Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary

Latest Posts

Why Pumping Iron Is Great For Brain Cells

In my last post I told you that I would reveal the one thing you can do to have a significant, positive and lasting effect on your brain health as you get older. See if you can spot it in the following list:

a) Learn to dance Gangnam style
b) Join a choir
c) Catch a wave
d) Pump some iron

Ok, that was a trick question. All of these answers are somewhat correct, but I was looking for the “most” correct answer (flashbacks to undergrad, anyone?): Pump some iron.

I realize I sound like a broken record – I’ve already written about how aerobic exercise can promote healthy aging here and here, and I’ve even already written about resistance training, or lifting weights, here.

So why am I at it again? Because it’s important!

I’m fresh out of the 2012 Aging and Society Conference, where researchers came together to discuss what works and what doesn’t when it comes to healthy aging. It turns out everyone pretty much agrees that exercise is hands down the most effective intervention to keep your brain cells happy into old(er) age. All sorts of different types of exercise, ranging from simply walking to attending resistance training classes, are associated with different types of improvements in cognition, memory, and even brain size.

Of course, there are different levels of effort involved with different types of exercise, or even when talking about a single form of exercise. When my friend Jess asks me to go for a walk, she means a power walk: it usually involves going up hills, sweating like a pig (even though pigs, ironically, don’t sweat much), and barely having enough breath for girl talk (though somehow we always seem to find it). When my friend Al and I go for a walk, what he means is a “mosey”: we stop to look at the view, pet the dog, chit chat with strangers, and have more than enough breath for lengthy discussions about life, work, and the possibility of alien lifeforms. When it comes to brain health, whether you’re walking or pumping iron, a little sweating and effort can go a long way. For example, resistance training has been proven to be most effective when the load, or how much weight you are working with, increases over time. So kick the intensity up a notch: there will still be plenty of time for chit chat around a post-exercise, antioxidant-rich mug of matcha (my new obsession – stay tuned).

Now that the obvious has been (re)stated, I want to take this opportunity to discuss the idea that perhaps lifestyle interventions such as exercise could be prescribed by your doctor. We know that exercise can improve cognition in aging but also conditions like depression. Should physicians prescribe lifestyle changes? Or are diet, exercise, and other lifestyle activities choices we should make ourselves? How would you feel if your doctor prescribed you exercise instead of pills? Would you be more motivated to exercise if the prescription came from your doctor instead of from your friendly Internet science blogger? Your thoughts in the comments!

***

Dr. Julie Robillard is a neuroscientist, neuroethicist and science writer. You can find her blog at scientificchick.com.

Obama’s Going Grey, But Do Presidents Age Faster Than The Rest Of Us?

It’s more than just a few flecks. President Barack Obama, who turned 50 in August, is definitely going gray. He’s said the color change runs in his family and has mentioned a grandfather who turned gray at 29.

But others see it as a sign that the presidency is taking a toll on Obama, as it has other on presidents. Dr. Michael Roizen, of RealAge.com fame, says presidents age twice as fast as normal when they’re in office. The main cause, he says, is “unrequited stress—they don’t have enough friends to mitigate the stress,” which brings to mind the line commonly attributed to Harry Truman: if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

Accelerated presidential aging? Not so.

The only problem with this notion of accelerated presidential aging is that it just ain’t so, according to S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at theUniversity ofIllinois at Chicago and a longevity expert. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Researchers Compile Surprising List Of Most Risky Drugs For Older Americans

Some medications are well known for being risky, especially for older people. Certain antihistamines, barbiturates, muscle relaxants—take too much of them, or take them with certain other medications, and you can wind up in serious trouble (and possibly in the back of ambulance).

But researchers from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Emory University reported in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine that those high-risk medications are not the ones that most commonly put older Americans (ages 65 and older) in the hospital.

Warfarin is #1

Instead, they found that warfarin is the most common culprit. Warfarin (the brand-name version is called Coumadin) reduces the blood’s tendency to clot. Many older people take it to lower their risk of getting a stroke.

After warfarin, different Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Inspiring Story About A Man Making Changes To Transform His Life

It isn’t easy to get rid of a harmful habit like drinking too much, or to make healthy changes like losing weight and exercising more. Media stories about people who run marathons a year after surgery to bypass cholesterol-clogged arteries or who climb Mt. McKinley after being diagnosed with diabetes are interesting, but they don’t resonate with me. Mostly it’s because they often leave out the hard work needed to change and the backtracking that invariably accompanies it.

I ran across a truly inspiring story the other day in the American Journal of Health Promotion—one that shows how most of us ultimately manage to make changes that improve our lives. The journal’s founder and editor, Michael P. O’Donnell, wrote a moving essay about his father, Kevin O’Donnell. Once an overweight workaholic who smoked and drank heavily, ate mostly meat and potatoes, and didn’t exercise—and who eventually needed a double bypass—Kevin O’Donnell gradually made changes to improve his health. Now, at age 85, he has the cardiovascular system of a 65 year old and is working on a house-building project in North Korea.

How did Kevin O’Donnell engineer such a remarkable transformation? Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

More Women Die Of Heart Attack Than Men Do

Several studies have shown that women have a higher mortality rate than men if they have a heart attack. A study published in the American Heart Journal helps to explain why. The researchers looked at data from 2,542 women who had a heart attack. Compared to men, the women were older, less likely to be white, and less likely to smoke. They also had more serious health conditions than the men. They had diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), congestive heart failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

We’ve known for a long time that women are about 10 years older than men at the time of their first heart attack. The authors believe that the reason women are more likely to die is because of these other conditions that are present. Women in the study were also more likely to receive a blood transfusion and experience gastrointestinal bleeding, strokes, and vascular complications which lead to death.

They didn’t find any gender difference when they controlled for these other conditions. The number of diseased vessels were the same as was the severity of stenosis.

So what does this tell women? The guidelines for longevity and good health haven’t changed: Don’t smoke, control high blood pressure, and make sure your weight is healthy to prevent diabetes and other vascular problems. Stay active. Heart attacks can be prevented by good lifestyle choices.

*This blog post was originally published at EverythingHealth*

Latest Interviews

How To Make Inpatient Medical Practice Fun Again: Try Locum Tenens Work

It s no secret that most physicians are unhappy with the way things are going in healthcare. Surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction burn out and even suicide. In fact some believe that up to a third of the US physician work force is planning to leave the profession…

Read more »

Caring For Winter Olympians In Sochi: An Interview With Team USA’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gloria Beim

I am a huge fan of the winter Olympics partly because I grew up in Canada where most kids can ski and skate before they can run and partly because I used to participate in Downhill ski racing. Now that I m a rehab physician with a reconstructed knee I…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

***

Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

I met Dr. Marty Makary over lunch at Founding Farmers restaurant in DC about three years ago. We had an animated conversation about hospital safety the potential contribution of checklists to reducing medical errors and his upcoming book about the need for more transparency in the healthcare system. Marty was…

Read more »

See all book reviews »