast lane, for goodness sakes. I’m a writer not a Wall Street trader. I live in the country not in the heart of Tokyo. But still, life speeds by.

…But not recently. Recently, time slowed for me in a wondrous way that is teaching me a good – and very different — counterclockwise lesson. Last week I accompanied one of my sons on the first three days of what for him will be a 3-month cross-country solo bicycle trip. Each of those three days was packed with experience: The crazy rain of day one, the sweet smell of wet hay, the flat tire, the hot chocolate. The 22 miles of switchbacks on day two, the rebel yell when we saw the 5000-foot elevation sign, the peanut butter and banana sandwich that was so good I almost cried. The warm central Oregon sun of day three, the straight-aways and unexpected steep hills, the long good-bye, the ride back to Sisters, solo.

Those days did not zip by. They played out slowly, with – and I know this doesn’t make much sense – languorous intensity. I went on this trip to spend special time with my son. I thought the challenge, and the lesson I would learn about myself, would be physical. I did learn about my strength and resilience. (And just how saturated water-proof clothing could get.) But I learned something more important. I learned that packing your life with challenges and seeking new experiences slows time. Those three days made me feel like a kid again. I remembered that time in my life when a week was a long, long time, when summer was forever. And so, during these three very special days, I moved the clock backward both by challenging my body and my psyche.

Aerobic exercise increases the blood supply to the brain.

Move. Dammit.

May 28th, 2014

BrainExerciseSay the folks at the National Institutes of Health: “People who exercise not only live longer; they live better.”

The MacArthur Foundation Study of Successful Aging, a ground-breaking, myth-exploding ten-year project that revolutionized the study of gerontology, concludes by touting the “powerful effects” of exercise and calling it “the only anti-aging regimen that actually works.”

The renown scientists who head the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University believe that, besides quitting smoking, “there is no single thing that will increase vitality at any age other than exercise.”

One of the major conclusions of the Nurses Health Study, among the largest (more than a quarter of a million women) and longest-running (almost forty years) investigations of factors affecting women’s health? “Higher levels of midlife physical activity are associated with exceptional health status…”

An eight-decade-long investigation of 1500 Californians found that being active in mid-life was the single most important predictor of good health.

Reviewing more than forty studies on the benefits of exercise, researchers writing in the International Journal of Clinical Practice concluded that regular exercise helps prevent more than 25 diseases and health conditions later in life. Among them are the diseases that rob us of vitality and youth — not to mention years: heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure.

So really…you need another reason to get up and move?

Okay, here it is – and it’s doozy:

Adults who exercise can halt or reverse “natural” “age-related” shrinkage of the brain. Exercise promotes more gray matter in the hippocampus region, which correlates with improved cognitive abilities and memory.

Notice that I placed quotes around natural and age-related because it appears that brain shrinkage is neither. While it’s true that that the hippocampus typically declines in volume at a rate of about 1 to 2% each year after age 40, if regular aerobic activity can, as the researchers found, “provide a significant protective effect that can eliminate or even reverse this shrinkage,” then – hold on – shrinkage is not natural. Or even age-related. It is, in fact, the cumulative result of inactivity, the effect of lack of vigorous blood flow to the brain, the effect not of the years going by but of the years going by on the couch. Remember, when you ask the heart to pump more blood faster, as you do in exercise, the blood travels everywhere. Your brain is bathed in the good stuff – that’s the scientific term – just like your muscles are.

Here’s what the recent study I’m talking about concluded: “After controlling for age, gender, and total brain volume, total minutes of weekly exercise correlated significantly with volume of the right hippocampus.”

There are many parts of us we don’t want to get bigger as we age, but the brain ain’t one of them.

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

Say bye-bye to the Comfort Zone

May 21st, 2014

photoStaying young is all about giving yourself challenges — physical, creative, intellectual, whatever.

It is about taking on something new, something you don’t know if you can do.  And doing it. It’s about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.  You know, that place you’re at right now that you had to work hard to get to but no longer makes you sweat (literally or otherwise)?  That place that — admit it — feels a bit like coasting?  A little bit like being on auto pilot? Time to move on out.

It’s not about bucket lists.  It’s about nurturing — actively feeding — a curiosity about the world and about yourself.

Could I do this?

What would happen if I tried?