I described another option to Grandpa: he could voluntarily stop eating and drinking. He’d never considered this possibility (which reminded me again how one’s family members and clinicians contribute to inequities in end-of-life care). The option intrigued Grandpa, and during subsequent visits he reinforced his plan to pursue it. I insisted that he first move into my home. I wanted to ensure the quality of his care, knowing that I could enroll him in my health system’s hospice program. But I also wished to test his resolve, reasoning that his mind might change once his isolation ended.
For a month after he entered our home, his spirits were brighter, his gait steadier, and his appetite heartier. He joined my wife, two daughters, and me for dinner each night, typically preceded by a vodka martini that I had stirred for him — a daily pleasure he’d allowed himself for 80 years and had missed as a facility resident. He’d tell stories of the Navy, his career, and his family history and would regularly quip, “If you keep treating me this well, I might just stick around a while longer!”
But eventually he returned to his goal of hastening death. One night, he said he was ready to stop eating and drinking the next morning, but when morning came, he asked for his usual coffee and bagel. He confided that he was scared. When I asked of what, he replied, “It’s like trying to roller skate. I’m scared of starting. Though I know that once I do, I’ll probably roll.”
“Aging is such a profound part of not only the human experience but all life on Earth,” says Salk Vice President/Chief Science Officer Martin Hetzer. “It’s one of the big, untapped opportunities in biomedical research, particularly around questions on what role exercise, nutrition and cognitive stimulation play in staying healthy throughout life. It is important not to forget that getting older also comes with benefits; we want to take a holistic view of human health at all ages and understand it from all angles.”
Scientists want to answer intriguing questions: Why are some people able to “age well,” trekking up mountain ranges or rafting through white water in their nineties, while others live just as long, disease-free, but grow inexplicably frail decades sooner? Worse yet, why does advanced age sometimes diminish cognitive ability or even lead to dementia?
In numerous diseases, age itself is the major risk factor. Cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and many other afflictions become profoundly more likely the older we get. Aside from extending our life spans, scientists want to know how we can also extend our health during advanced age. What is emerging from research is that aging–loosely defined as a systems-wide deterioration of our cells, organs and genetic material that results in disease or damage–is a collective and complex process in the body.
In this cross-sectional study of 5364 couples consisting of employees and spouses (or domestic partners) undergoing an annual employer-sponsored health assessment, 79% of the couples were in the nonideal category of a CV health score. This within-couple concordance of nonideal CV health scores was associated mostly with unhealthy diet and inadequate physical activity.
The study included 10 728 participants (5364 couples): 7% were African American, 11% Hispanic, 21% Asian, and 54% White (median [interquartile range] age, 50 [41-57] years for men and 47 [39-55] for women). For most couples, both members were in the ideal category or both were in a nonideal category.
Concordance ranged from 53% (95% CI, 52%-54%) for cholesterol to 95% (95% CI, 94%-95%) for diet. For the CV health score, in 79% (95% CI, 78%-80%) of couples both members were in a nonideal category, which was associated mainly with unhealthy diet (94% [95% CI, 93%-94%] of couples) and inadequate exercise (53% [95% CI, 52%-55%] of couples). However, in most couples, both members were in the ideal category for smoking status (60% [95% CI, 59%-61%] of couples) and glucose (56% [95% CI, 55%-58%]).
Except for total cholesterol, when 1 member of a couple was in the ideal category, the other member was likely also to be in the ideal category: the adjusted odds ratios for also being in the ideal category ranged from 1.3 (95% CI, 1.1-1.5; P ≤ .001) for blood pressure to 10.6 (95% CI, 7.4-15.3; P ≤ .001) for diet. Concordance differed by ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geographic location.
The number of older people, including those living with dementia, is rising, as younger age mortality declines. However, the age-specific incidence of dementia has fallen in many countries, probably because of improvements in education, nutrition, health care, and lifestyle changes.
Overall, a growing body of evidence supports the nine potentially modifiable risk factors for dementia modelled by the 2017 Lancet Commission on dementia prevention, intervention, and care: less education, hypertension, hearing impairment, smoking, obesity, depression, physical inactivity, diabetes, and low social contact.
We now add three more risk factors for dementia with newer, convincing evidence. These factors are excessive alcohol consumption, traumatic brain injury, and air pollution. We have completed new reviews and meta-analyses and incorporated these into an updated 12 risk factor life-course model of dementia prevention. Together the 12 modifiable risk factors account for around 40% of worldwide dementias, which consequently could theoretically be prevented or delayed.
The potential for prevention is high and might be higher in low-income and middle-income countries (LMIC) where more dementias occur. Our new life-course model and evidence synthesis has paramount worldwide policy implications. It is never too early and never too late in the life course for dementia prevention. Early-life (younger than 45 years) risks, such as less education, affect cognitive reserve; midlife (45–65 years), and later-life (older than 65 years) risk factors influence reserve and triggering of neuropathological developments.
Culture, poverty, and inequality are key drivers of the need for change. Individuals who are most deprived need these changes the most and will derive the highest benefit.
First up this week, Senior Correspondent Daniel Clery talks with host Sarah Crespi about how Breakthrough Listen—a privately funded initiative that aims to spend $100 million over 10 years to find extraterrestrial intelligent life—has changed the hunt for alien intelligence.
And as part of a special issue on the Genotype-Tissue Expression (GTEx) project, Brandon Pierce, a professor in the Departments of Public Health Sciences and Human Genetics at the University of Chicago, joins Sarah to discuss his group’s work on variation in the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes. The gradual shortening of these caps, also known as telomeres, has been associated with aging. Read more from the GTEx special issue.
HARVARD MAGAZINE (SEPT – OCT 2020): From the book EXERCISED: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel E. Lieberman, to be published on September 8, 2020 by Pantheon Books:
‘….many of the mechanisms that slow aging and extend life are turned on by physical activity, especially as we get older. Human health and longevity are thus extended both by and for physical activity.’
Exercise is like scrubbing the kitchen floor so well after a spill that the whole floor ends up being cleaner. The modest stresses caused by exercise trigger a reparative response yielding a general benefit.
In order to elucidate the links between exercise and aging, I propose a corollary to the Grandmother Hypothesis, which I call the Active Grandparent Hypothesis. According to this idea, human longevity was not only selected for but was also made possible by having to work hard during old age to help as many children, grandchildren, and other younger relatives as possible survive and thrive. That is, while there may have been selection for genes (as yet unidentified) that help humans live past the age of 50, there was also selection for genes that repair and maintain our bodies when we are physically active.
Daniel E. Lieberman is a paleoanthropologist at Harvard University, where he is the Edwin M Lerner II Professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology. He is best known for his research on the evolution of the human head and the evolution of the human body.
What is everyday ageism and how common is it?
This poll examined older adults’ experiences with nine forms of everyday ageism. These forms were categorized into three groups: (1) exposure to ageist messages, (2) ageism in interpersonal interactions, and (3) internalized ageism (personally held beliefs
about aging and older people).
Dr. Aimee Kao discusses key behaviors known to protect brain health. Dr. Kao looks at population trends and wonders if they tell a complete story. Watch full lecture here:
From AMA.org (June 12, 2020):
“There’s an aging population, and there’s a lot of skin out there,” said Dr. Isaacs. “One in five people in the country develop skin cancer, but there is a plethora of benign skin conditions that also require the expertise of the dermatologist. So, you have increasing demand and a limited supply of dermatologists.”
A basic example of how the TPMG teledermatology program works involves a patient who is concerned about a suspicious lesion or mole on their body. The patient can take a picture of the location in question and send it to their primary care physician for review. The physician can request the patient come in for a more thorough evaluation, or if the physician determines that a dermatologist should be involved, they can send the photo to an on-call dermatologist to review.
If the patient does an in-person evaluation, the physician can also take a higher-quality image and forward that to a dermatologist. The dermatologist can then decide whether there is a problem, if a prescription is needed, or if there should be an in-person evaluation and potential biopsy.
A study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 2019 found that when TPMG dermatologists had the chance to look at well-photographed skin lesions, they were able to identify nearly 10% more cancers with almost 40% fewer referrals to the dermatology department.