WARMING UP

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Last week, my 94 year-old, friend left me this voicemail: “Helen, would you please write my obituary? And could you come over today?” Since I’ve never written one before, I looked up a few before heading to her house. Reading them made me wish I’d known the people themselves:

 “Walt was preceded in death by his tonsils and adenoids in 1936, a spinal disc in 1974, his thyroid gland in 1988 and his prostate on March 27th, 2000. His loving wife of 57 years will now be able to purchase the mink coat which he had always refused her because he believed only minks should wear mink.” –Walt Bruhl

 “Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone. Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner.”—-Mary Mullaney

 “He despised phonies, know-it-all Yankees and Southerners who used the word “veranda.” He particularly hated Day Light Saving Time, which he referred to as The Devil’s Time. It is not lost on his family that he died the very day that he would have had to spring his clock forward. This can only be viewed as his final protest. –Harry Stamps

 Joe Heller told his family, “Just dig a hole in the backyard and roll me in.”  His daughter, however, wrote him a funny send off, detailing things like, “He left his family a house full of crap and 300 pounds of birdseed.” She recalled that his doctor approached her towards the end of his life and informed her that he was, “a very sick man.” “You have no idea,” she countered.

 “I was given the gift of life and now I have to give it back. This is hard but I was a lucky woman and for that I am grateful. And on that upbeat note, I take my mortal leave of this rollicking, revolving world—this sun, that moon and the memory of a child’s hand in mine.” –Jane Lotter  

I would not need any of these for inspiration, for when I arrived at her house, she was not up to the task. Days later she was in hospice. Then in a breath, gone. Words said after the fact can’t take the place of those spoken while we are still here. Tonight, warming by the fire, I remember this: she made me laugh.

 

 

 

 

 

ARE YOU YEARS YOUNG….OR OLD??

 

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I met this lovely gal at Trader Joe’s this morning. She was such a knockout in all blue that I asked her to, “Stand right where you are because I MUST take your picture!” She had just finished her 2 ½ mile daily walk, was grabbing some groceries then headed off to one of her two part-time jobs. Her gait was lively, her smile quick and her enthusiasm for life, palpable. Lani is a force and I was inspired not just because of her person but her chronological age. Can you guess it?

One of the best things about aging is that we’ve had years to learn that not only can you not judge a book by its’ cover, you can’t count on the cover to even give you a book. We make a lot of assumptions about others that are wrong and it can affect both our health and psyche negatively. Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “Talking to Strangers,” gets at the heart of our prejudices and presuppositions about others. He writes, “When it comes to judgments about our own character and behavior, we are willing to entertain all manner of complexity but when it comes to making those same judgments about others, we are depressingly simplistic.”

Such is the case for Olympic athletes. One would assume that all three medalists would be equally ecstatic. It turns out that silver medalists are the most depressed ones on the podium. They have just missed the gold and their disappointment is much greater than the bronze winner who is thrilled to have medaled at all. Researchers have even shown higher rates of depression among silver medalists. It seems that most of us are victims of ‘counterfactual thinking.’ That is, instead of rejoicing in “what actually is,” we compare our objective achievements to what, “might have been.”

That, of course, is the toughest thing about aging: accepting what is and letting go of what was. Scientists know that what truly ages us is the eventual breakdown of our cells and their ability to repair themselves and divide. Recently researchers from the U of A have discovered that by altering the sleep patterns of cells they may be able to slow down the aging process. For now, though, that aging process is zipping by for most of us. The important thing is to shine in the moment—like Lani, who is 81 years young!!

 

IT’S A NO BRAINER

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Almost two-thirds of the 6 million American’s with Alzheimer’s are women. It was once thought that our longevity was the reason we developed Alzheimer’s more often than men. That belief is now being challenged by scientists who say that we are genetically more disposed to dementias because our brains have more “bridging regions.” Makes sense.  We’re connectors.  However, this puts us at greater risk for the widespread plaques and tangles of amyloid beta, which cause Alzheimer’s.

Brain difference is not the only thing increasing our risk. Hormone replacement therapy may also be adding a new set of dangers.  Several of my girlfriends swear by it.  However, there is growing evidence that it may contribute to dementia and increase our propensity for other female cancers.

What to do?

1. Eat LOTS of fruits and vegetables. According to a study in Sweden, those who eat five servings of fruits and vegetables daily live longer than those who don’t.

2.  Lessen exposure to wireless radiation. Even the FCC suggests putting calls on speakerphone to increase the distance between your phone and your head.

3.  Avoid fried foods. A 24-year study at the University of Iowa shows that women, ages 50- to 65-years have a higher chance of dying from stroke and heart problems if they do.

4.  Eat more fish or take omega-3 fatty acid supplements, especially if your triglyceride levels are high or you suffer from depression or osteoporosis. During a 16-year study, involving more than 180,000 women, researchers found that those who ate fish at least three times a week or took supplements were 35 percent less likely to die of cognitive decline and heart problems.

5.  Don’t eat late at night. The body’s circadian rhythms are coordinated in the hypothalamus, which is the mother lode of stem cells that control how fast we age. According to UCLA researchers, eating late at night also disrupts the daily rhythm of the hippocampus – the brain’s memory center.

6.  Exercise daily! This keeps harmful immune cells out of your brain and diminishes the presence of inflammatory microglia in your hypothalamus. Your body knows— and it shows– if you don’t.

7.  Eat dark chocolate!!! Researchers at Loma Linda University say that consuming chocolate high in cacao (over 70%) causes an increase in the frequency of gamma waves. These reduce stress, improve mood, enhance neuroplasticity and improve cerebral blood flow.  My new motto?  “A square a day keeps dementia away.”  It’s a no brainer.

 

 

 

PICK A PECK OF POMEGRANATES!

 

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In the average human gut, we carry a thousand different species of bacteria, literally trillions of cells that weigh about three pounds. Believe it or not, this ‘microbiome’ inside of us actually plays a role in autism, anxiety, depression and many other disorders. To prove that theory, scientists have actually given ‘calm’ mice gut microbes from ‘anxious’ ones and sent them straight into overdrive.

 What does this mean for us? Well, it means that we really are what we eat. In another study done at UCLA, researchers gave healthy women brain scans to test their emotional responses to visual stimuli.  They then fed half the women yogurt (which is a probiotic) twice a day, while the others received none. After 12 weeks, they re-administered the scans. The yogurt eaters reacted far more calmly to the images than the other group and showed markedly measurable differences in their stress levels. They believe that the yogurt changed the makeup of the subjects’ gut microbes, which then led to the production of compounds that ultimately modified their brain chemistry.

 Our gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine and GABA all of which play a key role in mood. They also generate other neuroactive chemicals that reduce anxiety and depression. In fact, your microbiome can activate the vagus nerve, which is the main line of communication between the gut and the brain.  So, if you have a ‘gut instinct’ about something, you’re probably right.  Since 80% of your immune tissue is in your digestive tract, which by itself influences both mood and behavior, you need to protect it. 

 What does all this mean?   That inside of us we already have ‘natural’ anti depressants IF we keep ourselves healthy! Someday, scientists say that we will even be able to use our own bodies as healing mechanisms instead of prescription pills. Until then, keep your insides well fed. You might consider starting with pomegranates.  They may well be the perfect stocking stuffer for your loved ones.  Here are just some of their benefits:

  1. nutrient dense (contain vitamin C & K, folate & potassium)
  2. powerful antioxidant
  3. anti inflammatory
  4. may help fight both prostate and breast cancer
  5. lowers blood pressure
  6. can relieve arthritis and joint pain
  7. significantly lowers triglycerides
  8. fights bacterial & fungal infections
  9. improves both memory and exercise performance
  10. develops patience— it takes time to retrieve those 613 fruity arils! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INSIDE OUT

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Last week, the Inside Out art project came to my town. Their truck rolled up in front of the library and we, local residents let them take 4’ by 3’, black and white photos of us. These were then pasted on the walkways in front of the library. I was amazed at the diversity of faces. Our art statement didn’t last long as it rained the following day and all became a gray mush. It was a great reminder, though, of the brevity of our lives. That is why it is so important to shine while our light still flickers!

Recently, I spoke to a group on Alzheimer’s. Since all had been (or were), caregivers, I assumed they would ask questions about the disease and its’ progression. Instead, I faced a room full of people terrified that it might happen to them! In fact, one perfectly, healthy woman was actually taking an Alzheimer’s medication in hopes of preventing it before it started!

Considering that 1 million people will have dementia in some form by 2025, their concerns are valid. So, here’s what we know so far: there is NO cure or drug that can really help yet. No. Nothing–so don’t fall for those TV commercials. However, here are a few things we DO know that will give you the best prevention possible:

  1. Smoking increases your dementia risk 30-50%.
  2. Drinking one Coke a day ups your risk by 30%.
  3. Although few of my readers likely play football–watch for blows to the head—they cause inflammation to the nervous system and increase the tau proteins that cause Alzheimer’s.
  4. Keep your blood pressure low.
  5. Playing a musical instrument lowers your risk by 36%. Taking up the harmonica can’t hurt.
  6. Yeah get off your butt—stub out your butt—and no more ifs ands or buts. THIS is the MOST important one!  

 Here’s the mystery of life: the things we plan for rarely happen and the ones we don’t expect often smack us right between the eyes. Considering that 24% of boys born today and 35% of girls will eventually develop dementia, starting healthy behaviors now will have a more beneficial effect than any medical treatment or preventative procedure. Plus, if you wanna see your face plastered up real big, track down the Inside Out Project! Smiling increases longevity and makes you feel good inside and out!

 

 

YOUR FRIEND, ME

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A friend of mine in his 80’s pulled me aside to talk this morning. He lifted his pant leg to reveal a huge, gauze-covered dressing over his entire shin.

 “I was caught in the middle of a dogfight,” he said. “The doctor can’t stitch it because there’s simply no skin. I have another bandage up here,” he said, indicating his thigh.

 His skin is even thinner than mine and he’s also on blood thinners. I cringed, imagining the pain of that huge, open wound.

 He then confided that his lady friend of late has decided to fly solo. After a long sigh, he simply said:

 “My life is over. I’m in too much pain to move. I have no companionship and there’s nothing to look forward to. Really, nothing.”

 For a moment, I was flummoxed. We’re pals. We’ve worked out together, gone to many a lunch, had tons of talks about love, life, books (he loves murder mysteries) and he has nothing to look forward to? I wanted to give him the pep talk that one normally gives when a friend is feeling down but no words came simply because I know how he feels. I really do.  What could I say?

 Finally, the words come to me tonight, as I ready for bed. So, I dash off this email. Maybe it will help him feel a little less alone.
Hey, kid:

I know you are in a lot of pain and that life isn’t fair.  It’s hard getting older and not snapping back into step the way you once used to.

But I just want you to know how happy it makes me feel inside every time you wave at me when I come to the gym.

Want you to know how much I love your ‘joke of the day,’ cuz even when it’s not funny, it still makes me laugh.

Want you to know that I admire how you’ve kept yourself active and in shape all these years. That takes real strength and persistence.

 Mostly, I just want you to know that my life is just a bit richer and warmer for having you in it… so hang in there.

“This, too, shall pass.”

 Your friend,

Me

 

TOUCHDOWN

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You may find this hard to believe but I just saw my very, first, live, professional football game! The last time I sat in the bleachers was in 1974, during a first date in college. However, by halftime, I told the guy that I’d had enough. (It was also our last date). As for Super bowl parties? I never attended them unless coerced and even then spent every conceivable second in the kitchen or outside listening to the leaves rustle. Anything was better than watching all those big guys run after a ball that I couldn’t even see and then jump on top of each other so hard that it made me wince.

 Until last week I had no clue how the game even worked. So, let me tell you what I learned after just one match: Football is a perfect metaphor for Life.

  1. Once the whistle blows, you only have so much time left.
  2. When you have the ball, you’re always heading for the ‘end zone.’
  3. If you get caught holding the ball, you’ll be sorry.
  4. As you inch towards your goal, some folks will knock themselves out helping you get there. Others will flatten you like a pancake.
  5. There’s always somebody faster, bigger, stronger and younger gaining on you.
  6. If you’re outflanked, you pass the ball to someone else and hope they don’t fumble.
  7. You can play an entire game and never touch the ball once.
  8. You can actually knock people over on purpose and jump right on top of them, if it’s done just so.
  9. You can’t hold on to someone—no matter how much you want to—if they’re not actually holding the ball.
  10. It all starts with a coin toss.

If you can’t play, you can always sit on the sidelines and bark orders at the guys on the field, like the crazed fan behind me did the entire game.  As it happens, I was there to watch a young man I know realize his dream to play in the NFL. Now, the only thing better than chasing your own dreams is watching someone else bring theirs to life. That’s a thrill in itself! My friend played well and as his teammates slapped his butt and gripped his helmet with congratulations, it reminded me of one, more thing:   you don’t do any of it by yourself. Nope, not one, single, solitary yard. Like football, life is a team sport.