the End of Old Age (a book, not a proclamation!)

[Over dinner this evening I was telling my husband about this book and my review. His response turned out to be the perfect succinct comment about Marc Agronin and this book. My husband said, “he has a growth mindset about aging.”]

In making his case for aging, geriatric psychiatrist Marc Agronin is first and foremost a passionate optimist. This book combines Agronin’s action plan for making the most of our lives as we age with interesting and often uplifting stories of people who are aging.

He poses two sets of questions, the first being <i>When do you think you made better decisions – where you were 21-years old or now?</i> This question is designed to help the reader realize that with age comes wisdom.

The second set of questions are rhetorical, answered by Agronin, and based upon his description of five core strengths that I’ve noted below.

Why age? To grow in wisdom.
Why survive? To realize a purpose.
Why thrive? To create something new.

Agronin believes we have a repository of strengths, and his action plan is designed to tap into those strengths, some of which we may have forgotten we have, some of which we may have not realized we’ve tapped, and some which will be tapped or retapped in new ways. These strengths are:

Knowledge, the Savant that “learns, sows, and teaches”
Judgement, the Sage that “weighs and decides”
Empathy, the Curator that “cares and connects”
Creativity, the Creator that “imagines and makes”
and finally, Insight, the Seer that “accepts and communes”

This book is a practical and positive roadmap to taking stock on one’s life, no matter how abysmal it may be at the moment, and acknowledging who you were up to that point and who you want to be moving forward. This is all well and good but it presupposes that there are adequate resources available, be they monetary, people, treatment centers, and community. For the people in Florida who have the good fortune to work with Marc Agronin, this is likely a positive way forward for them in their aging.

My life experience with both my parents has shown me a different path through aging. I did not have access to some of the adequate resources that make a difference. For instance, I dealt with a doctor who cruised through nursing homes and did not establish relationships with family members, nursing home staff and rehab staff who were underpaid and overworked (despite both locations being known as “high quality”), and a basic ignorance on my part of where to even begin. Had a doctor been available or known to me with Marc Agronin’s apparent compassion and belief in positive aging, including in the face of illness, my skepticism about “the End of Old Age” might be non-existent.

[Reprinted from my Goodreads book review.]


Stroke of Insight redux (this time as a book)

[Not including the links below to blog posts I’ve previously written, the rest of this is a repost of my Goodread’s book review of Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight. ]

If you have yet to see Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, I urge you to watch it AND to then read her book. I have watched the talk multiple times in the years since it was first made available (my first viewing was described here in 2008), and each time am awed by what she has to say and how she says it.

Jill’s words are inspiring and humbling. This is so for her talk as well as for her book. Her book, especially, resonated with me on multiple levels. My mother had a stroke (which I wrote about here), and so Jill’s description of what happened to her, and her experience going through the immediate aftermath and ensuing treatment, gave me insight into what my mother may have experienced.

I was fascinated on the basic level of learning more about the brain. I find the thought of myself continually changing as I age. It used to be I was simply a human being. Now, having learned over the years more about the brain, and having come to understand that my human body is actually host to a vast variety of microbes, my concept of being human has evolved. Being human is an awesome entity and collection of entities!

As a yoga practitioner and teacher of other yogis, I particularly appreciated the latter portions of Jill’s book where she talks about what she has learned in order to be able to tap into her right brain bliss.

In this age of intense political discourse, where the news can sometimes color the tone of the entire day (and not necessarily in a positive way), the more we understand how to access the positive, healing, joyful parts of our beings, the more healthy and hopeful our lives and the lives of all of us can become.

An Alley Oop!

The 2012 article Happiness is in the Right Brain was shared by Jillian Pransky as part of follow-up resources to her workshop in which I participated last week, Guiding and Cueing Students to Deeper States of Relaxation.

I’ve written before about the right brain/left brain distinction, and the article referenced above focuses on the benefits of thinking in the right brain to promote happiness. What intrigued me about the article, however, was a simple visual puzzle about a quarter of the way down the page. There you will see a spinning dancer. The question is, which way do you see her spinning – to the right (counter-clockwise) or to the left (clockwise)? I saw her spinning to the left, clockwise. According to the author, the direction you see the dancer spinning tells you which side of your brain you tend to use more often. The author also states that you can switch your focus and get your brain to see the dancer spin in the opposite direction.

I want to know why the way you initially see the dancer spin explains which side of the brain you tend to use the most. Research has shown that while there are parts of the brain that get tapped more intimately for certain actions, in general the brain does not divvy up its processing by “side”, and instead multiple parts of the brain are involved in each and every processing action.

If anyone knows the answer to my question or can point me to some explanation, please do so in a comment. Thanks!


I woke up this past Monday morning with pain and swelling in my left wrist and by Tuesday, when it had not dissipated, it was time to have it checked out by a doctor. X-rays revealed mild radoiocarpal joint arthritis (also see this Cleveland Clinic article for a clear explanation of arthritis), which prompted me to see an orthopedist on Thursday. The end result is a left wrist splint cock-up and a 10-day prescription for 800mg of Motrin taken 2 times a day to mitigate the swelling and pain.

I am intrigued by this diagnosis as it is yet one more look into my body, and am not fully surprised because having turned 63 recently and knowing that my Aunt (my Mom’s sister) has arthritis, it is something that is not foreign to me. Age sometimes brings with it interesting challenges, plus I have been practicing yoga for over 12 years and a favorite pose has me balancing on my arms in an egg shape.

Thankfully, this appears to have been a mild occurrence, with my arm not currently in the splint as I type. By the end of this coming weekend, if not sooner, wearing the splint will have been  phased out. I am now only wearing it while at school due to teaching in a makerspace; the splint ensures that my left hand is not pressed into inappropriate use for the types of activities that cause the pain, mostly lifting or pushing if my hand is in a certain position.

So what does arthritis look like?

A trained eye can distinguish the arthritis as well as the mild tendonitis identified by the orthopedist. Arthritis occurs when there is an inflammation between the joints, a joint being the place where two bones come together. In a healthy joint cartilage allows for smooth movement between the bones at the joint. Tendonitis refers to inflammation of a tendon, tendons being fiber that attaches muscle to bone. Essentially, the arthritis and tendonitis together have sent a signal that something is amiss and should be tended to!

Being an avid yogi, practicing and also teaching, it is no surprise that yoga is also recommended for people with arthritis. (See these articles from Johns Hopkins and the Arthritis Foundation.) With that said, I suspect an errant move on my part while doing yoga may have exacerbated this instance! Nonetheless, there are two useful books for assisting people with arthritis thru the practice of yoga:

Our Nervous System, explained

I am taking the online course Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga, which partially explains why it has been two years since my last post on this blog. During the first half of 2016 I was studying for my 200-hour yoga teacher certification and blogging at my other web home, Yoga ~ Dance ~ Music ~ Movement. And for large portions of 2015, 2016, and the summer of 2017, my son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were living with us. Spend time blogging here or with my family; easy decision!

My yoga blog has been the recipient of all yoga-related writing and below is a cross-post of my most recent post, written earlier today. It deals exclusively with the nervous system and how stress impacts and is dealt with by the nervous system. The post is reprinted below.

The lectures by Catherine Spann and Stacy Dockins from Being Well in a Digital Age – The Science and Practice of Yoga have explained the basics of what happens when stress manifests in the human body. A little bit of stress is manageable; a lot of stress begins to break down our capacity to effectively deal with the stress, and that in turn can manifest in the malfunctioning of other body systems.

Our nervous system consists of two parts, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system. I use the word “central” to help remember what the central nervous system consists of – it consists of our brain and spinal cord, the part of our nervous system that runs center or central in our body from our head to the bottom of the spine and is housed in our axial skeleton.

The peripheral nervous system is the communications conduit between the central nervous system and the rest of the body. The word “peripheral” means outlying items or those not centrally located. Again, this helps me remember what the peripheral nervous system deals with – the parts of our nervous system peripheral to the brain and spinal cord, the parts of our nervous system that run through our appendicular skeleton.

The peripheral nervous system consists of the somatic nervous system, which are our voluntary actions, and the autonomic nervous system, which are our unconscious actions such as our heart beating (though we can control that to some extent), and the regulation of digestion, respiration, to name a few of the systems.

Finally, the autonomic nervous system is further composed of the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two have alliterative words to quickly and easily describe their functions. The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight, flight or freeze response, which Catherine likens to putting a lead foot on a gas pedal.  The parasympathetic nervous system invokes the rest and digest response, which Catherine equates to putting on the brakes. All of these systems interact with the hypothalamus in the brain, which along with the pituitary gland and the thalamus are part of the endocrine system.

The last piece of this puzzle is the vagus nerve, the longest nerve of the autonomic nervous system. Its role as part of the parasympathetic nervous system involves regulating the heart, lungs and digestive tract.

Now we come to stress and how it impacts our nervous system. Stress can be of a short duration, known as acute stress, or it can be chronic stress meaning it is ongoing over a long period of time or simply recurring over and over and over. Our nervous system has a “set point” where it is relatively in balance; this is called homeostasis. Each time our body undergoes some form of stress, our nervous system makes adjustments to return to homeostasis. This adjustment process is known as allostasis. If we are frequently engaged in allostasis it leads to allostatic load, which is the wear and tear on our body systems that often leads to an autonomic imbalance, meaning our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are out of whack.

Eventually allostatic load causes a cycle that over time makes it difficult to reset our nervous system and find our way back to homeostasis. This is where yoga comes in! Yoga can calm the nervous system and strengthen the ability to self-regulate. A calm nervous system can begin the process of allostasis and correcting for the growing internal imbalances.

One way of calming the nervous system is by stimulating the relaxation response as described by Dr Herbert Benson. Deep, slow breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which then positively triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. As noted in a prior post, the combination of movement (the physical part of yoga), breath, mindful attention, and relaxation lead to improved mental health. This combination makes for a powerful self-regulation tool that lets you consciously partner with allostasis to reset your body in homeostasis.

Jon Palfreman’s Brain Storms

Just this morning I finished reading Jon Palfreman’s highly accessible 2015 book, Brain Storms – The Race to Unlock the Mysteries of Parkinson’s Disease. I wrote the following review of it for my Goodreads book shelf.

Thank you to whoever recommended this book – not sure if it was Palfreman’s opinion article The Bright Side of Parkinson’s in the NY Times Sunday Review or Dance for PD. I am glad to have found and read it.

Palfreman writes with grace and with a story teller’s eye, demystifying the complexities of brain science and pharmaceuticals. He traverses the history of Parkinson’s research all the way from its initial discovery by James Parkinson to the many scientists currently working on myriad approaches to preventing, curing and reversing the disease.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has any connection to Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or any of the other neurodegenerative diseases that abound. I found myself breathing a curious sigh of relief just knowing that there are so many people who are trying to resolve these diseases, and there are many more people trying to live with these diseases. My Dad was one of them, with the double whammy of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Not knowing what my future will hold, I take solace and advice from books like this one. And I leave you with two of the most interesting facts that Palfreman shares.

How a person with Parkinson’s chooses to live may be as crucial to his well-being as which medicines he takes. Research supports the idea that patients who exercise regularly (as I explored in chapter 7) and who keep a positive attitude and remain socially and mentally engaged do much better than those who withdraw from the world. Whether this is because of the neuroprotective effects of exercise and engagement or a robust placebo effect is still to be determined.

Everything, and I mean everything that I have ever read about promoting a healthy aging brain states the same results: EXERCISE and SOCIALIZE. And engage in novel, challenging activities.

The second highly interesting fact that Palfreman mentions is the placebo effect, which I find amazing and suggestive of the human power of optimism and determination. Hmm, those last two sound like the “positive attitude” noted in the first interesting fact!

It turns out that many times people who received a placebo, instead of some of the actual treatments described in the book, wound up having a positive effect that often lasted for a considerable amount of time. The questions this raises are twofold – Why can placebos be as powerful or more powerful than actual treatment? And what does this mean for certain invasive treatments if the placebo can do as much or more good than the invasive surgery?

…the Rush University neuroscientist Christopher Goetz mentioned in an update to the Parkinson’s community the intriguing and somewhat controversial topic of the placebo effect… Goetz the clinical neurologist believes it is an effect worth keeping. As he puts it, “I use the placebo effect when I greet my patients, when I encourage them, when I tell them we’re a partnership… [I] would never want to eliminate it in the clinic.” But Goetz the scientist sees the placebo effect as a liability. “In a trial, if the patient gets just as good effect with sham surgery as having some kind of foreign cell implanted, then we have a problem.” That’s the conundrum in a nutshell.

Sit? Stand? Move!

I have a standing desk in my office. Easily adjustable, it can be lowered to function as a sitting desk, but I only use it as a standing one because directly opposite is the counter at which I used to sit. That counter is now used as a staging area or as a place to sit for lunch.

After reading a NY Times article this past November, Stand More at Work, Sit More at Home, I decided to do an experiment. Initially, my experiment was going to run for a full week, but it quickly became apparent this would not be necessary.

I tracked my sitting and standing times on a typical weekend day, in this case Sunday, November 15 (my birthday!) I tried to avoid consciously changing behaviour in order to keep the results as true as possible, and here is what the result was: 6 hours 30 minutes spent sitting, 8 hours 5 minutes spent standing.

The next day, Monday, November 16, I tracked my sitting and standing standing desk at worktime at school. When teaching, I am typically on my feet in different classrooms. My office is on the second floor of a building, requiring me to use one long and one short set of stairs to go up and down, something that I do multiple times each day. Our school campus has four buildings, and my office, where all my supplies are located, is not in the same building as the classrooms in which I teach. The result: 6 hours 32 minutes spent sitting, 9 hours 50 minutes spent standing.

I stopped my experiment at this point, because the goal was to compare a weekend day to a work day, and all of my work days are similar in terms of standing, sitting, and walking around.

Of course, all of this made me wonder WHY is it better for humans to stand than to sit. According to James Levine of the Mayo Clinic,

The impact of movement – even leisurely movement – can be profound. For starters, you’ll burn more calories. This might lead to weight loss and increased energy. Even better, the muscle activity needed for standing and other movement seems to trigger important processes related to the breakdown of fats and sugars within the body. When you sit, these processes stall – and your health risks increase. When you’re standing or actively moving, you kick the processes back into action.

His full article is available here.

The operative word in Levine’s comments above is movement. Research has shown that it is movement, not simply standing, that makes a difference in our overall health. Thus, no matter how you slice it, sitting too long is a health hazard, as artfully depicted in this Washington Post infographic.

For reference, here are some past posts related to movement:

  • Move It!  – how exercise boosts brain power
  • Exercise Lights A Spark – the first of two posts about John Ratey’s book SPARK, provides background for the second post
  • Mostly in Ratey’s Words – explains the benefits of exercise on learning, particularly the Science of exercise’s impact on the hippocampus