L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Certified Gerontologist

Does Ageing Suck? Part 1

May 20, 2019

“Aging sucks! There is nothing good about it!” my friend said. And, as she said it, her face looked as if she had just eaten a sourball candy, or worse. Two days later, another woman made the same face and with as much anger in her voice repeated those exact words, and last week I heard this same reframe from a few other friends’ mouths. It got me thinking. Do I agree with them? 

A few parts of me don’t work quite as well as they did a few years ago, now that I am in middle adulthood—my right hip—from my ice skating days, bothers me more often that it did ten years ago, But, I am healthier overall than when I turned fifty. I do special exercises to help my old injury, and when I do them, they work well to keep the pain away, or hovering around a 1/2, on a scale from 1-10. I also help my body by taking good supplements. I found these become key components to maintaining good health as I age and lose the protection offered by my pre-menopausal armor of hormones.  Finding a qualified professional to help me get on the correct vitamin regime is making all the difference.

As far as aging and mental helath, I am as sharp, with only an occasional brain blip, which is due to stress, not getting older. How do I know this? When I return from vacation, or do my meditation practice regularly, information comes instantly. My tap class, and regular piano practice also keep me mentally strong. I know both contribute to my good recall, as well.

After pondering why these women, and others who only see the negative in the ageing process, I recognized that many of us hang on to regrets about losing our youth, things we didn’t do or get to do because of other choices we made. We may be angry that the past, or “easier” parts of our lives are over– when we all were building our careers, had flexible bodies, and more energy than we needed. I also realized that some of us haven’t re-chosen how we want our lives to be.We are in contrast/opposition to what the great Byron Katie calls, Loving What Is. A couple of regrets from my youth still pique my composure, but I work to release those anger knots. In time, I can sense that with practice, they become softer, smaller, and more crumbly than they once felt. 

It helps knowing that whenever we don’t like the way our lives are going, we have the power to re-choose—from as big a decision as choosing a new life path, a new partner, a new locale to call home, to smaller things such as getting rid of unflattering clothes in the closet, or reflecting on who we are now. Even changing our lipstick color to one that better complements our skin tone, signing up to volunteer, planting some flowers, helping a neighbor in need, or trying out a new recipe moves us forward and helps us feel empowered. 

Regret is the biggest time waster on the planet—next to trying to “fix” someone you love 😉 Anger corrodes our insides, shrinks our brain, and makes us look twenty years older than our real age. All facts. Do you really want to subject the only body you will ever have to that kind of abuse? Really?

To be honest, there are days when I don’t love what is going on at that moment in my life, and I would like to chuck it all and move to a tree house with no phone and a hungry, non-endangered tiger circling below. What I know at these times is I am overtaxed. I need a break. I need to refill my energy tanks. Then, however I can, I re-choose my circumstances to allow me to get the self-care I need until I am topped off and ready to step back into the world.  So how does this tie into a worldview that aging sucks? I shift from a place of disempowerment, to replenishing my power by re-choosing what I focus on. This will not change my hip pain, nor rid me of my cellulite, but it lowers my stress, and allows me to see what is going right, where my blessings lie. To reinforce feeling empowered, I do my Gratitude Meditation, and list not just five good things in my life, but as many as I can think of, and I write them in my pretty journal I keep just for that purpose. Looking back on the completed pages and books puts me in a place of seeing both good and bad and realizing how the good stuff so overwhelms the bad stuff. Life can be really tough, but sometimes handling it well might just be a matter of perspective.

…To be continued.

Until next time….Be Vibrant!    

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What it Means to Age in Place

May 13, 2019

Home…Going home…Being home. Those words envelop my soul, and bring a feeling of calm, of exhaling, of comfort, and warmth, and safety. One of my greatest fears, and a fear shared by  mid-lifers and older adults I know, is not being able to stay at home until the angels call me/us home. Gerontologists, researchers, and policymakers have a phrase for this desire to stay in one’s home. We call it aging in place, and more and more we hear about what it means, and what the implications are for losing our ability to stay at home as we get older. I can sense a quick intake of breath here, and a visceral reaction to the image conjured up in your mind of having to leave your home to live in a a nursing facility or retirement community if you really want to stay at home. I feel exactly the same way, which spurs me every day to stay as vibrant as I possibly can to avoid being forced to give up home. 

What environmental gerontologists (yes, that’s a special subset of the discipline) find from many recent studies validates what we all feel. One of the first studies to actually ask seniors what they thought about aging in place was done by Dr. Janine Wiles at the University of Auckland. Dr. Wiles found these folks felt very strongly about wanting to stay in their homes, but not so much for the physical structure of their house, but for the ancillary elements of “staying put,” as many called it. Chief among the reasons they want to age in place comes from wanting to be independent, and having control over their environment and their lives as a whole. 

In fact, a pivotal study done in the UK decades ago found that the more control workers had, i.e., the higher up they were on the work ladder, the less they experienced the effects of aging because they felt less stressed. Those at the bottom of the ladder, with little control, exhibited the most stress, and aged the fastest. Dr. Robert Sapolsky in a book I have mentioned before, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, saw this so clearly in the animal kingdom, as well. Keeping their independence also meant less dependence on family in terms of needing their help with personal care, or being able to stay independent “through” family who step in to provide personal care and support. 

Next on the list, the New Zealanders mentioned the connection to social support, including friends and family. Their connections to neighbors and the neighborhoods in which they live were major sources of comfort and feelings of security through familiarity. Don’t you draw comfort from your neighborhood if you have lived there a long time? My husband often mentions the feeling of ease he has walking our third dog, George, around the block in the evenings. These are the same blocks we have walked with our previous two puppies, for almost thirty years.

Financial benefits came next. When we do the math, it is much cheaper to stay in one’s home, especially since many seniors have almost paid off their mortgages. More than twenty percent of seniors 65-74 own their homes outright.. This makes staying at home much easier if outside caregivers are needed at some point. Systems of support and one’s family enable seniors in many areas of the country to age in place.

The science also tells us that aging in place slows our memory loss.  Staying at home allows us to keep our current social network of friends and familiar places, One of the worst things for our cognition, memory, and spirits is having to leave our homes against our wishes, for any reason.

As a former interior designer, I know several colleagues who are now becoming certified aging in place specialists—designers who help retro-fit one’s home with everything one needs to be safe and comfortable. This may include adding ramps,  changing out bathrooms fixtures or creating a same floor living space for greater convenience.  God bless these wonderful folks! 

As Dr. Wiles summed up so well, “The friendships, clubs, access to resources, and familiar environments [makes] them feel attached to their communities as ‘insiders,’ ” and just as we knew in high school and beyond, being an insider always feels like coming home.

Until next time….Be Vibrant!

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People Ask Me, “Please Define Gerontology.”

May 6, 2019

Sometimes I am asked to explain the difference between the words gerontology and geriatrics. Geriatrics, and geriatricians, who are often medical doctors, focus only on the medical conditions and diseases of the aged, while Gerontology is the study of the process of aging, which includes wisdom for aging gracefully, and aging with dignity. Gerontology and gerontologistslook at the multi-faceted aspects of aging and the aging process, as it relates to the physical health, mental health, emotional well being, and social relationships of seniors. It is called a multidisciplinary field, as it brings together the study of psychology (the study of the mind and the mental processes with the science of personality), biology (the general study of the body), physiology (the mechanical, physical, and biochemical processes of the body, or the functions and processes of the body) and sociology (the study of social relationships). In essence, we examine (treat) the whole person. Ours is the study of body, mind, and spirit 

We also consider the theories of aging, age-related diseases, and the risk factors associated with aging. We look at ways to slow the aging process and disrupt aging.  Most importantly, gerontologists look at preventable changes in our health and the many options for healthy aging, successful aging, as it is sometimes called. This information is constantly emerging from the latest science which supports aging in place. We study how to preserve and enhance our cognition and memory, and optimize all aspects of our aging brain with healthy foods and supplements chosen to best nourish our bodies as we get older. We pay attention to how social relationships and social connection work to keep us vital and engaged every day. We also look at healthy ways to reverse premature aging in our brains and bodies, without drugs or questionable chemicals.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the life expectancy in the U.S. will be 77 years for men and 82 years for women by the year 2020. We, the aging population, face major challenges in maintaining our health and wellness. Certified gerontologists are specifically trained to meet and answer these challenges. I love what I do to help people, especially women, be as vibrant as they can be at every age, and I am honored to be an aging expert in service to my friends, fans, and followers around the world.  

Until next time….Be Vibrant!

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Dancing May Be the Best Aerobic Exercise to Reduce Dementia

April 28, 2019

Now we know that four types of aerobic exercise are what we’re aiming for to maximize our telomeres, but there is more to think about to boosting your brain power than just our telomeres. There’s also the matter of retaining our motor skills, shoring up our balance and increasing a different type of memory. 

Research shows that dancing is a promising candidate for countering the age-related decline in our physical and mental abilities; dancing to improve your memory is now showing up in several studies. Aerobic exercise helps in both these areas, but the positive effects of dancing will make you want to sign up for that tap class!

We know the hippocampus plays a vital part in our major cognitive processes—memory and learning, but what you may not know is it is also involved with helping us maintain our balance, something crucial for our well-being and quality of life at any age. While aerobic exercise does its magic growing and maintaining our telomeres in our hippocampus– reversing hippocampus damage overall, as well as all the organs and cells of our bodies, it falls off the list when it comes to helping us stay steady on our feet and feeling grounded. Adding a dance class to our weekly regime can tip our balance from tottering and falling off our stilettos to confidently working the room on them. 

Even more reason to put on your dancing shoes is what dancing does to the long-term health of our brain. Science lesson for today:  two significant studies, one involving more than four hundred and seventy older adults found that dancing created significant (by research standards) cognitive changes in the participants when compared to traditional repetitive exercise—biking, walking, swimming.  After just six months of regular dance classes, verses regular aerobic exercise, the parahippocampal gyrus (the tissue of the brain that surrounds the hippocampus) of the dancers was bigger. Research also shows skipping the workouts of the parahippocampal regions creates an early red flag on the track towards Alzheimer’s (you can forget that term, now.)  This part of the hippocampus is directly involved with, among other things, storing our memories of last weekend’s great dinner with friends and the important passwords needed to unlock the computers at work.  It’s necessary to process those correctly so that they get filed in the right file—the lasagna recipe goes into the Splurge file; your seven-digit, with at least one capital letter and two even numbers goes into the “Notes” app on your phone. We need to keep it all straight so that later, we can correctly recall everything. 

The dancers also showed significant improvements in manual dexterity, spatial memory-remembering where things are in relation to yourself, tactile discrimination-the sensitivity of our fingertips and our ability to tell the difference between textures, different surfaces, and the like. But, best of all their motor skills were much better than the traditional exercise group. For even more good news: following up for 5.1 years afterward, the dancers showed a markedly reduced risk of developing dementia. How great is that for swinging to the beat once a week? 

In looking at the details of the dance program, we find what makes this form of fun so beneficial: the dance program required the participants to constantly learn new dance patterns. These folks weren’t just doing the watusi every week. And here in lies the key mental health benefits of dancing– making the brain work hard each week to learn those new steps creates the change and growth of our brain, and muscles. The onslaught of unique information each week challenged the minds of these seniors and forced their brains to lay down new nerve tracks and make new nerve connections. The time period of 18 months seems to be an important factor for making these new pathways permanent. More study is needed, but many signs point toward this length of time. 

Knowing this, and since getting my husband to take dancing lessons just didn’t work out in his schedule, I took up tap dancing. I am very, very bad at it, having never done it before, but I can say it has helped my memory. My thoughts come just a little easier, and I can more quickly recall things.  Even my balance has improved a good leap! 

Additionally, there is another component contributing to the sustained increase in the cortex volume of our senior dancers: music. And that is our topic for next week—the winning combination of music and movement. Stay tuned!

Until next time…Dance Vibrantly! 

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How Stress Negatively Impacts Your Memory

April 22, 2019

Have you had any luck with single-tasking this week? Even driving without talking, or texting, is a step forward. Keep at it. The rewards are vast from just being present and doing one thing at a time, the great masters called this mindfulness, and it is something to strive for. Today, I want to delve in a bit more to the effects of cortisol on our brains, and how stress and memory loss are intimately connected.  

I am guessing that many of us thought by the time we were eligible for AARP, as older people were portrayed in movies and television when we were growing up, we would be slowing down and heading for time in the RV to See America First. Somehow, life didn’t quite turn out that way, and I for one, am busier than ever, partly because of our 24/7-always-connected world. This busyness causes stress on our bodies, and raises our cortisol levels at a time when biologically our bodies have down-shifted from firing on all cylinders, all the time, as when we were 25.

Chronic stress– caring for a loved one, a long-term negative work situation, divorce, grieving the death of a spouse/partner/child, financial pressures or health problems, causes our cortisol levels to rise and stay elevated. The result is a cascade of effects that puts our immune system, all our hormonal systems (which help regulate every organ and function in our body), and our neurological system (system of nerves) from head to toe at risk of going haywire. In future blogs I will talk more about the effects of stress on the body. Here, I want to touch on what happens to our ability to retrieve data, store data, reasoning, learning something new—the entire scope of processing  information we are required to do a million times every day. 

Extensive research reveals the direct link between memory and stress and cortisol levels. Consistently high levels of cortisol impairs all these functions—we can’t remember things we once knew we knew, we are unable to hold new information in our minds, and our ability to think and navigate successfully in the world is diminished. This bundle of brain functions are called “working memory.” I think of what cortisol’s short-circuiting does to our working memory like a piano with missing keys; when I play Moonlight Serenade, the missing notes makes Glenn Miller’s classic sound odd. Cortisol has the ability to make our memory act odd. I recall during a particularly stressful period a few years ago, I could not pull up words I wanted to use. My memory would literally go blank, nothing would come– my circuitry was shut down, everyone gone home for the night. It was scary. After the period passed, my word retrieval, along with my ability to remember why I went into a room, returned. I was grateful.

As I mentioned last week, over time and as we get older, chronic stress causes our brains to change shape, and sections—most notably the front part of our brains, will actually shrink, forever ending our ability to have optimal brain or memory function. Sadly, MRI’s show this to be true. When I started my studies to become a gerontologist, I learned in-depth how seriously stress messes with our minds, and as we enter middle age our bodies don’t have the same reserves to preserve brain function. 

Right now, this red-hot minute, lowering our stress level should become our #1 priority, because, the good news is: when we do, our bodies and our memory can recover and heal. Starting next week I am going to begin talking about ways to do just that, not only to stop the decline, but boost our health and memory and turn our backs on memory-robbing dementia.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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