Healthy Aging

My fall last fall: Reaction time and getting older

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Being able to react to a fall — throwing out a hand, grabbing a railing — often makes the fall less serious. But our reaction times slow as we age, making this kind of quick adjustment much harder as we get older. We’ve examined some of the biological reasons why falling becomes more serious as we age and some ways to make falling less likely — including the possibility of improving slowed reaction times.

Decline in dementia rate offers “cautious hope”

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Last year, the Alzheimer’s Association predicted that rates of dementia would continue to rise. However, a report recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that rates of dementia have actually dropped steadily over the past three decades. Whether the drop in rates applies to everyone, and whether it will continue, remain to be seen. But the evidence also confirms that there’s quite a lot you can do to lower your dementia risk.

Vitamin D and physical function: Is more better?

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Much has been promised about the potential health benefits of vitamin D, but the evidence behind many of these promises is lacking. In fact, a recent study that tested whether vitamin D supplements protected older people from physical decline found that those on higher doses were more likely to have a fall. It’s important to get enough vitamin D in your diet. But when it comes to supplements, more is not always better.

A stronger heart may keep your brain young

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Regular exercise offers a wealth of benefits for your body — and recent studies have confirmed that people who are physically fit have fitter brains, too. In fact, an active person’s brain can effectively be up to seven years “younger” than the brain of someone who doesn’t exercise! Fortunately, shaping up your brain is as easy as shaping up the rest of your body — a little activity goes a long way.

Don’t shrug off shingles

Matthew Solan
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Shingles, an itchy and painful rash that occurs when the chickenpox virus reactivates in your body, shouldn’t be written off as just a nuisance. If it’s not treated promptly with an antiviral drug, it can cause a host of serious long-term complications. Fortunately, there’s a vaccine that can slash your risk of shingles by half, and another, even more effective one in the pipeline.

Does fewer PSA tests mean less prostate cancer?

Charlie Schmidt
Charlie Schmidt, Editor, Harvard Medical School Annual Report on Prostate Disease

Fewer men are being given PSA tests to screen for prostate cancer. As screening rates have fallen, so have the number of prostate cancer diagnoses. This probably also means that fewer men are receiving potentially unnecessary treatment, with its attendant negative side effects. At the same time, it isn’t yet clear whether that comes at the cost of more aggressive cancers being caught at an incurable stage. Better screening tests may make the difference in helping strike the right balance between limiting harm and preventing prostate cancer deaths.

Medicare Advantage: When insurance companies make house calls

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Home visits from insurance companies reimbursed by Medicare are intended to help ensure that patients who are frail or have chronic health conditions can still get coverage. However, these visits may also contribute to higher health care costs. Before you welcome your health plan’s clinician into your home, here’s what you should know.

Nutrition shortcuts when you live alone

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Loneliness affects the dinner table. Whether it’s a busy, single professional, a college student, or an elderly adult, a person eating solo may wind up skipping meals or relying on convenience foods, such as cereal, frozen dinners, or canned foods. But healthy meals don’t need to be complicated or time-consuming. Sharing meals with friends and family on a regular basis is good for your health and well-being.

Feeling young at heart may help you live longer

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Feeling young may be one way to keep getting older. In a new study, a pair of researchers from University College London found that older people who felt three or more years younger than their actual age were more likely to be alive eight years later than those who felt more than one year older than their actual age. Does a youthful feeling keep people alive? Possibly: feeling younger may lead to better health habits, like exercising and eating healthfully. Feeling younger may also inspire a sense of resilience that keeps people young.

High blood pressure in midlife linked to later decline in memory, thinking skills

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

A new report in JAMA Neurology offers yet another reminder why keeping your blood pressure in the healthy range for as long as you can is a good life strategy. Researchers with the long-term Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) Neurocognitive Study found that memory and thinking skills declined significantly more over the course of a 20-year study in middle-aged people with high blood pressure than it did in those with healthy blood pressure. Interestingly, those who had normal blood pressure in midlife but who developed high blood pressure in their late 60s, 70s, and 80s didn’t have similar declines as those who developed high blood pressure earlier. The main take-home lesson from this study? The longer you live with normal blood pressure, the less likely you are to have memory and reasoning problems when you’re older.