Category / Nutrition Diet

Can the Mediterranean Diet Delay or Prevent Dementia?

July 9, 2019

In this 'Ask the Expert' column, a dietitian explains the possibilities
By The American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR)

Before earning her doctorate in public health nutrition from Queen’s University Belfast in 2012 and embarking on a research career there, registered dietitian Claire McEvoy spent a decade working in clinical nutrition for the National Health Service in Northern Ireland.

That experience, “supporting people to make appropriate and evidence-based dietary choices has completely influenced the type of research I do,” she says. McEvoy studies how different types of dietary habits in people affect their health and “healthspan,” which means the number of years of good health humans can enjoy toward the end of life.

“The Mediterranean diet may have a beneficial impact on cognitive health because it improves our vascular health.”

As a 2015 recipient of the American Federation for Aging Research’s Paul B. Beeson Emerging Leaders Career Development Award in Aging, McEvoy has focused her fellowship research on the Mediterranean diet and other healthy dietary habits.

She says she wants “to increase our knowledge on how diet contributes to cognitive health during aging, and to understand how best we can support dietary behavior change at different life stages to improve health and well-being. Ultimately, my goal is to identify effective dietary strategies to prevent and treat cognitive disorders during aging.”

McEvoy and other AFAR-supported researchers are driving discoveries that move us closer to extending healthspan.

In addition to regular columns by AFAR’s Scientific Director Steven N. Austad, AFAR is excited to share insights from the field of aging research through this “Ask the Expert” interview (previous interviews have addressed age-related dementia research, cancer research and the effects of younger blood on aging).

AFAR recently talked with McEvoy about the link between nutrition and cognitive decline, and the implications of her research for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, and healthy aging.

AFAR: What should people know about the link between diet and brain health, especially as it relates to the Mediterranean diet and healthy aging?

Claire McEvoy: It’s generally believed that what’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and that is why most research into diet and brain health to date has focused on the traditional Mediterranean diet.

It’s proven to be effective for reducing both primary and secondary cardiovascular disease and has also shown clinically significant benefits for several cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as cholesterol profiles, high blood pressure, fasting glucose level and inflammatory biomarkers, which are also risk factors for cognitive decline.

The traditional Mediterranean diet is plant-based, rich in fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and moderate in fish and nuts. It also includes alcohol that tends to be consumed with meals. This diet is generally low in processed foods, sugary foods and red meat.

Observational evidence, while inconsistent, tends to support the Mediterranean diet for brain health as well as cardiovascular health.

However, the effects of this diet’s changes on cognitive function have been tested in few intervention studies. Preliminary results have shown improvement in cognitive function for people who are at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

Some research has focused on single nutrients, like vitamin E, or B vitamins. Very often, however, the evidence is mixed, likely because of differences in the types of populations studied and the diverse nature of vitamin supplements tested.

Some people with nutrient deficiencies may experience cognitive benefit from vitamin supplements. However, most people in the general population will derive greater health benefits from improving the quality of their regular diet rather than relying on vitamin supplements.

In two recent studies, you looked at how different types of dietary habits, including the Mediterranean diet, affect cognitive function in older adults and people in midlife. What are the most important takeaways so far?

We investigated the Mediterranean diet in the well-known Health and Retirement Study and the Coronary Artery Risk Development In Young Adults (CARDIA) study and found that greater adherence to the this way of eating was associated with better cognitive health in both older and younger adults.

In the most recent study conducted with Dr. Kristine Yaffe and other CARDIA investigators, the most important take-home message is that maintaining healthy dietary practices that align with the Mediterranean diet during young adulthood can help to preserve cognitive function even at midlife.

That is an important point. Because diet is likely to provide subtle, but cumulative, protective effects on brain health throughout a person’s lifetime that help to reduce the risk of, or at least slow down, cognitive decline as we get older, and potentially help to delay dementia in late life.

What are some of the key points research is revealing about the science behind the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet?

In our dietary analyses, we’ve found that individual foods on their own tend to have weaker associations with health outcomes compared with overall dietary habits. Therefore, while single foods and nutrients may be important, the combination of foods and nutrients within a person’s diet can act together to have greater biological effects.

In addition, we’re beginning to understand more about the mechanisms of how a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, affect brain health. These insights come from a range of studies in both animals and humans. The Mediterranean diet may have a beneficial impact on cognitive health because it improves our vascular health.

The Mediterranean diet and other high-quality diets also have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that could protect against cognitive decline and dementia.

Your current research would seem to have larger implications regarding nutrition and healthy aging. Where do you think this might lead?

I am very much a public health researcher, so I want to help inform dietary recommendations that will benefit brain health throughout a person’s life to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The Mediterranean diet is clearly an important dietary pattern for overall healthy aging. But it should be emphasized that we don’t yet know the optimal combination of foods and nutrients for brain health.

One of the most interesting aspects of diet is that it has the potential to influence the development of several diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer.

Addressing poor-quality diets and diet-related disease in our population should be a major policy focus for healthy aging. While it is important to generate robust evidence of ‘what works,’ a key challenge going forward will be to find effective ways to promote and support healthy dietary habits in people for disease prevention and healthy aging.

By The American Federation for Aging Research (AFAR)

The American Federation for Aging Research is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to support and advance healthy aging through biomedical research.@

Our Brains Need Exercise, Too

March 12, 2019

Learn the ways you can have a positive effect on your cognitive health
By Paula Spencer Scott

The basics of heart health have been drilled into our brains: Eat less saturated fat. Keep moving. Know your “numbers” for cholesterol, blood pressure and BMI.

But what about that brain itself? Although life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900, our “mindspan” — how long we stay cognitively healthy — hasn’t kept pace.

Forgetfulness, slower processing and feeling less sharp plague most of us as we age. One in five people develops mild cognitive impairment, a decline in thinking skills beyond normal aging, which may or may not advance to dementia. After 65, your odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease are one in 10.

It doesn’t have to be that way, mounting research suggests.

“The very term ‘age-related memory loss’ may be a misnomer,” says neurologist Dr. Richard Isaacson, an Alzheimer’s specialist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York.

Time and genetics alone don’t erode brain functions. How we spend our lives managing the modifiable risk factors that affect our genes is highly significant for our brain health, researchers say.

That’s why you’re likely to hear a lot more in the coming years about brain health and what you can do for your own. Educating the public on this is, in fact, one of the four core purposes of the Centers for Disease Control’s Healthy Brain Initiative, which recently kicked off its 2018-2023 road map for public health agencies, says program leader Lisa McGuire.

Brain Health: Stop Thinking There’s Nothing You Can Do

“Awareness of the steps to improve cognitive brain function is at least a generation behind that of heart health,” says cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Bond Chapman, director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas.

When our fathers and grandparents died of a heart attack or stroke, we chalked it up to tragic luck. Clogged arteries, high blood pressure and high cholesterol were considered normal features of aging before 1948, when Congress commissioned researchers to begin tracking the cardiovascular lives of some 5,200 residents of Framingham, Mass.

The Framingham Heart Study (now three generations old and still going) introduced the phrase “risk factors” to the medical lexicon and helped prove which prevention tactics work.

Today, it’s the brain we’re in the dark about. In a review of public awareness studies by PLOS One, a nonprofit, peer-reviewed, online scientific journal, nearly half of the respondents mistakenly believed Alzheimer’s disease is a normal process of aging that you can’t do anything about. In reality, a third or more of dementia cases can be delayed or prevented by lifestyle factors, according to a 2017 report sponsored by the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention, Intervention and Care.

Read on to find out what we can do to help our brains stay in shape.

Use Brain Health to Motivate Your Health Habits

Advances in neuroimaging kicked off this new era of brain health by allowing scientists to see inside the brain. Intervention studies on how lifestyle affects brain function are newer still.

One of the largest such investigations to date, the BrainHealth Project, launched in December. Researchers across more than a dozen institutions will study 120,000 subjects to find out how cognitive training, sleep, nutrition, exercise and more can extend mental strength over time.

What’s already clear: All health roads lead to the brain. “The No. 1 cause of cognitive decline is healthy people letting their brains decline,” says Chapman, the BrainHealth Project’s director.

That’s powerful motivation the next time you’re tempted to skip a workout or not opt for a healthy meal, do nothing about stress or loneliness, or avoid treatment for conditions like depression, anxiety, diabetes and sleep apnea. Effects of all of these choices, and many others, travel north.

Resist Too Much Habit and Routine

A particular challenge from midlife and beyond is the brain’s natural inclination to steer toward efficiency. It figures out the easiest, most comfortable ways to get something done and hits repeat.

But while toweling dry in the same mechanical pattern every morning allows you to get on with the day quickly, running your whole life as a creature of habit — doing the same things, seeing the same people — deprives the brain of something else it craves: newness and challenge.

Hallmarks of brain-stimulating activities that improve cognitive abilities, according to a 2017 report by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) are novelty, high engagement, mental challenge and enjoyableness.

If you like crosswords, fine, but push beyond to new games and challenges. Good examples from the GCBH: Tai chi, researching genealogy, picking up an old hobby you dropped, making art and community volunteering. When activities include a social component, so much the better.

Be Aggressive About Blood Pressure

In 2018, a groundbreaking study became the latest persuasive link between heart health and brain health. Researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., showed for the first time that lowering blood pressure can significantly reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

Standard medical care had long included a systolic blood pressure of above 140 as the target defining hypertension and requiring treatment. (Systolic pressure is the first number in a blood pressure reading, as in “140 over 80.”) In 2017, that definition was revised to 130 by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology.

The recent, long-term, large-scale SPRINT-MIND clinical trial, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, found that the more aggressively high blood pressure was treated toward reaching a systolic pressure below 120, the lower the risk of MCI. Treatment measures included a combination of not smoking, medication management, nutrition counseling, social and cognitive stimulation and exercise.

Work Your Brain Harder, But Not by Multitasking

Your brain grooves on doing — but only one thing at a time. Multitasking stresses it.

Researchers say one better alternative is a cognitive exercise called “strategic attention.” The Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training program at the University of Texas at Dallas, advises this: Every day, pick two substantial tasks requiring fairly deep thinking. They might be tracking and analyzing your household budget, planning a vacation, writing a memo or following a complex new recipe.

Then carve out two 30-minute sessions to focus without interruption. Turn off email alerts. Shut the door. No quick scrolls through your news feed that will take you off your task. It takes up to 20 minutes to refocus after a disruption.

Over time, you’ll find that you’ll achieve much more, and much more quickly, with improved attention. It’s the equivalent to your brain of a good workout at the gym.

Do (the Right Kind of) Nothing

It’s not all about activity. The brain needs two kinds of downtime to function optimally: Rest and sleep.

Rest means taking intentional breaks from active thinking. Try taking five minutes, five times a day, to sit still and do nothing, Chapman says. Other routes to mental R&R include mindfulness, meditation and yoga nidra (also known as iRest and sleep yoga).

Not least, there’s sleep itself. Our awareness of how important it is to the brain grew with the discovery of the body’s glymphatic system — a kind of internal trash-hauling system — less than a decade ago. The system’s pace increases by over 60 percent during sleep, a possible link to why getting more sleep is linked with a reduced dementia risk. Alzheimer’s prevention experts recommend eight to nine hours a night, Isaacson says.

By Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and An Oral History: Preserve Your Family's Story. A longtime journalist, she's also an Alzheimer's and caregiving educator.@PSpencerScott

Understanding the Types of Rehab for Stroke Therapy

February 15, 2019

A breakdown of the various offerings and where insurance fits in
By Lisa Fields

After a stroke, only about 10 percent of people recover almost completely without intervention. For everyone else, therapy is a crucial part of the recovery process. Whether you need physical, occupational and/or speech therapy following a stroke depends on your needs, but the goal is the same: to help you regain control of your body and be independent once again. The therapy you receive should be tailor-made to suit your lifestyle.

“Is the goal returning to driving or returning to work, or (is the person) a retiree who needs to take care of their own bodily functions and participate in playing with a grandchild?” says Glen Gillen, professor and director of programs in occupational therapy at Columbia University in New York and a fellow of the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Kinds of Rehabilitation Facilities

Most stroke patients stay in the hospital for five to six days. Their therapy needs are assessed within the first two days, and therapy may begin on the second. Some patients are sent home from the hospital right away. They may receive outpatient therapy sessions three times a week or get therapy at home from visiting nurses or therapists.

“If they’re higher-functioning, they can potentially go to outpatient therapy, if they have the means to get there,” Gillen says. “That is a challenge for many.”

Many stroke patients are discharged from the hospital to inpatient rehabilitation facilities, where they receive therapy at an intensity that’s best for their needs, based on the severity of the disability. Some go to acute inpatient rehab facilities, which offer the most intense therapy for the most responsive patients. Those with a greater degree of impairment may be sent to “subacute rehab” facilities, where the therapy isn’t as intense as acute rehab.

At acute rehab facilities, “people are guaranteed a minimum of three hours of therapy a day, and a physician visits six days a week,” says Dr. Alexander Dromerick, professor of rehabilitation medicine and neurology and chairman of rehabilitation medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. “(At a subacute facility), they may get a few minutes a day, up to two hours a day, of therapy, and a physician visits every few weeks. They’re very different levels of intensity of care.”

Patients who are making great strides in a subacute facility might be moved to an acute facility for more intense therapy. Those who don’t have the endurance to tolerate an acute facility’s therapy, might be transferred to a subacute facility. “A subacute unit can be a way station back to the community,” Dromerick says, “or it can be a way station to go to a nursing home for the long term.”

Types of Therapy for Stroke Patients

Stroke patients often need physical therapy to strengthen their muscles, retrain their sense of balance and coordination and relearn certain movements. They may need occupational therapy to ensure they can do the tasks associated with daily living, like getting dressed, feeding themselves, showering or relearning skills necessary to return to work. Speech therapy also might be required to relearn how to speak or swallow food.

“Sometimes occupational therapists and physical therapists work together, but occupational therapists focus more on mobility activities that have to do with returning to work or returning to their role in their family or community,” says Carolee Winstein, professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy and director of the Motor Behavior and Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at the University of Southern California. “Physical therapists work on fundamental skills that are needed to be functional in their particular life, whatever it is. We work a lot on mobility. We teach people a lot about the importance of remaining physically active.”

Physical therapists help patients overcome physical challenges — this includes when a stroke has weakened or partially paralyzed one side of the body. Medical professionals refer to that side as “paretic.”

“If they’re having trouble reaching and grasping with their paretic side, I have them do it with their less paretic side to remind them what it should feel like,” Winstein says. “A lot of motor skills are implicit — we don’t think; we do it automatically.”

Occupational and speech therapists also address cognitive challenges.

“We consider most tasks physical, like dressing yourself, (but) all tasks that we do across the day have a cognitive component,” Gillen says. “With getting dressed, it’s the sequence of the clothing: which goes on what body part, which goes on first. If cognition is involved after a stroke, it’s a time-consuming process. We know it will take much longer, much more repetition of practice to get them there.”

Insurance Plans Could Limit Therapy

Health insurance may limit how much therapy a person can receive during a single calendar year or during his or her lifetime. If a person can afford to pay out of pocket, he or she may continue therapy without interruption. Otherwise, many therapists offer plans that patients can follow at home or at a fitness center either on their own or with the help of a family member, friend or personal trainer.

“You can keep working on the stroke problems indefinitely,” Dromerick says.

Therapists hope to get stroke patients functioning independently again, even after their sessions are complete.

“They may need a cane and a brace, but (we teach) them how to navigate with their disability so their disability does not become a barrier in their participation of being active,” Winstein says. “If there are certain things they can’t do, we show them what they can do and get them to work on those things.”

To learn more about stroke rehab and recovery, check out the American Stroke Association’s website.

By Lisa Fields
Lisa Fields is a writer who covers psychology and health matters as they relate to the workplace. She publishes frequently in WebMD and Reader’s Digest.

5 Hidden Causes of Heart Disease

January 25, 2019

What can increase your risk and how to prevent it
By Frieda Wiley, PharmD

Heart disease kills about 610,000 people in the United States each year — 1 in every 4 deaths — more than any other disease, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s commonly known that exercise and eating a healthful diet are keys to keeping your heart in tip top shape. But there are seemingly unrelated conditions and lifestyle habits that can lead to heart disease.

Here are five lesser-known causes of heart disease that you can do something about: Sleep apnea; stress, anxiety and loneliness; sitting all day, influenza and dental disease.

  1. Sleep Apnea

“Sleep apnea is very common, especially as we get older, and it puts enormous stress on the heart,” says Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver.

People who have sleep apnea tend to also have other conditions that are associated with the disease, such as high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (a kind of irregular heartbeat) or pulmonary hypertension, which Freeman defines as high blood pressure on the right side of the heart.

Symptoms of sleep apnea include daytime sleepiness, memory problems and irritability. Being overweight or obese and even structural features, such as having a big chin or tongue, may also make you more likely to develop sleep apnea, according to the American Lung Association.

Premenopausal women are less likely to have sleep apnea than men, but postmenopausal women and men of any age share similar risks. After reaching adulthood, sleep apnea becomes more common with age until you reach 60, when the chances of developing it begin to taper off.

One way to treat sleep apnea is to use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine at night. However, Dr. Mark Peterman, a cardiologist at Texas Health in Plano, says that many people find the machine uncomfortable to use. Other treatment options, depending on the severity of the problem, include weight loss, oral appliances (similar to a mouth guard), nasal decongestants and surgery.

  1. Stress, Anxiety and Loneliness

Stress can have powerful effects on the body that wreak havoc on your health. Some stresses, such as learning a new language or skill, can be positive. But Freeman says the majority of stress people experience, like worrying about children or finances, tend to have negative effects on the body.

While it might be difficult to see the connection, the lack of social interaction and fulfilling relationships also impacts heart health.

“It might sound strange to hear a heart doctor talk about love, but people need what we call social support and connection,” Freeman says. “People don’t talk about it much, but people who lack social support or are lonely are at higher risk for heart disease and depression.”

The American Heart Association says that, while stress can harm the heart, researchers still haven’t quite figured out the role stress plays in causing heart disease. Even for those who manage stress well, keeping up with life in our increasingly fast-paced world can still take its toll.

“Treating stress with medication can be difficult, so it usually requires counseling and lifestyle changes,” Peterman says.

  1. Sitting All Day

We hear a lot about how important exercise is to keep your body and mind in shape. Studies also show that sitting the majority of the day increases your chance of developing heart disease.

In a 2014 study of how a sedentary lifestyle affects blood pressure, researchers found a strong association between a sedentary lifestyle and an increase in blood pressure. This finding was independent of time spent in moderate to vigorous exercise. A 2015 study came up with similar findings: Sitting down the majority of the day can increase your risk for heart disease, stroke and even diabetes — even if you exercise an hour a day.

Luckily, this heart risk factor is easily remedied with increasing physical activity. If you’re having trouble getting started, Peterman suggests technological devices like Fitbits to help you become more aware of your daily movement and motivate you to exercise.

  1. Influenza

If you think the only consequences of getting the flu are having body aches, a runny nose and fever for a week or two, think again. The flu can increase the risk for heart problems stemming from the inflammation it causes.

Peterman says the flu has been linked to increased risk of heart trouble between the months of October and February. One study published in the 2016 found that people who had the flu were six times more likely to have a heart attack within the first seven days of their condition being confirmed with laboratory testing.

Sounds like your doctor may have more than one reason for recommending you get a flu shot.

  1. Dental Disease

Dental health is important for more reasons than a great smile; it can also work wonders for your heart.

Mouth issues like cavities and gum disease can trigger chronic inflammation, which Peterman warns can speed up hardening of the arteries, or atherosclerosis, causing the risk of heart problems to soar.

But not to worry. This problem is easily remedied by maintaining good brushing and flossing habits along with regular trips to the dentist.

How to Reduce Body Inflammation

Freeman says these five hidden causes of heart disease lead to inflammation in the body, which is the root of other common diseases, including cancer, diabetes and arthritis. Luckily, there are four key practices you can adopt to put your body in anti-inflammatory mode and strengthen your heart in the process:

  • Eat a predominantly plant-based diet; limit your consumption of animal-based products.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of brisk activity each day.
  • Make time for a little stress relief each day. Prayer, yoga, meditation or anything else that helps you become more mindful and live in the moment helps.
  • Build a strong social network so you feel connected, supported and loved.

“Switching the body into an anti-inflammatory healing environment is what we’re trying to do to get people to heal,” Freeman says.

Hopefully these extra tips will help you take a load off your heart — and your life.

By Frieda Wiley, PharmD

Frieda Wiley, PharmD, CGP, RPh, is a board-certified geriatric pharmacist and freelance medical writer based in the Piney Woods of East Texas. She enjoys using her background in patient care to empower people with more knowledge about living well.@frieda_wiley

Simple Steps to Keep the Deadly C. Diff Infection at Bay

January 22, 2019

The contagious bacterial infection can be more serious for older adults
By Mark Ray

When you were a child, did you worry about monsters hiding under your bed or lurking behind your closet door? It turns out one monster — clostridium difficile, or C. diff — may actually be closer at hand, at least in hospitals and nursing homes.

Transmitted via fecal matter, the C. diff bacterial infection can cause severe diarrhea, nausea, fever, dehydration, abdominal pain, kidney failure and even death. Older adults are more vulnerable to it because of naturally weaker immune systems, more likelihood of underlying health issues and more time spent in health care settings.

  1. diff is resistant to some antibiotics, but there are some shown to work against it. In serious and recurrent C. diff cases, patients may undergo a fecal transplant or surgery to remove a portion of the colon.
  2. diff spores adhere to every imaginable surface, including toilet seats, faucet handles, doorknobs, linens, bedrails, nurse call buttons, chair arms, ceiling vents and even floors. A 2017 study in the United Kingdom detected it in floor corners in 86 percent of hospital rooms that had undergone routine cleaning.

Since its spores resist standard cleaning methods and alcohol-based hand wipes, C. diff is tough to eradicate. “We know those spores can last nine months or more in a room,” says Dr. Kate Mullane, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Chicago Medicine. “It takes a high concentration of bleach to kill the spores: a cup of bleach in a gallon of water.”

And killing the spores is critically important because C. diff itself is a killer. The most common microbial cause of health care-associated infections in the United States today, it causes nearly half a million infections and 15,000 deaths annually — almost as many deaths as drunk driving and HIV/AIDS combined,  according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Eighty percent of C. diff deaths occur among people 65 and older, and one in 11 patients in that age group dies within 30 days of diagnosis.

A two-pronged approach can keep this microscopic, but deadly killer, at bay. Prong one is antibiotic stewardship; prong two is infection control.

Antibiotic Stewardship

You’ve doubtless heard the world uses far too many antibiotics, wasting money and contributing to the growing problem of antimicrobial resistance. The Pew Charitable Trusts reported that 30 percent of outpatient antibiotic prescriptions in the U.S. are unnecessary (antibiotics prescribed for a viral infection, for example).

Doctors are getting more judicious in their use of antibiotics, but Mullane says patients should still talk with their doctors about the drugs they’re prescribing. If you can avoid antibiotics, or at least broad-spectrum antibiotics, you will be less vulnerable to C. diff. This is because, along with the bad bacteria the drugs are after, antibiotics also kill much of the good bacteria in our intestines. This leaves C. diff an opportunity to overwhelm the gut and cause illness.

  1. Diff Infection Control

Given C. diff’s persistence in health care environments, it’s also important to prevent transmission between patients, health care workers and visitors — including people who aren’t symptomatic.

“We know at any one time, about 5 percent of the population is colonized with C. diff,” Mullane says. “They may not be sick with it, but they’re at least carrying it.”

The easiest way to stop transmission is with proper handwashing, according to Anna Barker., a researcher in the medical scientist training program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Even with hospital-grade hand sanitizer, which in many cases is pretty similar to what you would buy out in the community, you do still need to use soap and water,” she says.

“It’s not only the soap and water (that gets rid of the germs), it’s the friction and having your hands under the tap water, which you just don’t get when you use (hand sanitizer) gel,” Barker says. A good rule of thumb to make sure you get rid of the germs: Wash your hands for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday to You.

But hand hygiene is just the beginning. In the April 2018 issue of the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, Barker and two colleagues reported their research on the effectiveness of nine discrete C. diff hospital interventions, including everything from patient hand hygiene to terminal cleaning (deep cleaning of a room after a patient is discharged).

Using computer models, Barker and her colleagues found that daily room cleaning with a sporicidal cleaner plus screening for C. diff at the time of admission reduces hospital-associated infections by roughly 82 percent and asymptomatic colonization by about 91 percent.

“When hospitals try to combat their C. diff rates, they’ll end up doing lots of things at once,” Barker says. “This paper showed you can get a considerable reduction in C. diff with only those two interventions.”

What Patients Can Do

While patients don’t have much control over infection-control practices in a hospital or clinic, they can take two concrete actions.

The first is to ask health care providers if they’ve remembered to wash their hands.

“That’s easier said than done given everything we know about power dynamics and the patient-doctor relationship, but I think that really has a potential to make a big impact,” Barker says.

The other action, perhaps surprisingly, is to reduce the clutter in hospital patient rooms.

“One of the things we hear from the cleaning staff is that it’s very difficult to clean a patient’s room effectively if there are newspapers everywhere or books or food or other items throughout the room,” Barker says. “They can’t, at least at our institution, move the patient’s things for them.”

While decluttering your hospital room may not be quite as simple as switching on the lights to banish an under-bed monster, it can go a long way toward keeping you safe from C. diff.

Mark Ray is a freelance writer who has written for Scouting, Eagles’ Call, Presbyterians Today, Kentucky Homes & Gardens and other publications. He has also written, edited and/or contributed to a dozen books for the Boy Scouts and the Presbyterian and United Methodist churches.

8 Reasons You’re Losing Sleep

January 8, 2019

Avoid these culprits to get a better night's rest
By Sheryl Kraft

E-READERS

As if there weren’t enough things keeping you tossing and turning each night, here’s a new one: Using short-wave, blue light-emitting e-readers, like the iPad, iPhone, Nook Color, Kindle and Kindle Fire before bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep, according to a December 2014 study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“When blue light hits the optic nerve, it tells the brain to stop producing melatonin,” which is “the key that starts the engine for sleep,” says Michael Breus, diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “This is especially problematic, since as you get older, the ability to produce melatonin becomes even more compromised.”

Fixes: Open up a real book instead. (Remember those?) If giving up your e-reader is impossible, look for screens and glasses that can block the sleep-stealing blue light on websites like Lowbluelights.com.(MORE: 6 Habits That Ruin a Great Night’s Sleep)

BEING OVERWEIGHT

Carry extra pounds, especially in the neck and trunk section, and it’s more likely you’ll suffer from sleep apnea, which causes your airway to become blocked or obstructed during sleep, robbing you of quality deep sleep. The condition affects 90 percent of obese men, though it’s not purely a man’s disease. The Cleveland Clinic reports that after menopause, it’s just as likely to affect women. Even more disturbing, it goes undiagnosed in as many as 80 percent of those who get a lousy night’s sleep.

“Sleep apnea can mask itself as fatigue, trouble with concentration, dry mouth or even depression,” Breus states.

Unfortunately, the relationship between sleep apnea and obesity is a bit of a chicken-egg scenario. Do sufferers have problems because they’re obese, or is their obesity stoked by their compromised sleep? No one knows for sure, but what is known is this: Poor sleep makes people less motivated to increase physical activity, which can lead to more weight gain. Additionally, reduced sleep is associated with elevated levels of the hormone leptin, which helps regulate appetite.

Fixes: Among the various treatments for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which delivers air pressure via a mask that sits over your nose or mouth while you sleep. Other treatment options include losing weight, oral appliances (that resemble mouthguards), and Inspire Upper Airway Stimulation (USA) therapy, a new FDA-approved implantable device.(MORE: A Good Night’s Sleep Could Ward Off Alzheimer’s)

MEDICATIONS

Many popular over-the-counter pain medications, like Excedrin and Bayer Back and Body, may contain caffeine, which helps the medication get absorbed more quickly, but can cut into your sleep, according to Breus (who suggests always checking the label first). If you’re feeling under the weather, beware of nasal decongestants and daytime cold or flu medicines, as well, which can contain pseudoephedrine; you’ll feel jittery instead of tired.

Diuretics, water pills for heart disease and high blood pressure, and ADD medications like Adderall and Ritalin can also disrupt sleep, says Dr. Hrayr Attarian, a neurologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, Ill. Other culprits include steroids and some medications for depression or asthma. “As with any new medication, always check with your doctor first,” Attarian says.

Fixes: If your meds are causing sleep problems, “First, I’d suggest talking to your physician to see if your medication can be changed or the dose adjusted,” Attarian says. “If that doesn’t work, you can go to a sleep clinic to discuss treatment options that may or may not include sleep aids. Taking a sleeping pill is not always the right thing right away, especially if you are taking other medications to manage health conditions.”

(MORE: 6 Foods and Medications That Don’t Mix)

A WARM BATH

Body temperature naturally begins to drop before bedtime, preparing us for sleep. Although a warm bath can relax and calm you, taking one too close to bedtime will not give your body enough of a chance to cool sufficiently to bring on slumber.

Fixes: To reap the full benefits of your bath, the National Sleep Foundation recommends finishing up your soak at least an hour before climbing into bed. While you’re at it, keep your room cool. “We sleep better in cool rooms,” says Dr. Patrick D. Lyden, chairman of the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Calif..(MORE: Can’t Sleep at Night? Look at Your Day)

THE WRONG FOODS

If you like to snack before bed, watch what you eat. Loading up on foods that contain excessive salt or fat can stimulate brain waves, bringing on nightmares instead of sweet dreams, says the National Sleep Foundation. Choose foods that contain tryptophan (an amino acid linked to sleep quality), whole-grain carbs (which help boost serotonin production) and certain minerals (like calcium and magnesium, which can have a calming effect). Examples include half a banana and a handful of almonds, whole-grain crackers and peanut butter, a mug of warm milk, or half a turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread.

Fix: In general, stick to a routine of eating early in the evening and try to avoid sugar at night. “Late meals are more likely to make it harder to sleep; snacking in the middle of the night can worsen insomnia,” says Dr. Andrew J. Westwood, a member of the American Academy of Neurology and American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Additionally, eating too much can make you feel physically uncomfortable when you lie down, and may cause heartburn, contributing to wakefulness.(MORE: 6 Healthy Foods to Put in Your Grocery Cart)

CLUTTER

The ideal bedroom should be simply furnished and decorated, so there’s not much to distract you from the primary reason you’re in there — to sleep. Excess clutter and mess can often cause anxiety, and remind you of all your unfinished business, making it harder to fall — and remain — asleep.

(MORE: Take the 30-Day Declutter Challenge)

EXERCISE

Sure, being physically active can make you tired, promote sleep and improve the quality of your rest, but exercising vigorously too close to bedtime can rev you up instead. “Aerobic exercise can raise your core body temperature long after you’ve finished,” says sleep specialist Rubin Naiman.

Fixes: Naiman suggests completing exercise at least three hours prior to bedtime. However, gentle exercise like yoga, he says, can be helpful to promote relaxation and sleepiness.(MORE: The Best Exercise to Protect Your Bones)

STRESS

When you’re stressed, your body secretes cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland. This can disrupt the body’s natural rhythm, says Naiman. “Cortisol is naturally produced in the morning. It peaks at around 8 a.m., when it can be helpful to naturally energize us,” he explains. “But at the wrong time—like nighttime—it can make us hyper-aroused and disrupt our sleep.”

Fixes: In addition to yoga for relaxation, a new study in adults over 55 finds that practicing a popular form of meditation known as mindfulness meditation can reap improvements in sleep quality and reduce insomnia and fatigue. Mindfulness meditation can also help reduce stress, according to a 2009 Massachusetts General Hospital study. Visit Mindful.org to learn some basics.(MORE: 6 Health Risks of Poor Sleep)

If meditation is not your thing, there’s always a good old-fashioned belly laugh; laughter actually induces physical changes in your body, says the Mayo Clinic. It cools your stress response and can increase positive thoughts, which, in turn, causes your body to release neuropeptides to help fight stress.

By Sheryl Kraft

Sheryl Kraft is a freelance journalist, essayist and writer of non-fiction based in Fairfield County, Conn. Her writing covers all areas, with a concentration in health, wellness and fitness.@sherylkraft

The Best Way to Improve Brain Health

November 8, 2018

The first in a series of interviews with Longevity Innovators
By The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging

(Advances in science and public health are increasing longevity and enhancing the quality of life for people around the world. In a series of interviews with the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, 14 visionaries will be revealing exciting trends and insights regarding healthy longevity, sharing their vision for a better future. The Longevity Innovators interviews highlight new discoveries in biomedical and psychosocial science, as well as strategies to promote prevention and wellness for older adults. This is the first in the series.)

Renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Keith Black (chair of the department of neurosurgery and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles) has pioneered advances in our understanding and treatment of brain cancers and complex neurological conditions. Black is also a research scientist studying targeted drug delivery, cancer stem cells and Alzheimer’s detection through retinal imaging, among many other areas. In an interview with the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging, Black talks about the importance of developing a test for early onset Alzheimer’s and his goal to inspire the next generation.

Dr. Keith Black

What is the most important thing that people should know about improving brain health?

People need to know how important lifestyle is to sustain health. Lifestyle, diet, exercise, moderating stress, making sure you get a good eight hours of sleep when you can, making sure you keep your brain engaged particularly in novel activities — all of these matter. You have to remember the brain is a living organism very much like a muscle — the more you use it, the stronger it becomes.

We need to treat our brains better. For example, try to avoid excessive alcohol and make sure that you screen yourself for diseases like diabetes and hypertension that can be devastating to the brain.

What will be the benefits of having a reliable test for early onset Alzheimer’s?

I think there’s a huge misconception that if you get Alzheimer’s or if you’re going to get Alzheimer’s, there’s nothing that you can do about it. And I think the science shows that that perception is incorrect.

We know two things now that address your question. The first is that Alzheimer’s starts about two decades before a person develops symptoms. During that period of 20 years, you’re losing brain cells, and you’re losing brain connectivity. If you can detect the disease at the very start, particularly before you lose enough brain cells to become symptomatic, we may have the ability to stop the process or at least slow it down and prevent an individual from becoming symptomatic.

If people are developing Alzheimer’s in their 50s and 60s, they are going to become symptomatic in their 70s and 80s. If you can slow the overall process and have people become symptomatic in their late 90s or 100s, you have the ability to essentially prevent the disease from being symptomatic in most of our lifetimes. That’s really the major reason to move towards early detection, because preventing brain loss is a lot easier than restoring brain cells once they’ve died.

The other reason people should be interested is that even though we don’t have a pill that can stop the progression, we know that Alzheimer’s also has a lifestyle component. The scientific evidence shows that lifestyle habits such as a Mediterranean diet, exercise, sleep, meditation and other types of mindfulness modify stress levels. We’re seeing that potentially even micronutrients like the omega-3 fish oils may be very important in slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

What’s your take on Pfizer ending research to find new drugs aimed at treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases? How do you think it will impact ongoing research?

I think a lot of the trials that have failed for Alzheimer’s disease, including the Pfizer trial, could’ve been better designed and better developed. I think we have a lot to learn from the failure of those trials.

For example, how do we get the drugs into the brain more effectively? How can we better select the right population of patients to treat? I think addressing those potential reasons for the failures of those drugs will lead to successful therapies and hopefully successful approvals.

By The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging

The Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging aims to improve lives and strengthen societies by promoting healthy, productive and purposeful aging.

Reinvent Yourself!

May 4, 2018

Engage at Every Age - even after retirement! If you are missing your 9 am to 5 pm lifestyle or are searching for a new “normal” after retirement, look for ways to find inspiration – a second career, helping others, discovering new interests – the possibilities are endless!

Click here to check out ways to reinvent yourself!

May is Older Americans Month!

May 1, 2018

Throughout the month of May, Presbyterian SeniorCare Network will be embracing the Engage at Every Age theme and will utilize the power of Facebook to publicize our inspiring resident and team member stories. We’ll keep the buzz going all month, so be sure to check Facebook often and be sure to share our posts with your friends and family!

Each May, the Administration for Community Living leads our nation’s celebration of Older Americans Month. The theme for 2018 is Engage at Every Age. This powerful theme emphasizes that you are never too old (or young) to take part in activities that can enrich your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Participating in activities that promote mental and physical wellness, offering your wisdom and experience to the next generation, seeking the mentorship of someone with more life experience than you—those are just a few examples of what being engaged can mean.

No matter where you are in your life, there is no better time than now to start!

Tell Your Doctor What’s on Your Bucket List

April 16, 2018

It'll help direct your health where you want it to go


By Grace Birnstengel for Next Avenue


Your doctor can’t read your mind. A doctor assumes everyone wants to live and continue to live the best, healthiest, happiest life possible — but that means something different for everyone. If your doctor knows about your long-term goals and “bucket list” items, however, that can be used to direct your health plan and goals.

Dr. VJ Periyakoil, an internist, geriatrician and palliative care professional at Stanford Health Care wrote a piece for the New York Times about how she regularly asks her patients about their bucket lists.

“I started doing this to forge a personal connection and get a quick glimpse into what matters most to each of them,” she wrote.

In Periyakoil’s experience, most patients have bucket lists already — whether it’s burgeoning in the back of their mind or a concrete list pinned to a bulletin board.

Why a Bucket List Is Useful

What Periyakoil does with this information comes in two parts.

First, she uses the bucket list items as incentive for more healthy behaviors. “For example, I found that saying, ‘I don’t think your half-marathon is happening anytime soon if you don’t quit smoking’ got my patient’s attention much faster than making obvious and boring statements like, ‘Smoking is bad for you,’” she wrote.

But more importantly, the bucket list goals guide Periyakoil toward or away from certain medical decisions or recommendations.

She used the example of a patient diagnosed with a serious case of gallbladder cancer. When asked about his bucket list, the patient assumed he’d take his family on a trip to Maui the following year — after his radiation appointments. Periyakoil, knowing how the treatments would affect his ability to travel, suggested going to Maui while he still could and starting the treatments after the trip.

“If I had not asked about his bucket list, he would have stoically undergone the radiation and chemotherapy, and the Maui trip would have remained a sunny fantasy,” she wrote.

Making it Work

Periyakoil co-published a study in the Journal of Palliative Medicine to discover more about what’s on Americans’ bucket lists. The study suggested six prevailing themes of bucket list items: a desire to travel, personal goals (such as running a marathon or writing a book), life milestones (like marriage or children), quality time with friends and family, financial stability and daring activities (like surfing and bungee jumping).

These themes resonate with the experiences of Next Avenue readers and writers as well. We have stories about older adults setting out to conquer the largest and longest recreational bicycle touring ride in the world, learning to tap dance at 85 and skydiving with an early-onset diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Some of these common bucket-list items might not seem relevant to your health and therefore irrelevant to bring up in a doctor appointment. But Periyakoil rejects this notion.

“Many [people] — especially those who are not in perfect health — may underestimate the extensive coordination required to make their bucket list wishes possible,” Periyakoil said.

Your bucket list items may be completely in reach, and if your doctor is up-to-date on your goals, he or she can better advise you on how to best achieve them and when — taking into account health obstacles that may affect you in the process and avoiding treatments that could get in the way.

© Next Avenue - 2018. All rights reserved.

 
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