Lift Your Spirits and Your Skirt this Season

Every time we enter a retail establishment, turn on the TV, or get a whiff of the new pumpkin spiced mouthwash, we know the holiday blitz has arrived. This season of celebrations with fantasy-perfect family gatherings, delicious food and later, sparkling lights and pine scented overload, is not the easiest time for everyone. Amid Susan learning to believe, and Clarence getting his wings, many among us struggle with feeling alone and depressed during the holidays. This is true for people of all ages, but those of us with a few decades behind us can feel it even more. The longing for loved ones with whom we once shared holidays -- be they parents, grandparents, or a spouse, who have passed away; or family members and friends who live great distances from us, often becomes especially painful around this time of year. SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder-also called “winter depression” can compound our unhappy feelings, and do a double-whammy on our ability to enjoy the season, so much that it is now a recognized disorder among older adults. Financial issues can also contribute to feelings of depression during the season of More is Better and Greed is Good. 

So, how do we lift our sagging hearts from lower than our knees and feel as light as a snowflake and as happy as a four year-old? One way is to lift our skirts, or boots, if you’re a man, and go dancing. I wrote many words earlier this year about the benefits of dancing, and so have a look at Shake Your Booty or The Rhythm of the Drums, and find a place this season to take a partner, or join a group, and dance the night away. The research shows what relationships do for our health is so positive, and letting go and following the rhythm of the beat can give us a well-needed release of serotonin-- the feel-good hormone, boost our immune systems, and bring on restorative sleep. Sounds like a winning combo to me. Many studies prove that our resistance to getting cancer, heart disease, and even dementia, as well as a bushel basket of other chronic diseases is greatly enhanced when we are connected to people in social, and even better in intimate ;-) situations. In fact, we add nine years to our life expectancy by hanging with others.

The data is in and the news is good: Those who volunteer, mentor, or simply lend a compassionate ear are healthier, experience higher self-esteems, and report feeling happier about their lives and life in general. I discussed above joining in a Bogie Nights Fest, or a Square Dancing Marathon, and here are some other ways to connect this season:

  1. 1.Check out holiday events in your area. Look online or in the newspaper for a list of events for all ages; pick a few and go! You will either have a good time, or a good story to tell.  Additionally, go to the website, for information about special interest groups or social groups for older adults in your area.

  2. 2.Sign up to volunteer. This is the season of giving, so up the gratitude quotient in your own life, and give some back to those in need. You will feel the joy of the season and reap the health benefits that come from serving others. An added bonus--you're also more likely to meet like-minded people looking to expand their own social networks!

  3. 3.Mentor a child, or spend time with children. The International Council on Active Aging reported that people over 55 who volunteered to assist school children or tutor not only improved cognitive function, but also burned twice as many calories as non-volunteers. (Isn’t that great news!) Being with children requires that we become more active and focused. Kids also remind us to believe again, as we did in our own childhoods, in fairies and Santa Claus, and that all things are possible. Then at the end of the day, they go home and you go home, to different houses. What could be better?

Even in this wild world we are living in, we can experience much happiness and joy  this season, and all year long, if we chose to embrace it. We can overcome our feeling of loneliness and depression by opening the door and stepping outside, breathing in the crisp air, and choosing to extend our hand to a fellow human who could be lonely, as well. Nothing I know warms up cold fingers faster.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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A Win-Win to Cope With Loneliness This Holiday Season

Want to fill TWO glasses to overflowing during the holiday season-- both yours if you struggle with depression and loneliness during the holidays, and that of a senior citizen living in a care facility or who spends their days at a senior citizen center? That answering elixir is poured from the same bottle: spending time with a person living in a care community combats loneliness. 

As we have discussed previously, social connection, that is, human face-to face, heart-to-heart visits are the most potent way to change negative feelings of loss and isolation to feelings of happiness and contentment. And, these visits benefit the giver just as much as the receiver. Isn’t that the coolest? 

From my blog on September 24th, Our Vibrant Hearts,  we know that no matter our age, we all need social connections to stay healthy. Seniors are no different from twenty-five or forty-five year olds; they’ve just aged a bit. Many of us now have someone—a parent or grandparent, or an extended family member living in a care community. These folks would jump for joy, perhaps only in their own minds, to have a visit from you. This becomes especially true during November and December when they may be yearning for past joyous holiday seasons with loved ones who are no longer here on Earth. This is true for many seniors living in care facilities, and even more so if they don’t have any family, their family is far away, estranged, or just not interested. Now, for the exciting good news? The loneliness and depression both you and the senior might be feeling will melt away like the first snowfall when the two of you share time and stories and, maybe a mug of cocoa, together. Research shows us how powerful these visits are to increase meaningful connection during the holidays, lift the fog of depression and bring joy to every one participating. It also shows that a little goes a long way for both parties. Grand gestures aren’t necessary. There’s no need to spend a lot of money on gifts or plan elaborate get-togethers.  Happiness resides in the small things, listening being the number one gift, followed by just holding a person’s hand. These gestures rank as the kindest, most comforting acts one person can give to another; the giver becomes the receiver in the same moment. 

This holiday season make a point to visit your elders if you are feeling down, or volunteer an hour or so at a senior care facility. First, contact the facility to be clear on the visiting hours and any planned special events. Then, schedule your visit during a free time so that your senior can relish the one-on-one time with just you. Most older adults love to be around children, especially at the holidays, so bring yours or borrow a niece, nephew, or cousin (assuming you know them well), and take along a favorite toy or book to entertain them just in case. One side note, if the kiddos are under the weather on the day of your planned visit, leave them behind. Seniors are much more susceptible to illness than younger people. After your visit, take a few minutes to sit quietly when you return home and think about how you feel. Savor the interaction as a gift you gave yourself and one you can repeat whenever you have time. That is a blessing of the season.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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More Answers From Dr. Claudia Harsh

I am ending this month by returning to our expert, Dr. Claudia Harsh, who offers us all more good information about breast cancer and women 55+.

Can breast cancer ever be cured? What is the percentage of return if contracted before menopause? After menopause? 

Using the word “cure” is problematic because it doesn’t answer the question of WHY the cancer developed in the first place. A better way to look at this is “what do we know about preventing breast cancer recurrence?” The number of breast cancer survivors in the United States continues to increase. A review article quoted that there were 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States in 2012 and showed the number expanded to 3.4 million in 2015. This is happening because of improved early detection, improved chemotherapy options both during treatment and after treatment is completed, and a better understanding of hereditary breast cancer with the use of proactive “prophylactic” surgeries. If breast cancer is detected before menopause, we know there is an increased risk of a second cancer whether it is in the same breast in the same location (considered a recurrence) or in a different location in the same breast or in the opposite breast (considered a second primary cancer) over that patient’s lifetime. Why is this? Again, as I said before, one of the biggest risk factors is age. Increasing age will increase the risk of cancer. The percentages of recurrence or, a second primary cancer, is difficult to pin down. We know that one in five women will develop either a recurrence or, a second primary cancer, after completion of five years of post-treatment adjuvant therapy (tamoxifen for example). Recurrence rates are related to: 

  • The initial stage of cancer (how far it had spread) 

  • The type of breast cancer or grade (what the cells look like or what part of the breast tissue is involved)

  • The family history or presence of a gene associated with increased risk

  • Other treatment related factors such as radiation therapy

  • Post treatment anti-estrogen therapy

  • The use of granulocyte colony-stimulating factors (such as Neupogen™, Granix™ etc.) during treatment 

BUT NOW let’s talk about what we know that reduces the risk of recurrence! L.J has covered the most important ones in her blog post these last few weeks so to recap:  Increasing good carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, legumes, beans/lentils, whole grains, and natural soy products) and good fats (flaxseed, omega-3 fatty acids and nuts) are associated with improved survival. (Conversely, decreasing animal protein such as beef and pork along with trans-fats used in fried food will decrease your risk.) Increased exercise of 30 minutes five days a week is protective. Stress management techniques such as heart rate variability training (HeartMath™), meditation and decreasing body weight to less than 30 kg/m2 is protective. Avoiding tobacco use completely (both smoking and “vaping”) and limiting alcohol consumption to one drink/day is also protective. 

Are there any symptoms to watch for? 

Screening for breast cancer comes down to knowing your body and taking advantage of the technology that exists for screening. Watch for a lump in the breast or chest wall or armpit area. I often use the analogy of a grain of rice dried and stuck to the countertop when I teach women to detect their own cancer with their fingertips. Cancer is often (but not always) fixed or “stuck”, irregular to touch and associated with a skin dimple where it is pulling on the supportive ligaments of the breast. Nipple retraction, nipple discharge either clear or bloody, redness, scaling or thickening of the nipple can also be found. A rash on the breast that is unresponsive to antibiotics should be evaluated. Symptoms of recurrence can be new-onset localized bone pain, persistent chest pain, persistent cough, persistent abdominal pain, unintended weight loss, persistent headache, personality changes, new-onset seizures or loss of consciousness. 

Does contracting breast cancer before menopause increase the risk of getting it again after menopause? 

The short answer is yes. Cancer incidence increases with age – likely due to a cumulative effect of cell damage and less efficient repair. See the survivorship answer in question seven…

Breast cancer rates are increasing. Why? Is that for both pre and post- menopausal women?

Actually, the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the United States began decreasing in the year 2000 after increasing for the previous two decades. The risk dropped by 7% from 2002 to 2003. One theory is that this decrease was partially due to the reduced use of hormone replacement therapy by women after the results of the large study called the Women’s Health Initiative that showed a connection between hormone therapy use (specifically conjugated equine estrogen or Premarin™ and synthetic progestagens Provera™) that was published in 2002.  Reasons for the increased rates in the 1980’s and 90’s is likely related to improved screening techniques and increased numbers of women receiving screening.

Is post menopausal breast cancer hereditary? 

Although post menopause breast cancer can be hereditary about 10% of the time, most women with a genetic mutation causing breast cancer develop the tumor statistically earlier in their lives.

I am very grateful to Claudia for her thoughtful answers to some of the most pressing questions women have regarding breast cancer. I hope you, dear reader, have found them helpful, I know I have.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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Prevention On Our Plates

In drilling deep into breast cancer prevention for women, I find recommendations based on several factors. In aiding prevention for women before mid-life, prevention for postmenopausal women, and what suggestions help postmenopausal women who have had breast cancer, there exists some common approaches which are very encouraging. 

Regular, focused exercise across the lifespan wins the day as the number one risk reducer. I know dear reader, this seems like a broken refrain, but think of how many positive benefits we get from regular exercise, not the least exciting result is a trimmer figure and higher metabolism--allowing for the occasional pizza splurge, since isn’t the holy grail about having pizza? But, I digress. 

On the subject of diet, the latest research reveals some strong pros and cons for what we put on our plates. Several very large studies from both the US at the National Cancer Institute and The Oregon Health and Science University, and in China through The Shanghai Breast Cancer Study (SBCS), and included in research from Vanderbilt University, indicate making friends with vegetables is a great idea, especially a family of veggies call cruciferous. Don’t ask me to pronounce it, but I know them when I see the on the produce aisle:

  • Arugula

  • Bok Choy

  • Broccoli 

  • Cabbage

  • Cauliflower

  • Collard greens

  • Horseradish

  • Kale

  • Radishes

  • Rutabaga

  • Turnips

  • Watercress

  • Wasabi

This wide variety of vegetables can lower our risk of breast cancer (50%) and pancreatic cancer (38%), and a man’s risk of prostate cancer (46%) or pancreatic cancer (35%). One serving a day for postmenopausal women without a history of breast cancer gave them a 50% advantage over non-cruciferous eaters. That’s some heavy leafy armor. More studies are going on as I write, and I am hopeful these finding are further supported by these study results. If the vegetables were rated for firepower, the Bazooka Award would go to the simple cabbage and humble turnip, both vegetables readily available in many, many parts of the world and still pretty much ignored by Top Chefs.   

 To give us a little protein, eat fish, but stick to low mercury fish. A list of these low-mercury swimmers is regularly updated on, the top contenders by potency: mackerel, salmon, cod liver oil, herring and oysters. Red meat does not make the list, and on the big no-no list is charred (grilled) red meat. It seems that crusty, (slightly) burned areas are very carcinogenic (poisonous) for us humans and turn the breast cancer risk-meter way up.  Cutting out food which appears high on the glycemic index, something, along with insulin resistance, I discussed in my blog post Move it and Improve It can trim our risk. 

The science dovetails nicely with what we know makes up a healthy diet, providing many crossover benefits which raises our resistance breast cancer, while making our hair shinier, our skin clearer, lowering inflammation throughout our bodies, and helping us sleep better, and last, but such a bell-ringing winner, feeding our brains to improve our cognitive functions. Give those veggies a gold medal! (Cue national anthem ;-).

Until next time…Be Vibrant! 

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Belly Up To The Bar...Or, Not

I do love red wine, and I’m married to a wine lover, and I have really cut back on my alcohol consumption, wine included, since I learned about the connection between alcohol and breast cancer. 

From the Breast Cancer News website:

Just one alcohol-containing beverage a day — less than a standard drink — is sufficient to increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer, according to a new report by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF).

This mega-report, “Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Breast Cancer,” brought together 119 studies and included information from 12 million women, 260,000 who had breast cancer. The study found that there is a 5% increase in risk for women before menopause, and a 9% increase for women after menopause. That doesn’t sound like much, but if there is a family history of breast cancer, or if a woman has had breast cancer, the risk more than doubles. Double-digit risk of anything is enough to give a person something to think about before she orders that frozen strawberry margarita. 

In another study, The Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study, researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center looked at 87,000+ postmenopausal women without a prior history of breast cancer and found that the more drinks a woman had per week, the more her risk of invasive breast cancer increased. Again, if a woman has a family history or previous diagnosis, her risk more than doubled at 14 drinks per week, or two glasses of wine a night. Eek!

Now for the good news (whew!) There are ways to lower one’s risk. I don’t want to sound like the proverbial broken record, but our old friend, exercise, is showing up as a great way to lower our risk. In the mega-report mentioned above, pre-menopausal women who participated in vigorous exercise like running, biking fast, HIIT—High Intensity Interval Training (see my blog, Slowing Down the Aging Clock  from February 26, 2018), lowered their risk by double digits, 17%, to be exact. Postmenopausal women who Just Did It with vigor, lowered their risk by a full 10%. Moderate exercise lowered a woman’s risk when compared to women who weren’t active. For younger women of childbearing age, breastfeeding the wee ones gave these women added breast cancer protection at all stages of later life.

The American Institute of Cancer Research estimates that one in three cases of breast cancer can be prevented if a woman will cut out alcohol and be physically active every day. That’s good news to think about.  It’s also something we can control!

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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