Many Americans spend most of each workday sitting in a chair, their fingers the only part of their bodies moving with any intensity. The ease of this modern workday could come at the expense of longevity. A new study of older women in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that sitting for long stretches of time increases the odds of an untimely death. And here’s the kicker: Regular exercise doesn’t do much to diminish the risk of sitting all day. When you sit, you expend fewer calories than you would while standing, and you demand little effort from your muscles. This can help set the stage for diabetes and heart disease. One way to avoid prolonged sitting during the workday is to switch to a standing desk, or one that can adjust to sitting and standing positions. An easier, no-cost solution is to set your smartphone timer to go off every 30 to 60 minutes during the day, and move around when the alarm rings.
A landmark clinical trial done in Spain, known by the acronym PREDIMED, continues to support the health benefits of following a Mediterranean-style eating pattern. Last year, PREDIMED researchers reported that Mediterranean-style eating—rich in fruits, vegetables, and healthy plant oils—prevents heart attacks, strokes, and death from heart disease. This week in The Journal of the American Medical Association, they report that a healthy Mediterranean-style diet can also help prevent peripheral artery disease (PAD), a form of “hardening of the arteries.” It’s an important finding, since as many as 12 million Americans have PAD. It can cause leg pain when walking that goes away with rest (called intermittent claudication); a weakening of the aorta, the main pipeline that delivers blood to the body; pain after eating; erectile dysfunction; and other problems.
A recent article in Parade magazine caught my eye because it has lessons for us all. The article was about Olga Kotelko, a 94-year-old woman, who is a competitive runner and track star. Her age alone is impressive. The fact that she didn’t enter her first Master’s competition until she was 77—an age when many people are hanging up their sneakers—is amazing. The article offers six lessons that anyone can learn from Ms. Kotelko’s daily life. She can be an inspiration for anyone, at any age, who wants to start exercising or to exercise more. You are never too old or too frail to start exercising. Start out with a safe, easy program. Gradually add more and harder exercise. Who knows where you might end—possibly in an event challenging the likes of Olga Kotelko.
A longer lifespan can be a double-edged sword. You live for more years, but the later years may not necessarily be what you had in mind. We’ve known for some time that about 25% of older Americans can’t perform some activities of daily living without help. But we don’t know much about the other 75%. A new study suggests that two-thirds of Americans over age 65 need help doing everyday activities such as eating, bathing, and getting in and out of bed or a chair. Things you can do to help ward off becoming frail or disabled include staying active, managing weight and eating a healthy diet, preventing falls, making connections with others, and seeing your doctor(s) regularly.
One key instruction in the operating manual for healthy aging is remaining ever vigilant about osteoporosis. The quest to identify osteoporosis early has led to widespread testing of bone mineral density (BMD), the key measure of bone strength. Medicare pays for the gold-standard test, dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA), every two years, regardless of whether their previous scan was normal or not. A study published today found that repeat bone-density testing after four years improved the ability to identify those at higher risk by only 4%. This study raises the fundamental question: Is repeating testing of older people with normal bone strength every two years too much?
The hottest trend in mobility right now is not a smart phone or wireless gadget. The mobility that’s making health headlines is the kind that let us do what we need to do: walk and move. Mobility is essential for getting through the day, whether you need to walk across a room to the bathroom or kitchen, get out of bed or a chair, or walk through a grocery store. Loss of mobility, which is common among older adults, has profound social, psychological, and physical consequences. The cascade of negative effects that comes with immobility can often be prevented or limited. Two questions can help determine if someone is having mobility issues.
There are many reasons to keep your blood sugar under control: protecting your arteries and nerves are two of them. Here’s another biggie: preventing dementia, the loss of memory and thinking skills that afflicts millions of older Americans. A study published today in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that even in people without diabetes, above normal blood sugar is associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. The study does not prove that high blood sugar causes dementia, only that there is an association between the two. For that reason, don’t start trying to lower your blood sugar simply to preserve your thinking skills, cautions Dr. Nathan. There’s no evidence that strategy will work, although he says it should be studied. But it is still worth keeping an eye on your blood sugar. Excess blood sugar can lead to diabetes and a variety of other health problems, including heart, eye, kidney, and nerve disease.
As medical research and healthy living continues to extend life, the Pew Research Center asked more than 2,000 Americans if they would take advantage of medical treatments to slow the aging process and let them live to age 120. More than half (56%) said they would not, but 65% thought that other people would want it. The Pew survey did not ask why most adults would not want life extending treatment. Previous work has identified what people fear about getting too old. These include loss of independence, running out of money, not being able to live at home, pain, and more. But there are ways to minimize the problems that come with age. The strategies, like exercising and not smoking aren’t sexy, nor do they rely on medical breakthroughs. But they can maximize one’s “healthspan” as well as lifespan.
Birth, childhood, adulthood, and death span the book of life. Unfortunately, many people tend to avoid thinking or talking about how they want the final chapter to read. For the seriously ill or elderly—and even those who aren’t—not expressing wishes and desires about health care at the end of life can lead to getting care you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself. Families often bear the brunt of delaying or avoiding a discussion about a loved one’s end-of-life preferences. That often leaves family members making decisions without knowing what their loved one would have wanted. Doctors in Canada just published recommendations for starting the end-of-life conversation. The Conversation Project offers a “starter kit” to help people prepare to discuss their end-of-life wishes. Another resource is Five Wishes, a planning document distributed by the Aging with Dignity Foundation.
In the past decade, a remarkable series of experiments from laboratories all over the world has begun to show what causes aging—and how to slow it. In the latest example of such aging research, two of my Harvard Medical School colleagues, cardiologist Richard T. Lee (co-editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter) and stem cell biologist Amy Wagers and their teams have found a substance that rejuvenates aging hearts in mice. The researchers joined the circulation of an old mouse with a thick, stiffened heart to that of a young mouse. After four weeks, the heart muscle of the old mouse became dramatically thinner and more flexible. The team then identified a substance called growth differentiation factor 11 (GDF11) as the probable “anti-aging” substance. It’s too soon to tell if this discovery will ever help humans with heart failure. But it reveals that there are substances naturally present in all living things that cause aging and that retard it. By understanding them, we may someday be able to slow aging.