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Category — Health research

Test me! Treat me!

I am about to go off to the dentist for a routine hygiene/ cleaning appointment where, once again, I will be told I need a new set of x-rays, and once again, I will decline. I take good care of my teeth, see my hygienist three times a year, have no problems/ symptoms, and submit to x-rays every 3 years or so. That is ENOUGH.

I was thinking about this “testing for everything because we can” approach to medicine after reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s bold essay on “Why I’m giving up on preventative care.” She goes too far for me. I don’t see a colonoscopy as rape-by-machine, and frankly I’d rather have an innocent polyp removed than hang around waiting for it to maybe become something. And her point about testing and treating to prolong life doesn’t resonate with me. I am not interested in prolonging life. I am interested in prolonging good health. (Those of you who’ve heard me speaking about this or have read my book, Counterclockwise, know my favorite geeky term for this: rectangularization of morbidity.)

But Ehrenreich makes many good points in this essay. As testing gets more and more sophisticated, the chances for finding something increase. Whether than something is worth worrying about (let alone aggressively treating) is another matter.

This relates to two other health and medicine issues I’ve been contemplating, the value-added component of living with a science writer.

The medicalization of our lives. In above-mentioned science writer Tom Hager’s words (from his upcoming book chronicling 10 drugs that changed our world) this is “a troubling trend in our society, in which things that we once simply dealt with on our own – like lifestyle choices, low-risk health conditions, personality quirks – are now being turned into treatable medical conditions. Often this goes hand-in-hand with the appearance of a new drug suited to treating the new condition.” Everyday anxiety, for example. Classroom misbehavior. Or, gee, how about menopause?

Disease mongering. This is emphasizing or redefining the risks of disease to enlarge the market for medications. For example, even though medical researchers have known for many many years that the total cholesterol number is meaningless, that “number you should be scared about” has gotten lower and lower. When just about everyone is at risk, that means everyone should be treated preventively, right? As Tom Hager writes: “Minor problems can become major money-makers for drug companies. With a much larger group of potential patients getting increasingly worried about their risks, the market for the drug grows. Blockbusters can result.” Cholesterol-reducing statins are blockbusters.

Now we have entered into the world of sophisticated mail-in genetic testing, where I can discover (if I want to) all the disease demons lurking in my DNA. Oh boy. I think I’ll just eat an apple and go for a run.

April 18, 2018   4 Comments

Writing your way to happiness

Can we write our way to happiness?

On first blush this question oozes self-indulgence and privilege. More woo-woo bullshit. An unwelcome resurrection of the Me Decade. (Forgive the reference, now impossibly quaint, as we suffer under the “leadership” of GNOTUS…Grand Narcissist of the United States.)

On second blush,“can we write our way to happiness?” could be the tagline for endless Writers’ Workshops in Tuscany.

But stay with me for a moment. There is a body of actual scientific research (remember what that is?) on the health and mood benefits of writing and rewriting one’s one narrative. (Google “expressive writing and health” for many citations.) Now there is research on story-crafting and behavior.

We all have a personal narrative that shapes our view of ourselves and the world(s) in which we live. We create that narrative. We construct stories out of experience, listen to others tell us about ourselves, learn (even if we don’t think we are, even if we don’t want to) what is expected, what is acceptable, and how we fit (do not fit) in. Over time, a grand narrative emerges. And we recite it to ourselves. Over and over. For some, this self-talk is debilitating.

What if we wrote it out this story. Looked at it. And then learned to tell another plausible tale, an alternative narrative, based on the same information.

That’s what researchers at Duke University did with a group of freshmen who (because of bad grades) told themselves they were losers, that they were unfit for college. That was their narrative. These students underwent a “story-changing intervention” (oh, I know, shades of 1984). But wait…in this intervention, they got information (and were exposed to inspirational videos) about students who struggled during freshman year but improved as they adjusted to college. The “loser freshman” story could then be recast into an upward trajectory, “this is just all part of growth and adjustment” story. And guess what? Students who had been prompted to change their personal stories improved their grades and were far less likely to drop out than the control group with no intervention.

I think about the notion of writing one’s way to a more positive self-image, a healing place, an invigorating place, a place of power and self-worth every time I sit with my writing group at Oregon State Penitentiary. They are all men serving life sentences for murder. Collectively, they have spent more than two centuries behind bars. There are eight of them. Do the math. To stay sane, to move beyond debilitating shame and endless guilt, they write about the lives they now live, the men they are learning to become, the men they have become. They are changing the narrative of their lives.

April 11, 2018   2 Comments

Wanna hear me vent?

I just need to vent, you say (I say) right before launching into a litany of complaints: the stupidity and gross incompetence of others, liars and hypocrites in government, how GBBS is shit without Mary Berry, the discovery of another varicose vein, the unfairness of the universe, et cetera et cetera and so forth.

Your friend listens. Then she vents.

And then you both feel better, yes?

And then you both feel better, no.

For those who still believe in science (uh oh, that was kind of a backhanded vent), let me explain. According to psychologists who have studied venting, not only does expressing negativity tend to make us feel worse, not better, it also makes listeners feel worse. Kind of like second-hand smoke.

So your mood worsens; your friend’s mood worsens – and, according to neuroscientists, your brain begins to wire itself for negativity.

You know how this works: Throughout your brain are little gaps between nerve cells (synapses). Chemical and electrical bridges are built between these synapses as you think, learn – and, yes, as you complain…that is, as you have recurring negative thoughts. The more often you think (and express) these thoughts, the stronger the electro-chemical bridge becomes. The brain is rewiring itself to make it easier and quicker to think these thoughts. It’s just being efficient. This means that not only do repeated negative thoughts make it easier to think yet more negative thoughts, they also make it more likely that negative thoughts will occur to you in other situations. A kind of default.

Also, the act of venting about something you’re upset about can, itself, make you upset. Reliving and narrating the anger (disappointment, frustration, whatever) you have felt can trigger the stress hormone cortisol. You know the demon, right? Not only does it inflict temporary harm (for example, raising blood pressure), excess cortisol over time leads to chronic inflammation. That’s the inside kind you can’t see or feel, the kind that medical researchers are beginning to believe underlies just about every chronic disease.

Venting makes you sick!

I am NOT suggesting suppressing anger. We all know that doesn’t work. I am suggesting going zero-to-sixty from pissed off to possible solution, from “this sucks” to “this is what I’m going to do about it,” from anger to action.

Now would be a really great time to get crackin on this.

June 21, 2017   5 Comments

What, me worry? Hell, yes.

Wait…isn’t worrying is bad for your health? Doesn’t worrying turn you into a negative, pessimistic person who sees danger around ever corner? Doesn’t it cause stress, which triggers tsunamis of cortisol and lead to chronic inflammation, the gateway to all kinds of diseases?

Maybe not.

Maybe there is a positive side to worrying. As a life-long, deeply committed, card-carrying worrier (well, okay, I don’t have a card), I hope so. And research backs me up.

To be clear, I am not talking about obsessive, nail-biting, heart-palpitating anxiety. Occasionally, that’s called for, as when the Zombie Army is at your door or the person appointed to head the Department of Education doesn’t actually support public education. Those unlikely scenarios aside, I’m referring to everyday worrying: What if I catch this awful stomach flu everyone seems to have? Will I run out of gas before I reach the gas station? Suppose nobody buys my newest book? Any of my books?

Here’s the good news for us committed worriers:

We are more highly evolved! Worriers are more aware of potentially threatening situations than non-worriers. And that awareness would have kept our ancestors alive while other, less cautious cavefolk perished. It’s kinda nice up here at the top of the evolutionary pyramid, ain’t it?

We’re quick(er) thinkers. Moderate levels of some worry-related hormones (like cortisol) actually fire up the brain’s learning abilities, according to research from the University of Colorado. If you think you’re in trouble, it makes sense that your brain would be hyper-focused and ready to absorb and tackle new information, the research suggests.

We’re motivated. Obsessive worrying can be debilitating, but worrying-lite can lead to constructive, thoughtful self-evaluation and action, shows research from Stanford University. Anxiety can push us to plan more carefully, work harder and persevere.

We’re better prepared to deal with both good and bad news. There’s a kind of worrying that researchers have dubbed “defensive pessimism.” It’s when we dive head-first into the worry pool, but as we’re swimming/ flailing around we come up with contingency plans for various outcomes. Whatever does happen, we are in better shape to cope with (or enjoy!) it than those who try to distract themselves from worry. So says some very interesting research from UC Riverside.

As one of the UC/ Riverside researchers is quoted as saying, “Set your expectations low and think through the negative possibilities. It drives optimists crazy.” And it works!

Think of worrying as self-empowerment. I do. (When I’m not worrying about worrying so much.)

April 5, 2017   2 Comments

Longevity Tourism

aLongevity tourism.

Yes, it’s a thing.

And no, it should NOT be a thing. Let me explain:

“Longevity tourism” involves well-heeled, first-worlders visiting Blue Zones like the little village in southern Italy that I wrote about here. Blue Zones are geographic locations where people live significantly longer, astoundingly healthier lives than the rest of us. In addition to the little villages on the southern Mediterranean coast of Italy, there is Sardinia, the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and the Greek island of Icaria, among others.

In the emerging business of Longevity Tourism – part of (shoot me now) the “silver economy,” (i.e. moneyed babyboomers), travelers venture to these places on quests to discover the secrets to living long, healthy lives. If you read this blog (and my book Counterclockwise), you know that I am all about living a healthy, vital life. But does Longevity Tourism hold the key?

Come with me as we travel to the sunbeaten village of Perdasdefogu, in the rugged interior of Sardinia, to meet the Melis family, Guinness World Record holders (2012-1014) for “oldest family on the planet.” Consolata (that’s her picture above) lived to 107. Her younger siblings include Claudina (103), Maria (101), Antonio (97), Concetta (95), Adolpho (93) and Vitalio (90).

What’s their secret?

They live, fully integrated, in the multi-generational life of their extended family.

They live, fully integrated, in the life of the village — an isolated, close-knit, sociably community, the same one they were born into.

They live in a culture that expressly treats the elderly with dignity and respect – and doesn’t make a big deal about it.

Families in this area carry a specific gene on their Y chromosome that significantly reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. The gene pool is “unusually undiluted” because of the isolation of the villages and the family intermarriages.

They are poor. They grew up (and continue to live) hardscrabble lives. The men were goatherders, traversing miles of rugged terrain every day, living almost exclusively on goats’ milk and pistoccu (a thin, crisp local bread). “There was no money,” one nonagenarian explains. “It was difficult to get enough to eat.” Another villager adds, “You exchanged some of your cheese for a bit of bread. If you were having a good month, you got a little meat.”

These are not the “secrets” longevity tourists want to hear.

I’m thinking that we who care about health and wellness should leave these villagers to live their lives while we focus on creating a meaningful, engaged, multigenerational culture, one that we continue to respond to, actively participate in and enhance as we age.

How about that secret?

October 12, 2016   4 Comments

La Dolce Vita

acciaroli-italyFor the past two weeks I’ve been staying a scant 80 miles from the little village of Acciaroli on the Mediterranean coast of southern Italy. For those who track “anti-aging” (that is to say pro-healthy aging) research, that name might sound familiar. This town of barely 700 residents has been the object of intense research. In Acciaroli, one out of 10 residents is over 100 years old. Also, they appear to be immune to chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and dementia. And their circulatory systems could be mistaken for those of 20 year olds.

Why? What is responsible for such an unusually high number of healthy centenarians? Please, teams of researchers, descend on this sleepy village, apply the masterful tools of 21st century western scientific inquiry and tell us “the secret” so we too can live lives just like the Acciaolians.

Okay, then: Scientists from the San Diego School of Medicine along with colleagues from Rome’s Sapienza University recently spent six months studying the residents of Acciaroli.

First I’ll tell you what they found. Then you’ll see why I think these “secrets” are meaningless to you and me.

Major finding: Acciarolians eat lots of anchovies and flavor everything, every meal with fresh rosemary.  Anchovies are packed with heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Rosemary, long been considered a healing herb, has been shown to improve brain activity, prevent cognitive dysfunction and protect against carcinogenic compounds.

Got it. Secret revealed! Eat lots of anchovies. Season everything with rosemary. Live to be 100. Or, better yet, since most people don’t like anchovies, swallow omega-3 pills. And, since fresh rosemary is not so widely used in American cuisine, assume some enterprising nutriceutical company is marketing powdered rosemary in a capsule and down a few of these every morning. Done.

Um, no. The secret to their long lives is:  They live completely different lives than we do. They are immersed in a rich culture based on strong and enduring family ties and the healing power of the church, both of which contribute to a sense of larger purpose as well as everyday happiness and satisfaction. The old people live lives fully integrated into the life of the village. Their lives include some hard work but also prodigious amounts of leisure time. Due to the location of the village, everyone walks long distances and hikes through the mountains as part of their daily activity. In the late afternoon and evening, people gather in the cantinas to drink wine or coffee, relax, talk, debate.

Put that in a pill and swallow it.

September 28, 2016   5 Comments

How sweet it is(n’t)

sugarHere’s something you don’t want to hear.

The medical news and dietary recommendations about sugar that we’ve all been reading about for the last five decades have been largely shaped by — wait for it – the sugar industry. An industry trade group called the Sugar Research Foundation (today known as the Sugar Association) apparently paid scientists in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease, and focus instead on saturated fat as the culprit.

What did we hear about sugar? Okay, it caused tooth decay. Big deal. Brush your teeth. The sugar-induced energy rollercoaster could be promoted as “quick energy.” Remember the get-a-life-eat-a-Snickers-bar ad campaign? If a person was concerned about health…FAT was the real enemy. Fat was the killer. Fat was the fast-track to heart disease.

For the gory details on the collusion between sugar execs and leading Harvard scientists, one of whom went on to help draft the national’s dietary and nutritional plan, check out this recent New York Times story
and the JAMA Internal Medicine research upon which it was based.

And, lest you think this collusion between agriculture, business and science was just a remnant from the Bad Old Days, please note that just last year it came to light that Coca-Cola, the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, had provided millions of dollars in funding to researchers who sought to play down the link between sugary drinks and obesity.

At the risk of merely replacing evil demon fat with evil demon sugar (remember evil demon salt?), allow me to share this information about the health effects of sugar.

Sugar can damage your heart
Excess sugar increases the risk of heart disease (yes, like fat), but there is also strong evidence that sugar affects the heart’s pumping mechanism and may also increase the risk of heart failure.

Sugar and obesity? Yep.
Fat causes fat, we’ve been told. Fat in the diet is the culprit. Eat nonfat. Eat low-fat. But has this explosion of low-fat items in the grocery store halted out obesity epidemic? No. Consider sugar. Excess fructose consumption has been linked to an increase in a condition called leptin resistance. Leptin is a hormone that tells you when you’ve had enough food. If you develop leptin resistance, you don’t get the message that you’re full. You keep eating. And eating.

Sugar specifically promotes belly fat (the worst kind)
Fructose in particular appears to actually cause visceral fat cells to mature. A study of overweight kids who consumed fructose-laden drinks showed fat accumulation in the trunk, setting the stage for a big belly and even bigger future risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Sugar may be linked to cancer production and may effect cancer survival
When we consume too much sugar, we throw our insulin production out of whack. There’s a well documented connection between insulin resistance and cancer. (link between insulin resistance and cancer. There is also a connection between elevated sugar and poorer survival rates for some cancers. ( Further studies have found negative associations between high sugar and starch intake and survival rates in both breast cancer patients and colon cancer patients.

Sugar and aging? Uh huh.
A 2009 study found a positive relationship between glucose consumption and the aging of our cells. Aging of the cells can cause something as harmless as wrinkles to something as dire as chronic disease. But there is other alarming evidence that sugar may affect the aging of your brain as well. A 2012 study found that excess sugar consumption was linked to deficiencies in memory and overall cognitive health. A 2009 study in rats showed similar findings.

Worth noting: Fruit has sugar but not the same as refined sugar: Not if the fruit in question is whole fruit. Unlike honey, cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other forms of sugar that are added to many processed foods, the sugar naturally found in fruit is different. It is accompanied by consumed in the company of fiber, which helps your body absorb the sugar more slowly as well as promoting fullness – and, of curse, offering a host of vitamins and micronutrients. (Refined sugar has no nutritional value whatsoever.)

Words That Really Just Mean ‘Added Sugar’
• agave (juice, nectar, syrup)
• brown rice syrup
• corn sweetener
• corn syrup
• dextrose
• high fructose corn syrup
• honey
• malt sweetener
• malt syrup
• maltose
• rice syrup

(A team of researchers at the University of North Carolina conducted a detailed survey of the packaged foods and drinks that are purchased in American grocery stores and found that 60 percent of them include some form of added sugar. When they looked at every individual processed food in the store, 68 percent had added sugar.)

September 22, 2016   5 Comments

Purpose. Meaning. Life.

cat looks outAnother day, another load of garbage delivered to my email in-box, the result of my long-standing Google alert for “anti-aging.” For more than 6 years, ever since I first started researching the science of aging for my book, Counterclockwise, I’ve been slogging through these daily “news” (yes, in quotes) items that purport to alert me to the latest and greatest information.

A good 75 percent of the items are about skin creams. Because, you know, the path to an engaged, vigorous, healthy life is surely to smooth out laugh lines. The other alerts run the gamut from the newest superfood (Are people still falling for that? Did we learn nothing from the Great Kale Hoax?) to the ultimate fitness regimen, with occasional tidbits on detoxing, botoxing, fasting, dead-skin eating fish, leech facials and the habits of celebrities far too young to have any experience with aging.

In more than 6 years, I have never ever gotten an alert to a story that suggests that “anti” aging is not a battle against the process of life but rather a positive approach to living life to its fullest, to pushing boundaries, to raising the bar, to living with engagement and joy and…purpose.

Yes, living a life with a sense of purpose may be the ultimate ”anti” aging strategy.

A while back, I wrote about meeting a vigorous, energetic 92-year-old woman who does just that. You may remember that I’ve also written about a related subject: volunteering, which can provide a strong sense of purpose. I mentioned a 2013 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging that found that mid-life adults who volunteered about 4 hours a week were 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure 4 years later. Other studies discovered fewer health complaints, higher functional ability, less depression and anxiety, and less incidence of heart disease among volunteers than among matched sets of non-volunteers.

Here’s more evidence: National Institute on Aging-funded research based on more than 6,000 mid-life people found that people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death, compared to their more aimless counterparts. The Canadian researchers controlled for other factors known to affect longevity like gender, age and emotional and psychological well-being. Sense of purpose trumped them all.

And, guess what? It didn’t appear to make a difference when these people found that purpose. It could have been in college. It could have been after retirement. You might be interested to know that “sense of purpose” is not limited to the grandiose – joining the Peace Corps, cleaning up a toxic river – but also involves the personal (insuring the well-being of one’s family, producing creative work).

Exactly how purpose benefits health is not clear. It might be that individuals with a sense of purpose are also purposeful about their own health and so lead healthier lives than others. But a likely explanation – especially given the research on the health benefits of volunteering – is that sense of purpose increases self-esteem, happiness and optimism, all traits associated with a myriad of health benefits. The researchers hypothesize that a sense of purpose may protect against the harmful effects of stress, one of the great systemic agers.

All of which goes to prove that living a healthy, vigorous and long life is not about miracle face creams or miracle foods or miracle work-outs. It is about the everyday miracle of building a rich, purposeful life.

September 1, 2016   4 Comments

Vacation…or lack thereof

backyard vacayIt’s the last half of August, the final chance for some of us to enjoy a summer vacation. Will we?

Maybe not.

Did you know that American workers get the least mandated, paid vacation time in the world. Zero, in fact. Employers in the U.S. don’t have to give their staff any paid leave – although some are paid for at least a few of our 10 national holidays. That means that many, many workers get no paid vacation. This is simply not the way the rest of the “first world” treats its workers. Just how many days of mandated, paid vacation do people get elsewhere? Here’s a partial list: Sweden, 41; Finland, 40; Lithuania, 39; France, Portugal, Iceland, 37; Austria, 35; Slovia, Croatia, Poland, France, 31; Italy, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand, 30; U.K., Australia, 28. And so on.

Maybe as an American worker you get vacation days…or maybe not. (One in four do not.) When I worked as a caregiver at an Alzheimer’s facility (part of research for a book I was writing at the time), none of the hourly staff got any paid vacation – or, for that matter, any sick leave. At another of my jobs, workers were entitled to 1 week after 1 full year of employment, 2 weeks after 2 years. And that was the max.

That’s bad. Equally as pitiful is the fact that full-time employees in the U.S., when they are given vacation time, take only half of their eligible days. And more than 60 percent report working while on vacation. (I cannot remember a vacation during which I did not work.) We work hard. And a lot. And on vacation (if we are lucky enough to get vacation and smart enough to actually take advantage of it). So that must mean we have the most productive work force on earth.

Uh, no.

Norway – which requires all employers to provide 25 days of paid annual leave — has the most productive work force. Luxembourg (also with a 25-day minimum leave) has the second most productive work force. U.S. is number 3 (yay, us!) but it’s worth noting that numbers 4-7 (Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany) trail only ever so slightly in productivity while mandating a month of paid vacation for every worker.

I’ve written about this subject before, back in the spring when I returned from Austria where people eat more calories, consume more red meat and smoke more cigarettes than Americans…and are significantly healthier. One explanation (among many) is their national vacation policy. I thought it was worth writing again about the health effects of taking vacation while we still have a few weeks remaining in August. So listen up.

The landmark Framingham Heart Study – the largest and longest-running study of cardiovascular disease – found that men who didn’t take a vacation for several years were 30 percent more likely to have heart attacks compared to men who did take time off. And women who took a vacation only once every six years or less were almost 8 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease or have a heart attack compared to women who vacationed at least twice a year. Lack of vacation has also been linked to higher blood pressure, bigger waistlines and increased incidence of depression.

It’s easy to see how more work can translate into other unhealthy behaviors: more stress, unhealthy eating habits (eating on the run/ in the car, reliance on take-out and fast food), more time sitting in a chair, less sleep, less family time.

While it’s still summer, take a vacation!

August 17, 2016   8 Comments

The Dracula Hormone

bela-lugosi-dracula-ftrOkay, I admit it. The title of this post is an attempt to ensnare the unsuspecting reader. If I instead had titled the post, “Melatonin: The Multitasking Molecule,” would you be reading right now — or stifling a yawn? I thought so. Just so you know, melatonin is known in some circles as the Dracula hormone, so I am not totally social-media-pandering or playing the seo game.

Now, on to business. Melatonin is kind of wonderful…surprisingly wonderful. I have been taking it for years – as probably many of you have – to help with jet lag. Secreted by the pineal gland (should details like that interest you), melatonin is naturally released when darkness falls, a signal to the body that it’s time to sleep. It is the daily rise and fall of the hormone that helps regulate our internal clocks.

Research now suggests that melatonin may do far more than that. It turns out that the hormone is also a powerful antioxidant, perhaps the most powerful in the body.
By scavenging free radicals and stimulating other antioxidant enzymes, melatonin minimizes oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, and reduces the neurodegeneration caused by the amyloid beta and tau proteins – the evil-doers that accumulate in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s. People with Alzheimer’s have about one-fifth the amount of melatonin in their spinal fluid as younger people. People older than 80 have about one-half. Thinking about supplementation beyond jet-lag use? Do read about potential side effects (not scary).

Other studies are showing that melatonin can be an effective treatment for SAD (seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that hits in the winter months) and even for non-seasonal major depression. A synthetic version of melatonin is proving to be as effective as prescription antidepressants like Prozac – but without many of the side effects. Restoring and regulating sleep patterns can do wonders for the mood. And now there’s research on melatonin and the heart, and melatonin and metabolic diseases like diabetes.

To which I say: Hurrah for the Dracula molecule. And: Wow, isn’t the human body freaking amazing.

May 18, 2016   No Comments