Archive for Aging

Mindfulness Comes To The Rescue

Screen Shot 2018-09-01 at 10.29.15 AMIn my last post I talked about the importance of Kabat Zinn’s Mindfulness for older people. In his book Brain Rules For Aging Well, Medina says: “It is not an exaggeration to say that Kabat Zinn’s ideas revolutionized the field of mind-body medicine, putting it on a firm scientific footing. Now his technique is one of the most powerful anti-stress therapies ever shown to actually work in the elderly population (p. 77.)”

Medina’s praise for Mindfulness was enough to convince me this was something I needed to explore. So, what is Mindfulness? It’s about paying absolute attention to whatever is happening in the moment without judging your experience. Frankly, when things go wrong, I find it very hard not to wish things were different. If only I could accept events without judgment, I could join the ranks of mindful seniors who handle stress well and have a marked reduction in depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction could improve my memory too, because cortisol would not be causing my hippocampus to atrophy. (See the previous post about stress and memory.) Even if this part of my brain has already atrophied because of stress, the good news is that the hippocampus is capable of neurogenesis. (Remember when scientists believed that the brain never changed for the better? or that it was capable of healing?)

Mindfulness demands two things. First, we have to pay attention to what’s happening right now. Second, we have to stop wishing things were different. You can’t be mindful if you’re caught up in wanting a different reality. I find this very difficult. Accepting whatever’s happening right now without judgment seems almost impossible.

So what does an average day look like now that I’m practicing Mindfulness?

pexels-photo-268134There are some changes to my routine. For example, I’ve always listened to the radio as I work around the house. Now the radio is turned off while I try to concentrate solely on washing the dishes or separating the garbage for recycling. Walking along the shore of the lake, if I find my mind wandering, I tune into sounds, the feeling in my feet or the number of oak trees lining the path. Anything to keep from daydreaming or worrying about something that might never happen.

At some point during the day, I do the body scan. In the U-Tube’s body scan, Kabat Zinn’s gentle voice instructs you to lie down and listen as he guides you through a deep letting go of each part of your body. The trick is to stay awake. For me, this means doing the body scan early in the day before I get tired. It’s really hard not to drift off with the sonorous voice telling you to breathe into your belly.

Then there’s daily meditation. That’s no problem for me. I have a long-established habit of making space for meditation each morning. Basically, Mindfulness meditation is a practice of concentrating on the rise and fall of the belly, as you pay attention to your inhaling and exhaling.

“The twin ideas of awareness and acceptance can literally rewire your … brain,” says Medina (p.80.) I’d certainly like to meet those calm, happy seniors who’ve mastered this way of being in the world and I’d like to hear from other people who have pursued and struggled with Mindfulness. If you struggle with or successfully practice Mindfulness, I’d appreciate reading your comments in the space below.














There’s No Such Thing as Multi-Tasking

man-with-index-fingers-at-the-temples_1187-2926I’ve been reading John Medina’s book Brain Rules for Aging Well. Medina, a molecular biologist, presents his guiding principles for healthy aging. He writes with the scientific rigour you would expect from a scientist. At the same time, Brain Rules for Aging Well is an enjoyable, reader-friendly book. Having worked my way through it, I feel more informed about what truly contributes to healthy aging.  Here are a couple of my new insights.

Medina has set me straight about multi-tasking. He says: “Scientists have known for years that true multitasking is a myth. It’s impossible for any brain to monitor two attention-rich targets simultaneously. The only way your brain can track multiple targets is to use a task-switching strategy (p.116.)”

I’d always known that the aging brain, unlike younger brains, is incapable of doing two things at once. Witness the older person trying to carry on a conversation while writing a note to a friend. Younger people can do both at once. I had always attributed this to the aging brains’ inability to multi-task. Medina sets the record straight.

“Older folks concentrate on tasks just as well as younger ones, maybe even better. What’s at stake here is the increasing inability to ignore distractions. This is what makes it hard for the older person to manage two tasks at once (p. 225.)”  He continues: “Our ability to ignore distractions declines from a high of 82 per cent when younger to a low of 56 per cent when older.” Scientists call this ‘divided attention,’ not ‘multi-tasking.’ It’s the increasing inability to ignore distractions (p. 115.)   It simply gets harder for us to switch between tasks with age (p.115.)  After all, Medina points out, we’re living in a body that was never built to handle life past thirty.

Then there’s the matter of cortisol, the steroid hormone that’s released when we’re stressed. Too much cortisol damages the brain.

“When too much cortisol hangs around too long, it can actually whittle away at hippocampal tissue, causing the organ to atrophy (p. 71.)”  You will remember that the hippocampus is responsible for our memory. What older person isn’t worried about memory loss?

The bad news gets worse. As we age, we don’t calm down as quickly as we once did. That means an even greater release of cortisol.

Medina explains that this steroid hormone was meant to help the body respond to stress. That was all very well for animals or for our primitive ancestors.  Their stressors were short lived. Either you managed to run faster than the tiger, or you were eaten and that was the end of it.  The problem is, for us humans, stressors are usually complex, about relationships or money: not issues that are over quickly. We end up with too much cortisol in our systems and this damages parts of the brain, especially the hippocampus.

At this point I shiver with fear. Old age itself is stressful, even if your life runs smoothly. Considering my own life path and the rough road I’ve been travelling, I figure I’m doomed to memory loss. I shudder to think how much cortisol my own body’s fight-or-flight response has been dumping on my hippocampus. After all, in the past three years I’ve left a marriage after 55 years, moved four times, got really sick in Arizona and now am concentrating on recovering in a retirement home until I’m well enough to get my own apartment again.

But wait! There’s hope, says Medina. The hippocampus is capable of making new neural tissue if you practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is about cultivating the habit of paying close attention to any task we’re carrying out and staying very present to our surroundings. If I learn to practice this, I’ll not only stay calm, I’ll give my hippocampus a chance to hold more memory.

In my next post, I’ll let you know how I’m making out with my new practice of mindfulness.

Worst Time In My Life


If you regularly read my blogs, you know I haven’t posted for a long time.  That’s because the first half of 2018 has probably been the hardest and worst time in my life. Returning from Arizona, where I intended to spend a glorious winter, I could barely breathe. I was limp, depressed and helplessly weak. In retrospect, it’s hard to know how much of my weakened state was purely physical (Is there such a thing?) – and how much was emotional.

My son and daughter-in-law took me in and looked after me until I moved to – yikes! – a retirement home. I don’t know how long I’ll stay here. I’ll probably move out to an apartment to live on my own before too long. Meanwhile Sammy and I have a charming suite right on Lake Ontario, in the very centre of Kingston’s busy downtown.

Sammy really enjoys life among these old people with their ever-present walkers. We even have a fenced-in grassy area just outside our bedroom window.  Sammy hops through the window to relieve himself or to bark at passersby.  No longer do I need to take him outside last thing at night and first thing in the morning. (Every cloud has a silver lining?)

Meanwhile as I recover my health, I continue to look for reliable information on healthy aging. My latest discovery is a remarkable book by New York Times bestselling author John Medina. It’s called Brain Rules For Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp.  Dr. Medina is a scientist, a molecular biologist. His findings are well researched and his book is very readable.

Not too long from now, in my next posting, , I’ll tell you more about what Medina can teach us.

Caution Snowbirds

sand stormIf you’ve been reading these blog posts, you know how my recent plans to become a snowbird and escape Kingston’s blustery winters totally backfired. Back in November, I was looking forward to five months of sun and blue skies in southern Arizona where I’d rented the perfect house for Sammy the poodle, visiting friends and myself. My plans remained just that: plans. They all fell through and I was left feeling very lonely in my chosen paradise. That was bad enough, but then I got sick and ended up in hospital. Things had gone from bad to worse. Now  I was alone and helpless in a strange country. I was terrified.

I’d come to Arizona because of my lung condition. The air is said to be ideal for people whose breathing is compromised. In the early days in Arizona, even before I got sick, I often sensed  there was something in the air my lungs didn’t like. This was only a suspicion. Then I became very, very sick.

I needed my friend Barb to come and get me. She did and we started the drive back to Canada. By the time we got to the north of Arizona, I could barely breathe. That meant another trip to another emergency department. Here I was told that there wasn’t an available hospital bed in the whole state. What was happening? Arizona, of course, is the place people with lung problems come. How come all the beds were full?

I could only wonder.

Then, the other day, (in April) a friend sent me an air quality study from the very area I’d chosen for my snowbird experience.  The Environmental Protection Agency report of April 2018 reveals that Pima County, Green Valley and Sahuarita, the exact location I’d chosen, reported some serious air quality problems.

Two copper mines adjoin the suburbs of Green Valley and Sahuarita. When I first arrived in the area, I thought the yellow hills in the distance were mountains. They turned out to be piles of tailings, the ground-up rock that’s left after valuable minerals have been extracted.

Recently when high winds sent “huge dust clouds swirling” through the area where I had lived,  the Environmental Protection Agency became concerned. Their officials began investigating “how much, if at all, the mine tailings contributed to the dust problem in violation of county air-quality laws.”

Their report goes on to say:

“The particles can cause or aggravate lung or other respiratory problems such as asthma. “

There are other possible causes contributing to the harmful effect of air quality.

“Significant amounts of dust were also noted in the general Green Valley area, including the surrounding desert area and dirt roads throughout the valley.”

The moral of the story? Before you set out on your vacation, check the air quality.

There Are “Plans” And Then There’s What Actually Happens


There Are “Plans,” and Then There’s What Actually Happens

I heard the above saying last September during my birthday trip to the Grand Canyon. It was after that trip that I boldly made plans to avoid Canada’s winter by renting a house in sunny Arizona.

As I write this, I’ve been back in Kingston long enough to reflect on my disastrous first attempt at being a snowbird. What went wrong? I’d planned it all so carefully. Five days of driving 700 miles a day would get me to the warm, dry air of Green Valley, Arizona. My friend Barb would share the driving so that Sammy the Poodle could travel by car, not airplane. We’d take a generous break in the middle of the day for a leisurely meal and a trip to the local off-leash dog park.

Barb would stay for a brief holiday before flying back to Ontario. After that, Shirley, a fellow writer, would spend November with me while she wrote her book. My son and his family would arrive for Christmas. And so on it went, until April when it was time to get back in the car and return to Canada’s warm weather.  

The rental house was perfect. It was a white stucco bungalow with generous guest space and a walled-in yard for Sammy. Afternoons I sat at my computer in the Arizona Room watching the late afternoon sky gradually turn mauve and pink. To my right was the sunset; to my left, the Santa Rita Mountains. Arizona wins the prize for great dog parks and, unlike northern parks, they have running water.  

It wasn’t long before my well-laid plans began to fall apart. First, my book-writing colleague found herself involved in a family situation that demanded her physical presence with them.

Next, the Ontario Community College strike went on and on. This meant that staff and students would not be getting a full Christmas break. Since my son teaches at St. Lawrence College, he and his family would be in Kingston for the holiday and I’d be alone.

By now it was January. Other possible guests were delaying their visits. Worse, I was feeling more and more unhealthy. I felt sick … and depressed. I was alone and scared. There were no old friends and no family in Arizona. Clearly, this was not a good place for me.  

By the time I gave up on my dream of spending the winter in the Arizona desert, I had become very sick. In fact, I could barely look after myself. It was warm and it was beautiful, but it certainly wasn’t doing me a lot of good. I needed to return to family and friends and to Canada’s health care system. And so, by the end of January, I was back in Ontario, toughing out the blizzards and the cold as I tried to recover my health.