Category Archives: long life

Let’s keep going as long as we can

One thing everyone can agree on:  Every single day, we’re all getting older.

But we don’t have to let that indisputable fact stop us from doing what we want to do.

I just came across a spectacular example of a 96-year-old scientist who keeps on going and going and going….

By sheer coincidence, he’s a man who’s worked for decades in the field of battery speed and capacity.  And he’s very much more than good enough to serve as an astounding example of enduring optimism and hard work.

A Wall Street Journal story in August profiled John Goodenough, who helped invent the lithium-ion battery that’s used to recharge cell phones and a host of other electronic products.  By introducing lithium cobalt oxide to the inner workings of batteries in 1980, he made batteries not only more powerful but also more portable.

At age 96, he now wants to kill off his own creation by removing the cobalt that allowed his battery to charge faster and last longer.  In April 2018, he and three co-authors published research that may lead to a new battery that’s liquid-free and cobalt-free.

Initial research shows that the new battery could potentially double the energy density of the lithium-ion battery.  That would mean that an electric car, for example, could drive twice as far on one charge.

“My mission is to try to see if I can transform the battery world before I die,” Dr. Goodenough says.  He added that he has no plans to retire.  “When I’m no longer able to drive and I’m forced to go into a nursing home, then I suppose I will be retiring.”

Goodenough works in an untidy office at the University of Texas in Austin, where he’s a professor of engineering.  He begins work between 8 and 8:30 a.m., leaves around 6 p.m., and works from home throughout the weekend.

He hand-writes his research and doesn’t own a cell phone, rejecting the mobile technology that his batteries made possible.  His car is a 10-year-old Honda that he hopes will last as long as he does.

His motivation is to help electric cars wean society off its dependence on the combustion engine, like the one in his Honda.

“He is driven by scientific curiosity, and he really wants to do something for society with the science he does,” says one of his colleagues, another engineering professor at UT, Arumugam Manthiram.

Isn’t it heartening to come across someone like John Goodenough, a remarkable human being who refuses to quit?

His story energizes me.  Although I’m considerably younger than Goodenough, it encourages me to pursue my passions no matter how old I get.

Does his story energize you, too?

 

[This blog post is somewhat shorter than usual because I’m currently in the midst of publishing my third novel, RED DIANA.  I’m hoping it will be available soon at bookstores everywhere and on Amazon.com.]

 

Another Benefit of Progeny

Being a grandparent?  It’s wonderful.  And I just learned about a benefit of spending time with my grandkids that I never knew.  What’s more, you don’t even have to be a grandparent to share this benefit with me.

If you’re lucky and you already have a grandchild, congrats!  Grandparenthood is an extraordinarily good thing.  Free of the challenges of parenthood, you’ve plunged into a whole new shimmering world. And unless you’ve had to assume parent-like responsibility for your grandchild, you’ll relish the many rewards you’re now entitled to enjoy.

Spending a day with my grandchildren is my idea of a perfectly splendid day.

(By the way, I don’t call it “babysitting”!  I view babysitting as a paid job—a job I did to earn money in my younger days.  By contrast, spending time with my grandkids is a joyful pursuit I welcome doing.)

It’s not always easy to become a grandparent.  We all know you can’t make a grandchild appear with the wave of a magic wand.

First, you need to have a grown child or two.  Next, that child must want to have a child or two of his or her own.  (Let’s just say her.)

That child must be able to produce her own child.  Several routes now make that possible: the old-fashioned way; new ways to conceive and give birth, thanks to medical science; adoption; or becoming a step-parent.  (If you know of any other ways to produce a child, please let me know.)

Sometimes you can wait a long time.  A savvy parent doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t offer advice.  You need to be patient and let your child achieve parenthood whenever and however it works for her.

If, at last, your child has a child of her own, you are now officially a grandparent.

I’ve been lucky to have two exceptional daughters who both have children of their own.  And I delight in their company.

But even though I’ve always reveled in my role as a granny, empirical research has now uncovered a wonderful bonus:  It seems that spending time with your grandkids can significantly lower your risk of dying sooner rather than later.

A research study, published in May 2017 in Evolution & Human Behavior, concluded that caregiving both within and beyond the family is associated with lower mortality for the caregiver. This heartening conclusion seems to apply to every caregiver, grandparent or not.

The researchers from Switzerland, Germany, and Australia looked at data collected over two decades and focused specifically on grandparents. They concluded that “mortality hazards” for grandparents who provided childcare were 37% lower than for grandparents who did not.

Half of the caregiving grandparents lived for about 10 years after they were first interviewed for the highly-respected Berlin Aging Study, while half of those grandparents who did not provide childcare died within 5 years. These results held true even when the researchers controlled for such factors as physical health, age, and socioeconomic status.

What about non-grandparents and childless older adults?  The positive effects of caregiving also extended to them–if they acted as caregivers in some way.  For example, older parents who had no grandchildren but provided practical help to their adult children also lived longer than those who didn’t.

The results of this study are even more significant than they might have been in the past.  According to the federal government’s latest scorecard on aging, there’s been a drop in overall life expectancy. If your goal is to stick around as long as possible, you might want to think about providing care to others, even if they aren’t your own kids or grandkids.

No kids?  No grandkids?  Here’s my suggestion: Enhance your longevity by becoming a grandparent-surrogate.  Even if you think you might have a child or grandchild of your own someday, why not offer to spend time with other people’s kids or grandkids right now?

If you do, you can expect to see little faces light up when you arrive on the scene.  Parents will be forever grateful, and you’ll probably have lots of fun.

How long will each of us live?  Who the heck knows!  But you might as well do what you can to prolong your life.  Spending time with children and grandchildren, your own or others’, is a jim-dandy way to do it.

 

A new book you may want to know about

There’s one thing we can all agree on:  Trying to stay healthy.

That’s why you may want to know about a new book, Killer diseases, modern-day epidemics:  Keys to stopping heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and obesity in their tracks, by Swarna Moldanado, PhD, MPH, and Alex Moldanado, MD.

In this extraordinary book, the authors have pulled together an invaluable compendium of both evidence and advice on how to stop the “killer diseases” they call “modern-day epidemics.”

First, using their accumulated wisdom and experience in public health, nursing science, and family medical practice, Swarna and Alex Moldanado offer the reader a wide array of scientific evidence.  Next, they present their well-thought-out conclusions on how this evidence supports their theories of how to combat the killer diseases that plague us today.

Their most compelling conclusion:  Lifestyle choices have an overwhelming impact on our health.  So although some individuals may suffer from diseases that are unavoidable, evidence points to the tremendous importance of lifestyle choices.

Specifically, the authors note that evidence “points to the fact that some of the most lethal cancers are attributable to lifestyle choices.”  Choosing to smoke tobacco or consume alcohol in excess are examples of the sort of risky lifestyle choices that can lead to this killer disease.

Similarly, cardiovascular diseases–diseases of the heart and blood vessels–share many common risk factors.  Clear evidence demonstrates that eating an unhealthy diet, a diet that includes too many saturated fats—fatty meats, baked goods, and certain dairy products—is a critical factor in the development of cardiovascular disease. The increasing size of food portions in our diet is another risk factor many people may not be aware of.

On the other hand, most of us are aware of the dangers of physical inactivity.  But knowledge of these dangers is not enough.  Many of us must change our lifestyle choices.  Those of us in sedentary careers, for example, must become much more physically active than our lifestyles lend themselves to.

Yes, the basics of this information appear frequently in the media.  But the Moldanados reveal a great deal of scientific evidence you might not know about.

Even more importantly, in Chapter 8, “Making and Keeping the Right Lifestyle Choices,” the authors step up to the plate in a big way.  Here they clearly and forcefully state their specific recommendations for succeeding in the fight against killer diseases.

Following these recommendations could lead all of us to a healthier and brighter outcome.

Kudos to the authors for collecting an enormous volume of evidence, clearly presenting it to us, and concluding with their invaluable recommendations.

No more excuses!  Let’s resolve to follow their advice and move in the right direction to help ensure our good health.

 

 

 

 

The Summer of Love and Other Random Thoughts

  1.  The CEO pay ratio is now 271-to-1.

 According to the Economic Policy Institute’s annual report on executive compensation, released on July 20, chief executives of America’s 350 largest companies made an average of $15.6 million in 2016, or 271 times more than what the typical worker made last year.

The number was slightly lower than it was in 2015, when the average pay was $16.3 million, and the ratio was 286-to-1.   And it was even lower than the highest ratio calculated, 376-to-1 in 2000.

But before we pop any champagne corks because of the slightly lower number, let’s recall that in 1989, after eight years of Ronald Reagan in the White House, the ratio was 59-to-1, and in 1965, in the midst of the Vietnam War and civil rights turmoil, it was 20-to-1.

Let’s reflect on those numbers for a moment.  Just think about how distorted these ratios are and what they say about our country.

Did somebody say “income inequality”?

[This report appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on July 21, 2017.]

 

  1. Smiling

 I’ve written in this blog, at least once before, about the positive results of smiling.  [Please see “If You’re Getting Older, You May Be Getting Nicer,” published on May 30, 2014.]

But I can’t resist adding one more item about smiling.  In a story in The Wall Street Journal in June, a cardiologist named Dr. John Day wrote about a woman, aged 107, whom he met in the small city of Bapan, China.  Bapan is known as “Longevity Village” because so many of its people are centenarians (one for every 100 who live there; the average in the U.S. is one in 5,780).

Day asked the 107-year-old woman how she reached her advanced age.  Noting that she was always smiling, he asked if she smiled even through the hard times in her life.  She replied, “Those are the times in which smiling is most important, don’t you agree?”

Day added the results of a study published in Psychological Science in 2010.  It showed that baseball players who smiled in their playing-card photographs lived seven years longer, on average, than those who looked stern.

So, he wrote, “The next time you’re standing in front of a mirror, grin at yourself.  Then make that a habit.”

[Dr. Day’s article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on June 24-25, 2017.]

 

  1. The Summer of Love

This summer, San Francisco is awash in celebrations of the “Summer of Love,” the name attached to the city’s summer of 1967.   Fifty years later, the SF Symphony, the SF Jazz Center, a bunch of local theaters, even the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, have all presented their own take on it.

Most notably, “The Summer of Love Experience,” an exhibit at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, is a vivid display of the music, artwork, and fashions that popped up in San Francisco that summer.

As a happy denizen of San Francisco for the past 12 years, I showed up at the de Young to see the exhibit for myself.

My favorite part of the exhibit was the sometimes outrageous fashions artfully displayed on an array of mannequins.  Not surprisingly, they included a healthy representation of denim.  Some items were even donated by the Levi’s archives in San Francisco.  [Please see the reference to Levi’s in my post, “They’re My Blue Jeans and I’ll Wear Them If I Want To,” published in May.]

Other fashions featured colorful beads, crochet, appliqué, and embroidery, often on silk, velvet, leather, and suede.  Maybe it was my favorite part of the exhibit because I’ve donated clothing from the same era to the Chicago History Museum, although my own clothing choices back then were considerably different.

Other highlights in the exhibit were perfectly preserved psychedelic posters featuring rock groups like The Grateful Dead, The Doors, and Moby Grape, along with record album covers and many photographs taken in San Francisco during the summer of 1967.  Joan Baez made an appearance as well, notably with her two sisters in a prominently displayed anti-Vietnam War poster.  Rock and roll music of the time is the constant background music for the entire exhibit.

In 1967, I may have been vaguely aware of San Francisco’s Summer of Love, but I was totally removed from it.  I’d just graduated from law school, and back in Chicago, I was immersed in studying for the Illinois bar exam.  I’d also begun to show up in the chambers of Judge Julius J. Hoffman, the federal district judge for whom I’d be a law clerk for the next two years.  [Judge Hoffman will be the subject of a future post or two.]

So although the whole country was hearing news stories about the antics of the thousands of hippies who flocked to Haight-Ashbury and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, my focus was on my life in Chicago, with minimal interest in what was happening 2000 miles away.  For that reason, much of the exhibit at the de Young was brand-new to me.

The curators of the exhibit clearly chose to emphasize the creativity of the art, fashion, and music of the time.  At the same time, the exhibit largely ignores the downside of the Summer of Love—the widespread use of drugs, the unpleasant changes that took place in the quiet neighborhood around Haight-Ashbury, the problems created by the hordes of young people who filled Golden Gate Park.

But I was glad I saw it–twice.

You may decide to come to San Francisco to see this exhibit for yourself.

If you do, please don’t forget:  “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”

 

 

Feeling Lazy? Blame Evolution

I’m kind of lazy.  I admit it. I like to walk, ride a bike, and splash around in a pool, but I don’t indulge in a lot of exercise beyond that.

Now a Harvard professor named Daniel Lieberman says I can blame human evolution.  In a recent paper, “Is Exercise Really Medicine? An Evolutionary Perspective,” he explains his ideas.

First, he says (and this is the sentence I really like), “It is natural and normal to be physically lazy.”  Why?  Because human evolution has led us to exercise only as much as we must to survive.

We all know that our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers and that food was often scarce.  Lieberman adds this idea:  Resting was key to conserving energy for survival and reproduction.  “In other words, humans were born to run—but as little as possible.”

As he points out, “No hunter-gatherer goes out for a jog, just for the sake of it….”  Thus, we evolved “to require stimuli from physical activity.”  For example, muscles become bigger and more powerful with use, and they atrophy when they’re not used.  In the human circulatory system, “vigorous activity stimulates expansion of …circulation,” improves the heart’s ability to pump blood, and increases the elasticity of arteries.  But with less exercise, arteries stiffen, the heart pumps less blood, and metabolism slows.

Lieberman emphasizes that this entire process evolved to conserve energy whenever possible.  Muscles use a lot of calories, making them costly to maintain.  Muscle wasting thus evolved as a way to lower energy consumption when physical activity wasn’t required.

What about now?  Until recently, it was never possible in human history to lead an existence devoid of activity.  The result:  According to Lieberman, the mechanisms humans have always used to reduce energy expenditures in the absence of physical activity now manifest as diseases.

So maladies like heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis are now the consequences of adaptations that evolved to trim energy demand, and modern medicine is now stuck with treating the symptoms.

In the past, hunter-gatherers had to exercise because if they didn’t, they had nothing to eat.  Securing food was an enormous incentive.  But today, for most humans there are very few incentives to exercise.

How do we change that?  Although there’s “no silver bullet,” Lieberman thinks we can try to make activity “more fun for more people.”  Maybe making exercise more “social” would help.  Community sports like soccer teams and fun-runs might encourage more people to get active.

Lieberman has another suggestion.  At his own university, students are no longer required to take physical education as part of the curriculum.  Harvard voted its physical-education requirement out of existence in the 1970s, and he thinks it’s time to reinstate it.  He notes surveys that show that very few students who are not athletes on a team get sufficient exercise.  A quarter of Harvard undergraduates have reported being sedentary.

Because “study after study shows that…people who get more physical activity have better concentration, their memories are better, they focus better,” Lieberman argues that the time spent exercising is “returned in spades…not only in the short term, but also in the long term.  Shouldn’t we care about the long-term mental and physical health of our students?”

Lieberman makes a powerful argument for reinstating phys-ed in those colleges and universities that have dropped it.  His argument also makes sense for those of us no longer in school.

Let’s foil what the millennia of evolution have done to our bodies and boost our own level of exercise as much as we can.

Tennis, anyone?

 

[Daniel Lieberman’s paper was the focus of an article in the September-October 2016 issue of Harvard Magazine.  He’s the Lerner professor of biological sciences at Harvard.]

 

Put some spice into your (longer) life

Do you like spicy food? I do! So I was happy to learn about the mounting evidence that eating spicy food is linked to a longer life.

The New York Times, CNN, and Time magazine recently reported on a Chinese study of nearly half a million people (487,375, to be exact). The mass of data collected in that study showed an association between eating spicy food and a reduced risk of death.

The study, reported in the medical journal BMJ, included Chinese men and women enrolled between 2004 and 2008 and followed for an average of more than seven years. Using self-reported questionnaires, the researchers analyzed the spicy food consumption of people aged 30 to 70 across 10 regions in China, excluding those with cancer, heart disease, and stroke. The researchers controlled for family medical history, age, education, diabetes, smoking, and a host of other variables.

They found that those eating spicy food, mainly food containing chili peppers, once or twice a week had a 10 percent reduced overall risk for death, compared with those eating spicy food less than once a week. Further, they found that consuming spicy food six to seven times a week reduced the risk even more–14 percent.

Spicy food eaters had lower rates of ischemic heart disease, respiratory diseases, and cancers. (Ischemic heart disease, a common cause of death, arises from a reduced blood supply to the heart, usually caused by atherosclerosis.)

Although the researchers drew no conclusions about cause and effect, they pointed out that capsaicin, the main ingredient in chili peppers, had been found in other studies to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.

“There is accumulating evidence from mostly experimental research to show the benefit of spices or their active components on human health,” said Lu Qi, an associate professor of nutrition at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and a co-author of the study. But, he added, “we need more evidence, especially from clinical trials, to further verify these findings, and we are looking forward to seeing data from other populations.”

What’s different about spicy foods? The study highlights the benefits of capsaicin, a bioactive ingredient in chili peppers, which has previously been linked to health perks like increased fat-burning.

But most experts emphasize the need for more research. One such expert is Daphne Miller, associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World, Why They Work and How to Make Them Work for You.”

Miller told CNN that many variables associated with eating spicy food haven’t been addressed in the study. The study itself notes that it lacks information about other dietary and lifestyle habits and how the spicy food was cooked or prepared. “It’s an observational study within a single culture,” she said.

In addition, the researchers note that although chili pepper was the most commonly used spice, the use of other spices tends to increase as the use of chili pepper increases. Consuming these other spices may also result in health benefits.

But Miller said the findings are still plausible, given the fact that spicy foods also have high levels of phenolic content, which are chemicals with nutritional and anti-inflammatory values.

Bio-psychologist John E. Hayes agrees. Hayes, an associate professor of food science and director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Penn State University, has previously studied spicy food and personality association. According to CNN, he notes that chili intake has an overall protective effect. But why? “Is it a biological mechanism or a behavioral mechanism?”

Eating spicy food might work biologically to increase the basil metabolic rate, says Hayes. But it might also slow food intake, causing a person to eat fewer calories.

Although Lu Qi believes the protective effect associated with spicy foods would translate across cultures, Hayes isn’t sure. When we talk about spicy food, “we can mean vastly different things, with different health implications,” Hayes says. “That spicy food could be…vegetables, like kimchee. Or it could be…barbecued spare ribs.”

“This isn’t an excuse to go out and eat 24 wings and then rationalize it by claiming they are going to make you live longer,” Hayes adds.

Let’s not forget that eating spicy foods also has some risks. Spicy food can create problems for people with incontinence or overactive bladders, according to Kristen Burns, an adult urology nurse-practitioner at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. And some believe that spicy foods can aggravate colds or sinus infections.

Another risk is “heartburn.” Does spicy food trigger heartburn in some people? Yes, but not always. According to Lauren Gerson, a gastroenterologist at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, a lot of her patients with heartburn (more precisely acid reflux disease, or GERD), were told by other doctors to stop eating everything on a list of 10 trigger foods. The list included favorite foods like chocolate and spicy food.

Gerson told Nutrition Action that these patients were “miserable because their heartburn wasn’t much better” even when they gave up all of those foods. Gerson and her then-colleagues at Stanford University screened more than 2,000 studies, looking for evidence that avoiding trigger foods helps curb acid reflux systems. They found that there wasn’t “any data out there that if you stop these foods…, GERD would get any better.”

So when the American College of Gastroenterology updated its treatment guidelines for GERD in 2013, it concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence for doctors to advise cutting out a whole list of foods. Instead, patients are advised to avoid certain foods only if that lessens their symptoms. The key seems to be “individualized trigger avoidance,” allowing many heartburn sufferers to enjoy spicy food, so long as it doesn’t make their symptoms worse.

The bottom line? If you like the taste of spicy food, and it doesn’t trigger any adverse effects (like heartburn or weight-gain from too many calories), you should enthusiastically munch on the spicy foods you love. According to the latest research, you just might prolong your life.

Bon appetit!