Life’s Happiness Continuum
Is there a predetermined peak age for happiness, before which our normal outlook is gloomy and melancholy and after which we slump back into these non-euphoric ways? When Are the Best Years of Our Lives?
Studies Show Two Stages of Life Happiness
Like trying to define why some people are born to be joyful and others to play the role of curmudgeon, this issue has long intrigued psychological and social science researchers. While no singular conclusion has been reached, there are a number of compelling hypotheses…and you may be pleasantly surprised to learn that a number of studies suggest a U-shaped happiness curve with peaks for young and old, giving us not one but two stages of life to savor. Mid-life can be stressful, full of the challenges and demands of raising a family and sustaining a career, but according to some experts, there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.
The Economist’s international survey of happiness gathered data from America’s General Social Survey, Eurobarometer and Gallup finding an upward trajectory of happiness until age 30, a downward trend into midlife, with the lowest point reached at age 46, and up to higher levels again after the 50’s. Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the 2018 book, The Happiness Curve, says although its effects vary between individuals, there appears to be a subtle but insistent tug that makes happiness more difficult to achieve in midlife and then reverses direction when we least expect it.
Other research supports this finding, including a University of Chicago retrospective study of 28,000 Americans over a 32-year period which showed older age groups were consistently the happiest. Interestingly, Dr. Dilip Jeste, director of the UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging, describes it not as a curve, but more of a linear improvement in mental health that occurs even as physical and cognitive function declines.
Might Happiness in Women Peak Between the Ages of 50-70?
In particular, today’s women may find some of their sweetest times between ages 50 and 70, according to an in-depth lifestyle study spanning three decades conducted by the TrendSight Group. The take-away for younger generations: “Aging isn’t a dirty word, with it can come incredible confidence, strength and freedom,” says study author Marti Barletta. Even better, a full 59% of women ages 50 to 70 felt their greatest achievements were still ahead of them.
Happiness may Increase with Age
Experts theorize a number of reasons that happiness may increase with age, including increased wisdom or psychological intelligence in handling challenges, fewer aspirations and expectations of self, greater appreciation for life, living in the moment with less worry about the future, greater ability to regulate emotions and less worry about pleasing everyone all the time. Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen’s Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, which is grounded in the unique human ability to monitor time, suggests that relative to younger people, older adults focus more on positive than negative information and prioritize emotionally meaningful activities – notably, deepening close relationships – over those related to individual achievement and exploration.
Recent findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life, begun in 1938, also point to the vital role of relationships in happiness at older ages. According to the research, these ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ or genes. Dr. Robert Waldinger, study director and psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, acknowledges that the research shows correlation, not necessarily causation. However, after following the subjects (including both Harvard graduates and inner-city residents) for many decades and comparing the state of their health and their relationships early on, he is confident that strong social bonds play a causal role in long-term well-being.
Perhaps 19th century journalist David Grayson had the best advice of all: “The other day a man asked me what I thought was the best time of life. ‘Why,’ I answered without a thought, ‘now.’”
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This Too Shall Pass: Treating and Preventing Kidney Stones
More common, frequently less painful and far more preventable than reputed, kidney stones have, entered a new era of highly effective, noninvasive procedures. We bring you up to date on kidney stone treatment & prevention
Q: Why do kidney stones happen?
A: They form when substances such as calcium, oxalate, cystine or uric acid are present at high levels in urine, becoming crystals that gradually increase in size to a stone. According to the Urology Care Foundation, Calcium stones are the most common (80%), with Uric Acid and Struvite / Infection stones making up the other 20%.
Q: How likely am I to experience kidney stones?
A: One in 10 people deal with kidney stones in their lifetime, more frequently men, but in recent years, women are rapidly closing the gap. Genetic factors also play a role: if kidney stones are prevalent among your family members, you are at higher risk of developing them.
Q: Are kidney stones very painful?
A: Over the years, the pain associated with kidney stones has taken on an almost mystical aura, sometimes described as “worse than childbirth.” However, the truth is that not every kidney stone causes intense pain. Some are small enough to pass unnoticed, and many are asymptomatic and only discovered when blood is found in the urine during routine testing. Others are large but can stay in the kidney forever without incident. It is only the stones that become “stuck” on their way out of the body that cause renal colic, or waves of severe pain, which can be promptly treated with pain medication.
Q: Does back pain mean I have kidney stones?
A: This is frequently asked by patients concerned about pain felt in the flank area near the kidney. A careful history will be taken to help determine the location of the pain, but a fairly simple way to distinguish the cause is to change positions. If the pain worsens, it is more likely to be a musculoskeletal type of strain. Kidney stone pain is less likely to be positional.
Q: How do you determine if treatment is needed?
A: A noninvasive, less expensive ultrasound is used for screening, but a spiral computed tomography (CT) scan provides superior imagery used to more accurately pinpoint the stone’s location. If only a partial obstruction is seen and not much pain is involved, time is on your side and we can wait to see if the stone passes naturally. At that point, many patients can rest comfortably at home and may be given antispasmodics (such as Flomax) to relax the ureter, pain medications to manage pain and instructed to drink plenty of water to aid the stone’s passage.
Q: What if it doesn’t pass on its own?
A: It’s reassuring to realize there is no urgency to remove the stone unless the kidney is obstructed or infected or the patient is experiencing intractable pain. And when removal is indicated, urologists (specialists in diseases of the urinary tract) have a number of options available, many of them noninvasive or minimally invasive. Open surgical procedures are a rare event. Instead, an outpatient ureteroscopy can be done, using an endoscope to break up or remove the stone. Even less invasive is lithotripsy, good for small stones, which directs high-energy shock waves toward the stone and breaks it into fragments to more easily pass out of the body. For extremely large or resistant stones, a minimally invasive percutaneous nephrolithotomy is conducted to remove the stone via an endoscope inserted through a small incision in the skin.
Q: What is the best way to prevent kidney stones from forming again?
A: We can take the time to develop an individualized approach, based on your stone’s composition. First, your stone will be tested and categorized as calcium oxalate (the most common type), calcium phosphate, a mix or a non-calcium type. Also recommended is a 24-hour urine collection to form a clear picture of how the crystals form in your body, as well as blood tests for further analysis. While those who have formed stones before are at higher risk for forming a subsequent one, we know that dietary modifications tailored to stone type and – if needed – drug therapy can substantially reduce that risk. If you form calcium oxalate stones, we’ll work on a plan to avoid foods high in oxalate, such as spinach, beets and rhubarb, and keep sodium consumption at a minimum. Also important to know is that despite its role in the stone’s composition, there is no need to restrict calcium. In fact, increasing your calcium intake with higher-calcium foods such as milk, yogurt and cheese can help lower oxalate levels in the urine. Finally, keep in mind that the single best preventive measure is to simply fill a bottle with water and drink often.
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Ramping Up your Sprint Fitness after a Long, Sedentary Winter
Whether you went into hibernation as the result of a record cold winter season, or took time off from your usual exercise routine because of a busy schedule or illness, spring is an ideal time to get back in action. When done with care, starting or rebooting your fitness regimen this spring will set you up for a vibrant, energetic summer. After being cleared for exercise by our office, consider these issues to ensure you’re not sidelined by injury, fatigue or boredom and get the most out of your spring fitness efforts
Aerobic or strengthening exercise?
Both. According to the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, any amount is helpful but the recommendations to help prevent chronic diseases is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity, aerobic activity is recommended each week, and muscle-strengthening activities (free weights or resistance bands) two or more days a week. It would be ideal for older adults to add balance training to the mix. If it’s challenging to find long periods of time to exercise, note that three 10-minute bouts or one 30-minute bout will deliver equal improvements in fitness.
Stretch before or after exercise?
Before, after or both can all work well, if done properly. Do not attempt long stretches beforehand when your muscles are cold and you’re likely to pull a tendon, cautions Christine Butz, Doctor of Physical Therapy at Athletico. Instead, take 10 minutes to pedal on a stationary bike, march in place or walk around. Post exercise is the time for long, 30-second stretches that help you slowly increase muscle length (see below for examples). Most importantly, don’t push through pain, says Butz. “If you experience sharp, persistent pain, or have difficulty moving through a full range of motion, stop and see a physician to determine if it’s a strain, tear or fracture.”
Steady state or interval training?
Once the bastion of elite athletes, interval training can be used at any level, according to Mayo Clinic. Simply alternate short bursts (approximately 30 seconds) of intense activity with longer intervals (three to four minutes) of less intense activity. For instance, if your exercise is walking, try incorporating a brief surge of jogging into your regular walks or alternate leisurely strolling with periods of brisker walking. As your cardiovascular fitness improves, you’ll be able to exercise longer or with more intensity during your spring fitness routine.
What are the best activities to try?
Tap into one of these fitness trends to reinvigorate your workouts:
- Starting with Jazzercise in the 1980s, and rising again in the 2000s with Zumba, both of which remain popular, numerous dance-centric classes are offered at health clubs and park districts – Broadway show routines, tap dancing, belly dancing, Irish dancing, square dancing, line dancing and ballet-inspired barre workouts. Interesting note: a number of studies are in progress exploring the possible benefits of dance in enhancing cognitive function and reducing stress.
- Indoor cycling classes such as SoulCycle, Flywheel and CYC provide a fast-paced, high-energy environment. If you prefer to stay outdoors, but feel a bit unsteady on a 10-speed racer, check out the proliferation of classic cruiser bikes featuring wide, comfortable seats and upright handlebars.
- Yoga and Pilates. Both are low-impact workouts that focus on using bodyweight resistance. Yoga builds strength, balance (ideal for preventing falls) and harmony in mind and body, with breathing exercises, meditation and postures (asana or poses) that stretch and flex various muscle groups. Pilates is excellent for improving core strength and recovering after injury.
- Water classes are another low-impact option to build core muscles and help improve flexibility, stability and balance. Choices include traditional aqua aerobics as well as aqua ballet, aqua yoga and aqua tai chi.
- Functional Training classes are designed to improve balance, coordination, agility, speed and strength, such as BOSU (both sides utilized) ball workouts.
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As almost 10,000 Baby Boomers officially become senior citizens each day, the focus on preventing and treating age-related ailments becomes distinctly more urgent. HealthWise presents an ongoing look at research that provides valuable insights to help today’s seniors – and the generations set to follow – create a vibrant next chapter. We began with strategies to keep the aging brain healthy, and continue in this issue with a look at how your senses, specifically taste and smell, are affected by the aging process. Look for the latest on safeguarding your sight and sound in future editions.
A Taste of the Future
Savoring the sweetness of a rich chocolate, breathing in the scent of a fresh burger on the grill…taste and smell trigger the delights of eating by matching odorous molecules in the air with memories stored in your brain.
Taste buds have helped humans since the beginning of time identify foods as sweet, salty, sour, bitter or savory, and provide a warning not to ingest toxic substances. Forever intertwined with smell, food molecules travel through the rear of the nasal cavity to olfactory receptors in the roof of the nose – that is why if you hold your nose and put chocolate in your mouth, you will not taste the chocolate.
An effortless process for most, recognizing tastes and odors is actually cognitively demanding, and for older people, can be extremely challenging, as these capabilities greatly diminish as we age. Although new neurons continue to form in the olfactory region of the brain into adulthood, by age 50, the sense of smell starts to deteriorate rapidly as the number of sensor cells that detect aroma decrease…by age 80, smell detection is reduced by almost 50 percent. There is also a weakening of the nerves that carry the signals to the brain, and in the olfactory bulb, which processes them. In addition, the sense of smell may be diminished by reduced production of mucous, thinning of the nose lining and hormonal changes.
At the same time, the tongue’s taste buds are on the wane, dwindling from a high of 10,000 to just 5,000 in older adults. Dry mouth, caused by a reduced flow of saliva that is commonly seen in the elderly, or from medications such as antihistamines or antidepressants, also cause a loss of taste perception.
Why this matters: The ability to detect odors from spoiled foods, gas leaks and smoke is critical to safety. Taste issues means food becomes less appealing, and unhealthy amounts of sugar or salt may be added to food to make it more palatable, or less food is eaten, potentially leading to nutrition problems.
Preserve, protect and adapt
While there may not yet be a way to completely halt the decline, experts recommend a number of strategies to sharpen your senses of smell and taste and keep them working longer and better:*
Take brisk walks daily…exercise heightens the smell sense.
- Conduct your own sniff therapy by inhaling the scent of items such as peppermint and cinnamon first thing in the morning, sparking different receptors in the nose to work.
- Quit smoking…tobacco smoking impairs the ability to identify odors and diminishes the sense of taste.
- Reduce your risk of head injury by wearing protective helmets during sports and seat belts when riding in the car…trauma to the head can damage olfactory nerves.
- Treat nasal or sinus infections promptly, a primary cause of smell problems. The same advice holds for treating nasal polyps, small, non-cancerous growths in the nose or sinuses
that can block the ability of odors to reach olfactory sensory cells.
- Consider a change in medications that may be affecting your sense of smell, such as anti-allergy medicines.
- Choose foods that are naturally stronger flavored, such as mustard, pickles, radishes and peppers; add herbs and spices instead of salt. Use sun-dried tomatoes, vinegars, concentrate fruit sauces, extracts of almond, vanilla, citrus juice and peels to enhance tastes. Eat a variety of foods and textures, and change it up at every bite to keep your taste buds firing.
- Get an annual flu shot to help you avoid respiratory and ear infections that can interfere with taste.
- Practice good oral hygiene…take care of gum disease, inflammation or infections in the mouth, which can cause taste problems.
Finally, buy safety products, such as a gas detector that sounds an alarm you can hear.
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HealthWise presents an ongoing look at research that provides valuable insights to help today’s seniors – and the generations set to follow – create a vibrant next chapter. We have looked at strategies to keep the aging brain healthy and to protect the aging senses. In this issue, we get under your skin to learn how to keep it supple and resilient over the years. Wrinkles. Dry skin. Crow’s feet. Undereye circles. Sagging. Is there a way to stave off these very natural signs of aging? The answer is yes…and no. The thickening of the stratum corneum (the outer layer of the epidermis) which causes drier and flakier skin, is inevitable, as is the thinning of the dermis (underneath the epidermis), resulting in loss of elasticity. Genetics plays a pivotal role in determining when this starts to occur. However, there are a number of preventive steps you can take – some well-known and a few unexpected – which may help mature skin keep its youthful glow at 50, 60 and beyond.
- Cut your sun exposure in half, at a minimum. UV exposure damages elastin and causes a loss of collagen, which results in sagging, fine lines and wrinkles. Think of sunscreen as the only truly magic elixir to improve skin appearance and health, and most importantly, prevent skin cancer…and choose one with SPF 30 or above and broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection and use daily. In addition, wear a hat and UV-protective clothing outside, and try and avoid being in the sun when UV rays are strongest, between 11 am and 1 pm.
- Exercise. Another benefit to engaging in at least three hours of physical activity weekly is the positive impact on keeping skin younger, with the potential to reverse skin aging even for those
who start exercising late in life. New research showed that men and women over age 65 who exercised frequently had skin composition similar to 20 to 40-year-olds, with markedly thinner,
healthier stratum corneums and thicker dermis layers. Participants’ skin “looked like that of a much younger person, and all they had done differently was exercise.” Researchers surmised
that myokines, substances created by working muscles, may be responsible for the results, jump starting changes in cells far from the muscles themselves. They also noted that it was
unlikely that any pill or salve would replicate the skin benefits of a workout.
- Take short, lukewarm showers. Long, hot showers strip your skin of its natural oils.
- Protect in winter with a humidifier to add moisture to the home, and gloves to protect your hands from drying out.
- Focus on the right foods and beverages. Include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your diet, preferably from natural sources such as olive oil and fish, to help protect your skin’s
moisture barrier. Cut back on sugars which promote inflammation and can potentially damage normal production of dermal cells. Avoid high glycemic foods such as white bread and pretzels, which may also be responsible for prematurely aging skin. Drink plenty of water, but moderate alcohol intake – red wine can dilate blood vessels and contribute to rosacea, a skin irritation.
- Establish a smart night routine. Remove all makeup and wash your face before bed to eliminate the pollutants that break down your skin’s collagen all day. Then apply a retinoid followed
by a moisturizer.
- Get a good night’s sleep. During the deepest stage of sleep, your body releases growth hormones for cell repair, helping your skin rejuvenate on a daily basis.
- Minimize dark undereye circles with an extra nighttime pillow. As the delicate skin and muscle around the eyes weaken with time, the fat under the lower-lid skin can pool beneath your eye. Sleeping on two pillows can help prevent fluid accumulation.
If you want to explore other remedies, consider peels that exfoliate, and fractional resurfacing, a laser process that increases collagen production.
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In the not so distant past, age-related macular degeneration (AMD), characterized by a loss of central vision, was deemed just another unfortunate consequence of growing older. The gradual breakdown of light-sensing retinal tissue that results in a blind spot directly ahead has caused each generation to struggle with driving a car, reading a printed page or recognizing a friend’s face. As the population ages, the sheer number of people affected grows rapidly. Another case of AMD is diagnosed every three minutes in the U.S. More than 2.1 million Americans with advanced AMD now will grow to 3.7 million by the year 2030, according to the National Eye Institute, who warns the condition will soon take on aspects of an epidemic. A surge of clinical trials and investigative research aims to prevent that from happening, with sights set firmly on restorative, curative solutions.
Scientists exploring the possible causes have made much progress isolating a group of genes that increases the likelihood of an individual developing AMD. Other studies point to inflammation as the trigger. The macula needs a constant, rich blood supply to work correctly, and any interference such as narrowing of the blood vessels, fatty plaque deposits, or a shortage of antioxidants, can cause the macula to malfunction and become diseased.
Treatments have likewise advanced. Last fall, a decades-old drug used to treat HIV/AIDS was reported in Science as unexpectedly exhibiting the capability to halt retinal degeneration. Nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, known as NRTIs, are already FDA-approved and can be rapidly and inexpensively translated into therapies for both dry and wet AMD (see sidebar), say the study’s authors. At the same time, a nanosecond laser treatment was successfully used to reduce drusen (small fatty deposits beneath the retina) and the thickening of Bruch’s membrane, both hallmark features of early AMD. Importantly, the structure of the retina remained intact, suggesting “this treatment has the potential to reduce AMD progression,” according to Medical News Today. Stem cell transplantation shows enormous promise, as reported in Lancet, with sight restored long-term to a group of patients with severe vision loss. Additionally, injectible drugs and pills that target inflammation associated with AMD are in nationwide trials.
Technological innovations to help AMD patients include the 2013 introduction of a miniature telescope implanted behind the iris to magnify images. Google is moving into the space with a patent for a contact lens containing a built-in camera that will enable audible warnings via a remote device, detect and describe faces, and act as a text reader.
Today’s AMD patients have no shortage of low-vison aids to help them adapt and live well. Google is developing a patent for a contact lens containing a built-in camera that will enable audible warnings via a remote device, detect and describe faces, and act as a text reader. Additional solutions range from ‘smart’ thermostats, watches and remote controls to talking devices.
Finally, understanding who is at risk for developing AMD can be key to prevention. These include: white, female, smoker, family member with AMD, high blood pressure, lighter eye color, obesity, and possibly, over-exposure to sunlight. To minimize risk, follow a healthy diet with plenty of leafy green vegetables and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, exercise to keep weight and blood pressure under control, eliminate tobacco use, and wear sunglasses to protect from UV rays and high-energy visible (HEV) radiation.
When Dry Becomes Wet
Diagnosis of AMD is first confirmed with a visual acuity exam and testing with an Amsler grid. Those with AMD see the grid’s straight lines as wavy or blurred with dark areas at the center. Additional tests help determine the type of AMD — the dry form affects about 85 percent of AMD patients, and in about 10 to 15 percent of cases, progresses to wet. The difference is significant. The wet form usually leads to more serious vision loss, caused by new blood vessels that leak fluid and blood beneath the retina, resulting in permanent damage. While no treatment currently exists for dry AMD, in the last decade, a number of effective therapies have been implemented for wet AMD. These include monthly, intraocular injections (anti-VEGF) to inhibit a protein that stimulates formulation of new blood vessels, photodynamic or ‘cold’ laser treatment, thermal (heat) laser photocoagulation…and on the horizon are topical eyedrops that may someday replace injections. Nutritional supplements containing antioxidant vitamins, lutein and zeaxanthin are also effective in reducing the chances of dry AMD worsening to wet.
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