Healthy Aging

Patrick J. Skerrett

Studies explore global burden of disease and heart disease in the United States

If you like numbers and statistics, especially those about health, two reports released this week should keep you occupied for days: the massive Global Burden of Disease study was published in The Lancet, and the American Heart Association released its annual “Heart and stroke statistics” report. The Global Burden of Disease project found that average life expectancy continues to rise in most countries. It also found that infection and other communicable causes of disease no longer dominate deaths and disability. Today, so-called non-communicable causes like traffic accidents, violence and war, heart disease, cancer, and other chronic conditions account for two-thirds of world deaths and the majority of years lost to disability and death. According to the American Heart Association’s annual report, the percentage of deaths due to heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases has fallen by nearly one-third since 1999, but don’t expect that to continue. Increases in high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, overweight, and inactivity threaten to reverse these gains.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Is retirement good for health or bad for it?

For many people, retirement is a key reward for decades of daily work—a time to relax, explore, and have fun unburdened by the daily grind. For others, though, retirement is a frustrating period marked by declining health and increasing limitations. For years, researchers have been trying to figure out whether the act of retiring is good for health, bad for it, or neutral. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health looked at rates of heart attack and stroke among men and women in the ongoing U.S. Health and Retirement Study. Those who had retired were 40% more likely to have had a heart attack or stroke than those who were still working. The increase was more pronounced during the first year after retirement, and leveled off after that. The results, reported in the journal Social Science & Medicine, are in line with earlier studies that have shown that retirement is associated with a decline in health. But others have shown that retirement is associated with improvements in health, while some have shown it has little effect on health.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Doctor’s warning may prompt some to give up driving

In a car culture like ours, giving up the car keys can be a wrenching decision. Some see it as a loss of independence. For others, especially those who live in areas with poor public transportation, not driving makes it difficult to shop for groceries or see friends. But the fact is that some older people need to make that decision. Pleas from family members can sometimes do the trick. A special article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine suggests that advice from a doctor can also help people who shouldn’t be behind the wheel any longer stop driving. There are no guidelines regarding who is fit to drive. Sadly, many people finally stop driving after they’ve crashed, or hurt someone. This is definitely a situation where “better safe than sorry” should rule.

Robert Shmerling, M.D.

Brain disease deaths high in pro football players

How’s this for a mind-bender: Lou Gehrig may not have had Lou Gehrig’s disease. Instead, the disease that ended his life may have been chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This brain disease is caused by repeated concussions—Gehrig sustained at least four during his baseball career—or other head injuries. It can cause symptoms very similar to those of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), now commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. More evidence of a connection between CTE and ALS comes from a new study of almost 3,500 retired professional football players, all of whom had played for at least five years in the National Football League. Among the 334 who died during the course of the study, the risk of death from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS was nearly four times higher than expected. Players who manned a “speed” position (such as quarterbacks or receivers) had a risk of dying from Alzheimer’s disease or ALS that was more than three times higher than those playing “non-speed” positions (such as linemen).

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Investing in fitness now pays health dividends later

What would you pay to keep from getting sick as you get older? How about a daily walk or other exercise? A new study suggests that’s exactly the right investment. In the study, people who were the most fit at midlife lived longer and spent less time being sick than middle-aged folks who weren’t fit. There are many benefits to staying physically active and exercising daily. One important effect of exercise that doesn’t get enough attention is that it improves fitness. Fitness is a measure of how well your heart, blood vessels, blood, and lungs work together to supply muscles with oxygen during sustained exercise. How do you improve your fitness? Increase the amount and the intensity of exercise over time. Don’t rush it. Improving fitness starts within weeks but will continue for months.

Julie Silver, M.D.

Chicken Soup for the Soul and Harvard Health serve up inspiration, information

A new series of books is bringing readers the kind of inspirational stories that have made Chicken Soup for the Soul books international bestsellers plus with trusted health advice from Harvard Medical School. The combination of stories providing hope, inspiration, and great person-to-person advice plus straight talk and life-changing medical information from Harvard doctors will help readers live healthier, more satisfying lives. Each book focuses on a single topic. The first four will be available beginning May 22, 2012. They are Chicken Soup for the Soul: Boost Your Brain Power! by top neurologist Dr. Marie Pasinski; Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Back Pain! by leading physical medicine expert Dr. Julie Silver; Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress! by noted psychologist Dr. Jeff Brown; and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Hello to a Better Body! by respected internist Dr. Suzanne Koven.

Christine Junge

Can computer games keep your brain fit?

Computer games are being touted as a way to keep the body fit. Can they do the same for your brain? Most experts say “Not so fast.” As described in Improving Memory: Understanding age-related memory loss, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, people who play these games might get better at the tasks they practice while playing, but the games don’t seem to improve users’ overall brain skills, such as attention, memory, use of language, and ability to navigate. To stretch and exercise your brain, choose an activity you enjoy—reading, playing cards, or doing crossword puzzles are some good examples. If you’re feeling ambitious, try learning to speak a new language or play a musical instrument. Most of these activities come at a much lower cost than brain-training programs, and you’ll probably find them to be a lot more enjoyable, too.

Robert Shmerling, M.D.

Older women may need fewer bone tests

The bone-thinning condition known as osteoporosis can be a big problem for older people. That’s why older folks are urged to have their bones checked with a test that measures bone density. Exactly how often to have the test hasn’t yet been set. By following 5,000 older women for almost 17 years, researchers found that the timing of the next bone mineral test should depend on the result of the current one. People who get a normal result can wait 15 years, those with moderate osteopenia should have the test every five years, while those with severe osteopenia should have it every year.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Living to 100 and beyond: the right genes plus a healthy lifestyle

A new study from the ongoing New England Centenarian Study suggests that protective genes may make a big contribution to helping people live to age 100 and beyond. Researchers analyzed and deciphered the entire genetic codes of a man and a woman who lived past the age of 114. The two so-called supercentenarians had about as many disease-promoting genes as individuals who did not live as long. But they also had about 50 possible longevity-associated gene variants, some of which were unexpected and had not been seen before. The researchers hypothesize that the genes linked with long life may somehow offset the disease-linked genes. This might then allow an extended lifespan. There’s no need to have your DNA sequenced to determine what genes you carry. It won’t change what you need to do now. Instead, simple, straightforward healthy habits like exercising every day and not smoking, can help you have the longest, healthiest life possible.

Annmarie Dadoly

Is it Alzheimer’s, or just a memory slip?

Everyone has moments of forgetfulness—misplaced keys, a forgotten errand, the name of that movie you want to recommend but can’t get off the tip of your tongue. A certain amount of forgetfulness seems to be a normal byproduct of aging. But how do you know is forgetfulness signals something more serious, like Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia? According to “A Guide to Alzheimer’s Disease,” an updated Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, by exploring several questions you may be able to get a clearer sense of normal versus worrisome forgetfulness: Is my loved one worried about the memory loss? Is he or she getting lost in familiar territory? Are word-finding problems common? Is your loved one losing the ability to socialize, or interest in it?