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Aging, Health and Fitness, Public Health, Research

Twenty-four percent of middle-aged and older Americans meet muscle-strengthening guidelines

Twenty-four percent of middle-aged and older Americans meet muscle-strengthening guidelines

free_weightsPast research has shown that strength training can benefit older adults’ health in numerous ways including arthritis relief, alleviating back pain, increasing bone density, improving sleep and boosting mental health. But despite these findings, a new study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that few U.S. adults age 45 and older adhere to the Department of Health and Human Services’ muscle-strengthening recommendations.

The guidelines advise middle-aged and older adults to do moderate or high intensity muscle-strengthening activities that involve all major muscle group two or more days a week. Training can involve hand weights or weight machines, basic exercises such as sit-ups and push-ups or yoga and similar fitness practices.

In the latest study, researchers examined data from a telephone health survey conducted in 2011 by the CDC known as the U.S. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. For the survey, respondents provided information about the types of physical activities they engage in and frequency, as well as answered questions about if they specifically did exercises to strengthen their muscles. HealthDay reports:

Of all those who answered the questions on muscle strengthening, about 24 percent said they met the government’s recommendations.

Among those less likely than others to meet these guidelines were women, widows, those age 85 or older, people who were obese, and Hispanics. Participants who didn’t graduate from high school were also less likely to meet U.S. strength-training recommendations.

Jesse Vezina, of Arizona State University, and his fellow researchers concluded that interventions designed to encourage people to participate in strength training should target these high-risk groups.

Previously: Moderate exercise program for older adults reduces mobility disability, study shows, Help from a virtual friend goes a long way in boosting older adults’ physical activity and Do muscles retain memory of their former fitness?
Photo by Positively Fit

Aging, Health Policy, In the News, Medicine and Society

No one wants to talk about dying, but we all need to

No one wants to talk about dying, but we all need to

“Dying in America is harder than it has to be.”

That’s the headline of one of the stories published following the release of the Institute of Medicine’s 500-page report titled “Dying in America.” The report tackles head-on the difficult topic of how to provide individualized, appropriate care for patients with advanced serious illness in a country that is grappling with out-of-control health care costs.

Patients should, and can, take control of the quality of their life through their entire life, choosing how they live and how they die

Its conclusion: The system needs a major overhaul.

“Our current system is broken,” said David M. Walker, co-chair of the 21-member committee that authored the report and former U.S. Comptroller General from Bridgeport, Conn. “It does not result in the type of quality of care that people deserve and desire and it’s much more costly. Systematic changes are needed for more compassionate, affordable care.”

No easy solutions exist, the authors said at an hour-long press conference announcing the release of the report yesterday. Instead, they plan to spend the next year getting their message out to the public with far ranging goals for change: from more comprehensive coverage of palliative care by medical insurance, to more hours of palliative care education in medical and nursing schools, to improved communication between health care providers and their patients about their end-of-life care choices – along with a payer-system that reimburses for those conversations.

It’s a controversial topic that broke out into the public debate five years ago during the passage of the Affordable Care Act, when opponents of the bill claimed that a proposal for Medicare to reimburse doctors for counseling patients about living wills and advance directives would lead to bureaucrats setting up “death panels” to determine who deserved care.

But it’s also a topic that can no longer be ignored, authors of the report said. Too many Americans are suffering unnecessarily and as the elderly population continues to grow with the aging of the baby boom generation, these problems will continue to multiply.

“For most people, death does not come suddenly,” said Philip Pizzo, MD, co-author of the report and former dean of Stanford’s medical school, in an email to me discussing the conclusions of the report. “Instead, dying is a result of one or more diseases that must be managed carefully and compassionately over weeks, months, or even years, through many ups and downs.”

Physicians and other health care professionals can provide well-rounded care at the end of life to relieve patient pain, maximize functioning, alleviating emotional stress, and ease the burden of loved ones – all in a manner that is consistent with individual choices, he said.

“Patients should, and can, take control of the quality of their life through their entire life, choosing how they live and how they die,” Pizzo said.

But it’s not happening today.

“Studies show that doctors want to die in comfort at home at the end of life, but subject patients to high-intensity ineffective treatments,” he said. “Why?”

Previously: Study: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselves, Former School of Medicine dean named to expert panel to reform end-of-life care in America, Communicating with terminally ill patients: A physician’s perspective and On a mission to transform end-of-life care

Aging, Complementary Medicine, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research

Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients

Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients

meditatingDepression and poor sleep often affect both dementia patients and their caregivers. Now new research shows that caregivers and patients who undergo mindfulness training together experience an improvement in mood, sleep and overall quality of life.

While past studies have shown that yoga and simple meditations can relieve caregivers’ stress, researchers at Northwestern University wanted to determine if patients and caregivers could be trained together.

In the small study (subscription required), pairs of patients and caregiver participated in an eight-week mindfulness program. Patients were diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia. Caregivers included spouses, adult children or other relatives. The training was designed specifically to meet the needs of  individuals with memory loss due to terminal neurodegenerative illness and their caregivers. Researchers evaluated participants within two weeks of starting the program and two weeks of completing it.  Lead author Ken Paller, PhD, explained the results in a release:

We saw lower depression scores and improved ratings on sleep quality and quality of life for both groups… After eight sessions of this training we observed a positive difference in their lives.

Mindfulness involves attentive awareness with acceptance for events in the present moment… You don’t have to be drawn into wishing things were different. Mindfulness training in this way takes advantage of people’s abilities rather than focusing on their difficulties

Since caregivers often have limited personal time, mindfulness programs that accommodate them as well as patients could be an effective approach to helping both groups regularly attend sessions, said researchers.

The findings were published Monday in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.

Previously: Regularly practicing hatha yoga may improve brain function for older adults, Study suggests yoga may help caregivers of dementia patients manage stress and How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health
Photo by Alex

Aging, Autoimmune Disease, Immunology, Infectious Disease, Research, Stanford News

Our aging immune systems are still in business, but increasingly thrown out of balance

Our aging immune systems are still in business, but increasingly thrown out of balance

business as usual

Stanford immunologist Jorg Goronzy, MD, told me a few years ago that a person’s immune response declines slowly but surely starting at around age 40. “While 90 percent of young adults respond to most vaccines, after age 60 that response rate is down to around 40-45 percent,” he said. “With some vaccines, it’s as low as 20 percent.”

A shaky vaccine response isn’t the only immune-system slip-up. With advancing age, we grow increasingly vulnerable to infection (whether or not we’ve been vaccinated), autoimmune disease (an immune attack on our own tissues) and cancer (when a once well-behaved cell metamorphoses into a ceaselessly dividing one).

A new study led by Goronzy and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests why that may come about. The culprit he and his colleagues have fingered turns out not to be the most likely suspect: the thymus.

This all-important organ’s job is to nurture an army of specialized  immune cells called T cells. (The “T” is for “Thymus.”) T cells are capable of recognizing and mounting an immune response to an unbelievably large number of different molecular shapes, including ones found only on invading pathogens or on our own cells when they morph into incipient tumor cells.

Exactly which feature a given T cell recognizes depends on the structure of a receptor molecule carried in abundance on that T cell’s surface.  Although each T cell sports just one receptor type, in the aggregate the number of different shapes T-cells recognize is gigantic, due to a high rate of reshuffling and mutation in the genes dictating their receptors’ makeup. (Stanford immunologist Mark Davis, PhD, perhaps more than any other single individual,  figured out in the early 1980s how this all works.)

T cells don’t live forever, and their generation from scratch completely depends on the thymus. Yet by our early teens the organ,  situated  in front of the lungs at the midpoint of our chest, starts shriveling up and replaced by (sigh – you knew this was coming)  fat tissue.

After the thymus melts away,  new T-cells come into being only when already-existing ones undergo cell division, for example to compensate for the attrition of their neighbors in one or another immune-system dormitory (such as bone marrow, spleen or a lymph node).

It’s been thought that the immune-system’s capacity to recognize and mount a response to pathogens (or incipient tumors) fades away because with age-related T-cell loss comes a corresponding erosion of diversity:  We just run out of T-cells with the appropriate receptors.

The new study found otherwise.  “Our study shows that the diversity of the human T-cell receptor repertoire is much higher than previously assumed, somewhere in the range of one billion different receptor types,” Goronzy says. “Any age-associated loss in diversity is trivial.” But the study also showed an increasing imbalance, with some subgroups of T cells (characterized by genetically identical  receptors)  hogging the show and other subgroups becoming vanishingly scarce.

The good news is that the players in an immune response are all still there, even in old age. How to restore that lost balance is the question.

Previously: How to amp up an aging immune response, Age-related drop in immune responsiveness may be reversible and Deja vu: Adults’ immune systems “remember” microscopic monsters they’ve never seen before
Photo by Lars Plougmann

Aging, Mental Health, Research, Sleep, Stanford News

Stanford researcher examines link between sleep troubles and suicide in older adults

Stanford researcher examines link between sleep troubles and suicide in older adults

Chassériau painting - smallAfter nights spent tossing and turning, I’m grumpy. The world becomes darker, slower and smaller.

That’s why I wasn’t terribly surprised to learn that sleep-deprived older adults are more likely to kill themselves, the results of a study published Aug. 13 in JAMA Psychiatry. Lead author Rebecca Bernert, PhD, instructor of psychiatry and behavioral science and her team examined data from a pool of 14,456 adults older than 65 between 1981 and 1991. They then probed the sleep patterns of 20 people who died by suicide with those of 400 similar individuals.

They found that participants with impaired sleep had a 1.4 percent greater chance of death by suicide than participants who slept well. “This is important because sleep disturbances are highly treatable and arguably less stigmatizing than other suicide risk factors,” Bernert commented in a press release.

Bernert and her team plan to work to develop potential interventions through two ongoing clinical trials.

What did surprise me about the findings was the prevalence of suicide deaths in older adults, particularly among older men: In fact, white men over 65 have a rate of 31 deaths by suicide per 100,000, much higher than the general population rate of 13 or so per 100,000.

Regardless, any number of suicides is too high, a belief Bernert reiterates emphatically.

“Suicide is preventable,” Bernert said. “But the interventions for suicide prevention are alarmingly scarce.”

That’s why for Bernert, the suicide net recently approved for the Golden Gate Bridge is a no-brainer. She recently joined the board of directors of the Bridge Rail Foundation, the nonprofit formed to advocate for the net. “This is a very effective way to prevent suicides,” she said.

More than 1,600 people have died by suicide at the bridge; a similar number of deaths due to any other reason would have necessitated public intervention decades ago, she said.  She attributed the delay, in part, to the powerful stigma that surrounds suicide.

Bernert urged others to learn about suicide by visiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or, if in crisis, to call 1-800-273-TALK to reach a 24-hour help line.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing, exploring, or practicing yoga. She’s currently a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously: Stanford’s Keith Humphreys on Golden Gate Bridge suicide prevention: Get the nets, CDC report highlights the dangers of sleep deprivation and Sleep deprivation may increase young adults’ risk of mental distress, obesity
Painting by Théodore Chassériau via Wikipedia Commons

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Aging, Genetics, Imaging, Immunology, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research, Women's Health

Stanford’s brightest lights reveal new insights into early underpinnings of Alzheimer’s

Stanford's brightest lights reveal new insights into early underpinnings of Alzheimer's

manAlzheimer’s disease, whose course ends inexorably in the destruction of memory and reason, is in many respects America’s most debilitating disease.  As I wrote in my article, “Rethinking Alzheimer’s,” just published in our flagship magazine Stanford Medicine:

Barring substantial progress in curing or preventing it, Alzheimer’s will affect 16 million U.S. residents by 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The group also reports that the disease is now the nation’s most expensive, costing over $200 billion a year. Recent analyses suggest it may be as great a killer as cancer or heart disease.

Alarming as this may be, it isn’t the only news about Alzheimer’s. Some of the news is good.

Serendipity and solid science are prying open the door to a new outlook on what is arguably the primary scourge of old age in the developed world. Researchers have been taking a new tack – actually, more like six or seven new tacks – resulting in surprising discoveries and potentially leading to novel diagnostic and therapeutic approaches.

As my article noted, several Stanford investigators have taken significant steps toward unraveling the tangle of molecular and biochemical threads that underpin Alzheimer’s disease. The challenge: weaving those diverse strands into the coherent fabric we call understanding.

In a sidebar, “Sex and the Single Gene,” I described some new work showing differential effects of a well-known Alzheimer’s-predisposing gene on men versus women – and findings about the possibly divergent impacts of different estrogen-replacement  formulations on the likelihood of contracting dementia.

Coming at it from so many angles, and at such high power, is bound to score a direct hit on this menace eventually. Until then, the word is to stay active, sleep enough and see a lot of your friends.

Previously: The reefer connection: Brain’s “internal marijuana” signaling implicated in very earliest stages of Alzheimer’s pathology, The rechargeable brain: Blood plasma from young mice improves old mice’s memory and learning, Protein known for initiating immune response may set up our brains for neurodegenerative disease, Estradiol – but not Premain – prevents neurodegeneration in woman at heightened dementia risk and Having a copy of ApoE4 gene variant doubles Alzheimer’s risk for women, but not for men
Illustration by Gérard DuBois

Aging, Chronic Disease, Public Health, Research

How multiple chronic conditions are affecting older Americans’ life expectancy

old_coupleOne in four adults in the United States has two or more chronic conditions, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, findings published in the August issue of Medical Care show that the burden of multiple chronic diseases could explain why life expectancy increases among elderly Americans are slowing.

In the study (subscription required), researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed a nationally representative sample of 1.4 million Medicare beneficiaries. According to a release:

The analysis found that, on average, a 75-year-old American woman with no chronic conditions will live 17.3 additional years (that’s to more than 92 years old). But a 75-year-old woman with five chronic conditions will only live, on average, to the age of 87, and a 75-year-old woman with 10 or more chronic conditions will only live to the age of 80. Women continue to live longer than men, while white people live longer than black people.

It’s not just how many diseases you have, but also what disease that matters. At 67, an individual with heart disease is estimated to live an additional 21.2 years on average, while someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is only expected to live 12 additional years.

On average, life expectancy is reduced by 1.8 years with each additional chronic condition, the researchers found. But while the first disease shaves off just a fraction of a year off life expectancy for older people, the impact grows as the diseases add up.

Previously: Americans are living longer, but are we healthier in our golden years?, Longevity gene tied to nerve stem cell regeneration, say Stanford researchers, Study shows regular physical activity, even modest amounts, can add years to your life and TED Talk with Laura Carstensen shows older adults have an edge on happiness
Photo by Marcel Oosterwijk

Aging, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Everyday conversations may help older adults bounce back from hardship

JapaneseLadyAs a fan of obituaries, oral histories and encounters with people who have had long lives, I was delighted to come across a humanities study finding that conversation is good for the subjects of the stories, too. Yoshiko Matsumoto, PhD, a Stanford professor of Japanese language and linguistics, has been studying conversations of older people, who, with long lives, have faced challenges such as health problems and losses of loved ones. Her research documents which types of conversation play a particularly important role in supporting the subjects’ well-being and can provide family members and care providers “potential tools for building resiliency following change.”

More from a recent Stanford Report article:

Matsumoto’s most recent work specifically focuses on older women’s discourse about the illness or death of their husbands, with particular attention to conversations that also include humor and laughter. “These instances are not uncommon in my data, although they are a surprising combination,” Matsumoto says.

Matsumoto’s linguistic analyses of more than 60 hours of recorded conversations illustrate that there is in fact a structure to such discourse. Her findings suggest that by reframing a serious story through an ordinary, or “quotidian,” perspective, the women she studied infused their dialogue with cathartic smiles.

In one instance, a woman jokingly described how she used to chide her husband about his smoking and drinking habits – the very cause of his death. Matsumoto notes that by shifting the narrative perspective from somber to the ordinary, the speaker helped everyone involved regain the feeling of normality.

Previously: Depression, lifestyle choices shown to adversely affect memory across age groups, Helping older adults live independently using mobile-health technology and How social media and online communities can improve clinical care for elderly patients
Photo by Debs

Aging, Neuroscience, Sleep, Videos

Examining how sleep quality and duration affect cognitive function as we age

Examining how sleep quality and duration affect cognitive function as we age

We all feel better, and can think more clearly, after a good night’s rest. But new research underscores the importance of sleep quality and duration during middle age to stave off cognitive decline.

The study (subscription required) examines data compiled as part of the long-term Study on global AGEing and adult health (SAGE), which is funded by a joint agreement of the National Institutes of Health and the World Health Organization. The project began in 2007 and involves more than 30,000 individuals aged 50 and older across China, Ghana, India, Mexico, the Russian Federation and South Africa.

Among the key findings is that middle-aged or older people who get six to nine hours of sleep a night think better than those sleeping fewer or more hours, and that excessive sleep is equally damaging as too little sleep. In the above video, researchers discuss how despite cultural, environmental and economical differences, study results showed strong patterns relating to gender, sleep quality and cognitive function.

Via PsychCentral
Previously: What are the consequences of sleep deprivation? and Experts discuss possible link between sleep disorder and dementia

Aging, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Neuroscience

Depression, lifestyle choices shown to adversely affect memory across age groups

Depression, lifestyle choices shown to adversely affect memory across age groups

IMG_0140Have trouble remember where you put your keys? Forgetting the names of familiar faces? A lack of physical activity, depression, high blood pressure and a variety of other health factors could be to blame, according to findings recently published in PLOS ONE.

In the study, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Gallup organization surveyed more than 18,000 people about memory and lifestyle choices previously shown to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. PsychCentral reports:

Depression, low levels of education, physical inactivity, and high blood pressure increased the likelihood of memory complaints in younger adults (ages 18–39), middle-aged adults (40–59), and older adults (60–99), the researchers found.

Depression was the strongest single risk factor for memory complaints in all age groups.

Having just one risk factor significantly increased the frequency of memory complaints, regardless of age, according to researchers. Memory complaints rose when the number of risk factors increased.

Overall, 20 percent of those polled had memory complaints, including 14 percent of younger adults, 22 percent of middle-aged adults, and 26 percent of older adults.

For younger adults, stress may play more of a role, and the ubiquity of technology — including the Internet and wireless devices, which can often result in constant multi-tasking — may impact their attention span, making it harder to focus and remember.

Researchers hope the findings, and follow-up studies, better identify how health choices made earlier on may impact cognitive function at a later age and lead to interventions to lower the risk of memory loss.

Previously: Newly identified protein helps explain how exercise boosts brain health, Exercise may protect aging brain from memory loss following infection, injury, Stanford biostatistician talks about saving your aging brain and Exercise may be effective in treating depression
Photo by bibliojojo

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