Healthy Aging

Benefit to improving diet and exercise at the same time

Daniel DeNoon
Daniel DeNoon, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

When you decide it’s time to live a healthier lifestyle, you’re likely to get better long-term results if you start improving your diet and increasing physical activity at the same time. It may seem better to improve just one thing at a time.  But while you don’t have to make drastic changes overnight, a new […]

Power training provides special benefits for muscles and function

Julie Silver, M.D.
Julie Silver, M.D., Chief Editor of Books, Harvard Health Publications

Strength training is a popular term for exercises that build muscle by harnessing resistance against an opposing force. The resistance can come from your body, or from free weights, elasticized bands, or specialized machines. It makes muscles stronger. Another type of training, known as power training, is proving to be just as important as strength training in maintaining or restoring function. As the name suggests, power training is aimed at increasing power, which is the product of both strength and speed. Optimal power reflects how quickly you can exert force to produce the desired movement. Here’s an example: Faced with a four-lane intersection, you may have enough strength to walk across the street. But it’s power, not just strength, that can get you across all four lanes of traffic before the light changes. Likewise, power can prevent falls by helping you react swiftly if you start to trip or lose your balance. Some power moves are strength training exercises done at a faster speed. Others rely on the use of a weighted vest, which is worn while performing certain exercises that are typically aimed at improving functions such as bending, reaching, lifting, and rising from a seated position.

Which is better for keeping your mind fit: physical or mental activity?

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Physical and mental activities are both important for protecting your thinking skills and warding off dementia. But does one trump the other? A study published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine tried to tease out if one was better than the other for brain health. Researchers recruited 126 older adults who felt that their memory or thinking skills had recently gotten worse, and divided them into four groups. All were asked to do an hour of mental activity three times a week and an hour of physical activity three times a week. What differed were the intensities of these activities. After 12 weeks, scores on thinking tests improved across the board. The big surprise was that there weren’t any real differences in improvement between the groups. The researchers concluded that the amount of activity is more important for stimulating the brain than the type of activity, because all of the participants both exercised and engaged in mental activities each week.

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

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

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.

Is retirement good for health or bad for it?

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

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.

Doctor’s warning may prompt some to give up driving

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

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.

Brain disease deaths high in pro football players

Robert Shmerling, M.D.
Robert Shmerling, M.D., Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

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).

Investing in fitness now pays health dividends later

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

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.

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

Julie Silver, M.D.
Julie Silver, M.D., Chief Editor of Books, Harvard Health Publications

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.

Can computer games keep your brain fit?

Christine Junge
Christine Junge, Former Editor, Harvard Health Publications

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.