Archive for the 'Health' Category

Eight isn’t enough — it’s 14 too many!

February 2, 2009

Meghan Daum at The LATimes and I are in agreement: Implanting eight embryos in a possibly deranged woman who already has six children, no husband and no visible means of support is MALPRACTICE.

Quote of the day: The antidote to death

September 10, 2008

Theresa Brown, a Pennsylvania nurse, wrote a poignant article in the NYTimes today about dealing with death, in this case an irreversible cardiac arrest, which she describes in ER-tinged detail. But her summary paragraph made me pause in admiration:

What can one do? Go home, love your children, try not to bicker, eat well, walk in the rain, feel the sun on your face and laugh loud and often, as much as possible, and especially at yourself. Because the only antidote to death is not poetry, or drama, or miracle drugs, or a roomful of technical expertise and good intentions. The antidote to death is life.

Indeed, it is.

Adventures at Midlife: The decline into dementia

September 4, 2008

I don’t have a lot of fears about aging. Oh, sure, I’m considering getting rid of my magnifying mirror in the bathroom because it does such a good job — make that a GREAT job — of reminding me of the March of Time across my sagging face. I’ve resigned myself to several more years in my colorist’s chair to hide all the gray that started innocently at my temples and is marching relentlessly toward the nape of my neck. I toy with the idea of going to the local vein clinic to chase away all the spiders residing on my legs and ankles. (And at the though of spending at least $200 a session, believe me, I’m still toying.)

My idea of a good time now is a nap, and my morning laps around the local track are getting noticeably longer. I can’t find anything at Old Navy or The Gap that wouldn’t make me look ridiculous. (Sigh…) The Offspring think I’m hilariously outdated, although The Spouse still thinks I’m cute. But he’s seriously overdue for getting his glasses upgraded, so maybe he’s not a good judge. And he has his own issues with aging. I asked him recently if I could borrow his hairspray and he laughed hysterically. (I guess you need HAIR to need SPRAY.) I really hadn’t noticed.

I can handle it, I tell myself, humming “The Circle of Life” in my head. It happens to everyone, doesn’t it?

But I do admit to One Great Fear.

I have an old acquaintance, not really a friend, but someone I worked with occasionally years ago, a very bright, articulate and driven woman who retired a few years back and who I haven’t heard from or about for a long time. Yesterday a mutual friend alerted me that my old coworker has recently become obsessed over some religious tangent and has alienated herself from most of her friends and family. I went online and found a sort of manifesto she had written and saw in it not the clear arguments of the well-educated and well-read woman I remember but the ravings of someone who I believe is in the early stages of dementia.

I was horrified. In her online treatise, she is so reasoned and persuasive and at the same time so utterly mad. I was reminded of John Bayley’s poignant description of his wife Iris Murdoch’s decline into Alzheimer’s disease in Elegy for Iris. One of the great literary minds of 20th century Great Britain, Murdoch remained blissfully unaware of her gradual collapse into chaos, leaving friends and family to pick up after her. (Judi Dench played her so tenderly in the movie, and made me cry.)

Bayley has been criticized for his unflinching portrayal of that decline, as has Margaret Thatcher’s daughter for chronicling her mother’s illness. (The NYTimes article has an ironic picture of Thatcher with President Reagan, whose mental deterioration reportedly began during his last days in the White House and was covered up by his staff.) It isn’t pretty to look at.

The specter of this terrifies me. Losing your mind and your memory would be such a blow, but to not realize that it’s happening would be something straight out of Kafka. I sometimes have nightmares where I’m trying to get home but the landscape and the people around me keep morphing and changing so much that I can’t find my way. That must be what it’s like, I think.

So I obsessively read all the articles and blogs on how to avoid Alzheimer’s and do my crosswords and anagrams and Sudoku puzzles daily to keep my mind active. I even heeded some of the more curious recommendations, avoiding spray antiperspirants and taking ginseng for years before both were disproven as factors in controlling dementia.

But none of this is any guarantee that, when it’s time, the biological switch won’t get pushed. And so many of us will have to depend on the kindness of family and friends — and in some cases, even strangers — to guide us through those last confused years.

Sorry to be so grim, but I spent a lot of last night thinking about my old acquaintance, who is probably baffled over everyone else’s inability to see what she thinks she sees so clearly. She’s looking into a funhouse mirror, with its waves and distortions, and doesn’t even know it.

Body betrayal: Taking care of yourself isn’t enough

August 13, 2008

I had lunch yesterday with a dear friend and traveling companion who has always been an inspiration to me. A a beautiful woman who just turned 60, she and several neighbors have been faithfully walking around the track at a nearby junior high school most mornings for more than 25 years, rain, snow or shine. She doesn’t drink or smoke, takes gobs of vitamins, drinks water or diet soda and watches what she eats. She is gracious and generous and good-hearted.

She has also just been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and pulmonary hypertension. Oh, and her knees and back are beyond BAD.

EXCUSE ME? How fair is that? This woman has taken care of herself in ways that many of us (ME!) simply haven’t, and yet she is facing an uncertain future full of cardiologists, internists, in-hospital tests, physical limitations and expensive drugs. (She’s having knee surgery shortly, which, given her other conditions, really worries me.)

Her take on it? Genetics. Her parents and older sisters exhibited many of the same complaints, and she figures it’s just the luck of the draw. But I’m still fuming on her behalf. As with many other aspects of life (marriage and child-rearing come to mind), doing everything “right” isn’t any kind of guarantee.

Perhaps we need to lighten up on our expectations of ourselves and others as we age. There still exists a tendency for us to think that we midlifers may have brought our maladies on ourselves through bad choices and bad habits. I know I’ve been too quick to judge others of my generation based on their physical condition. “How could they ‘let themselves go’ like that?” I’ve thought, when in reality they may not have had much say in how their physical health played out.

By all means, don’t give up your gym membership, and try to stay away from the French fries if you can. But, please, don’t feel guilty if your best efforts can’t forestall a what may be a preset genetic determination.

Diet Wars: Toughing it out — for what?

July 28, 2008

The always-excellent Tara Parker-Pope in the NYTimes has been dealing with a high reader response to a diet-related post that ran last week about a much-ballyhooed NEJM study. Among other things, the study sadly indicated “that dieters can put forth tremendous effort and reap very little benefit.” Well, du-uh.

Long-story-short: while the NEJM study favorably compared the Atkins low-carb diet with other plans (a good thing, since Atkins funded the study), the poor participants who stuck with the TWO-YEAR study lost a whopping 6 to 10 pounds. Total. I lasted about two weeks on Atkins and three weeks on the similar South Beach Diet, and felt sick most of the time on both, so I can’t imagine toughing it out for two years! How grim! Read the rest of this entry »

Dara Torres rocks!

July 7, 2008

In case you’ve been living under a rock or partied a little too hard this weekend, the big news on the sports scene (besides Federer getting whomped by Nadal and the Williams sisters’ show at Wimbledon) is 41-year-old swimming sensation Dara Torres, who has qualified for her fifth Olympics by breaking the American record in the 50-meter freestyle. At 41! And after retiring four years ago and having a baby!

In his interview with her this morning, Matt Lauer of the Today Show (after admitting that, after 40, his knees began hurting him) prodded her about the possibility of performance-enhancing drugs contributing to her remarkable record. Her response? No way. Bring on the blood and urine tests, she said, vowing to provide ample proof that she’s clean.

She attributed her success to a great team of coaches, trainers and advisers, which is probably very true. You don’t get to be an athlete at that elite level without a small army of caretakers. And I’m sure that doesn’t come cheap. But she is the current poster child for the movement promoting health and fitness at any age.

You go, girl! I’m suddenly a whole lot more interested in watching the Olympics than I was last week. And I’m dusting off my walking shoes!

Your Girl in London: The Full English

May 9, 2008

While we Americans have managed over the years to perfect Cardiac Arrest in a Bag with a Big Mac, fries and a extra-large drink special (never mind the chili-cheese fries at Carl’s Jr. and Denny’s Grand Slams), the Brits have their own version of Death on a Plate: The Full English. Says London Times restaurant critic Giles Coren,

The current £7.25 “Olympic” breakfast at Little Chef comprises: “two rashers of crisp backbacon, British outdoor-reared pork sausage, two griddled eggs, whole-cup mushrooms, crispy sauté potatoes, fresh griddled tomato, Heinz baked beans and toasted or fried extra-thick bloomer bread.”. . .[W]e read that: “A good English breakfast never lets you down.” No, it kills you. That’s what an English breakfast does.

I’ve also had a version that includes a black pudding (don’t ask), but not this trip. I’ll stick with my cereal and semi-skimmed milk, thank you.

Cheers?

May 5, 2008

The British definitely have a drinking problem. Oh, sure, living in the vast American suburbs, I don’t come across public drunkenness very often, but here I’m constantly getting jostled on the tube by noisy, well-lit people, and I’m tired of tip-toeing around piles of vomit at the train stations. The little British stores that are found two to three on every block sell ultra-large cans of 90-proof beer and lager, which means it only takes about £2 and 15 minutes to get completely sh*t-faced. (A BBC reporter during a segment on drinking tossed back three cans of the stuff in about 20 minutes, and later admitted he couldn’t remember a single thing about the rest of the night, much less how he got home and into bed.)

The drinkers the BBC reporter interviewed all looked about 100 years old, with their ruddy, lined faces and terrible teeth, and it occurred to me that they were probably closer to my age. The stores where they bought their beer were giving them the cans on credit, with interest, which meant their drinking habits were eating into their disability and housing checks.

How is this all going to play out? I remember reading a NYTimes story indicating that older addicts had much different habits and required different treatment than young meth or coke users, and that the substances of choice for older addicts are alcohol and prescriptions drugs. It is no secret that an older woman on my street has for years been hooked on prescription pain killers, and I remember one terrible weekend when her husband called just about everyone on the block, looking for pills for his likely hysterical wife. I visited her once after she’d had a bad fall, her face all black and blue, and wondered if she did it to herself to qualify for the drugs. The entire family is defined by her illness. And my mother-in-law’s elderly cousin finally came home from The Big City to finish drinking himself to death in the kind company of his sisters and their husbands.

Adventures at Midlife: Alternative medicine

April 24, 2008

An article in Arts and Letters Daily, one of my favorite sites, inferred that middle-aged, middle-class women are the biggest consumers of alternative medicine, from homeopathy to massage to aromatherapy to vitamin therapy. Says Rose Shapiro in Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools Of Us All, such women are “educated enough to know what they’re paying for and if they prefer to spend money on an aromatherapist than a stiff gin, it’s hard to cry too many tears for them.”

Shapiro is, as the title of the book indicates, a scoffer.

Did you know [says reviewer Natalie Haynes] that traditional Chinese medicine, described so often as dating back thousands of years, was actually a rag-bag of ideas put together under Chairman Mao to try to fill in the gaps left by a shortage of “the superior new medicine”? Me neither.

Shapiro reserves her real fury for the snake-oil merchants who knowingly prey on the weak: terminal cancer is a favourite. After all, the dying will often believe anything. She reveals case after case where someone has been talked out of chemotherapy or palliative care by a quack with a big bank balance.

I’m a pharmacist’s kid, so I grew up on pills. Pills, in our house, are good, but I also have friends and relatives who pride themselves on taking no medication of any kind, which I find a bit extreme. Most of my friends who have turned to alternative medicine have done so because they weren’t getting the results they wanted from traditional medicine or because they wanted to explores more “natural” rather than chemical ways to health.

I became a convert to vitamins when I read an article about a group of geriatric specialists who couldn’t agree about much of anything when it came to theories about and causes of aging — but who all took multivitamins religiously. A chiropractor has helped me overcome some serious sciatic pain. I’ve also found that, for me, massage and light exercise are among the best treatments for chronic pain, stress and fatigue. But I haven’t ventured into alternative medicine much further than that.

With costs for pharmaceuticals increasing and most insurance co-pays shrinking, I suspect we may look for more low-cost, low-impact and local ways to maintain our physical quality of life. But how do we separate the effective and sensible treatments from the snake oil?

Adventures at Midlife: It, um, Depends…

April 17, 2008

Okay, here goes.

Dear readers, a confession: When I turned 50, it was as if the warranty on my body expired. Within several months of that landmark birthday, I spent a week in the hospital — and several months thereafter — recovering from the effects of a blood clot. I developed sciatica down my left leg (and overcame my suspicion of chiropractors). My face started looking, well, a little saggy. The gray hair that had been lurking at my temples began a death march throughout my scalp. My eyebrows began disappearing, only to sprout on my chin and upper lip. My shoulders and hips drew strangely closer together. My once-reliable knees began to balk at stairs. And what in the hell were these brown spots on the backs of my hands?!?

Those developments, however, were trifles compared to the ultimate indignation: I can no longer depend on my ability to start and stop. I mean, you know, eliminating. And I’m not talking a little leakage problem here. This is a major gather-yourself-up, get-yourself-home, and shower-and-change problem. I cannot tell you the times I have wept with frustration and embarrassment over this.

No one warned me about it. Not a clue or a hint. My gastroenterologist was sympathetic, but not very helpful. He told me of patients who, when they begin to have physical signs that a bathroom stop is necessary, can calculate how long they have before they will be in real trouble, usually 20 minutes to a half hour. Me? I have five minutes — or less.

So, as with so many crises in my adult life, I had to find my own solution. I know the location of every available restroom in my building and on my commute route. (And I can rate them on cleanliness. Just ask me.) I know what food and beverages will likely trigger a crisis, and I know what hours of the day are particularly deadly for me. (Mornings, almost always, and immediately after I have a meal.)

And (she said, bracing herself) I have added one more item to my stash of indispensable toiletries. In my bathroom cupboard, where the tampons used to be, is a package of adult undergarments. You know: Depends, or their less-expensive generic counterparts. I also have some in my trunk and my bottom desk drawer. Now, when I have an event or excursion where I will likely be unable to have immediate access to a restroom, I take an anti-diarrheal, moderate my liquid intake, and wear the damn undergarment under my Spanx. (Believe me, no one can tell I have them on.) It has lessened my stress level ENORMOUSLY.

I have several friends who are approaching landmark birthdays of their own, and I am tempted to pull them aside and present them with a gift-wrapped package of Depends. I like to think they would ultimately thank me for it.

I would have.