Prevention Expert: What I Wish You Knew About Not Falling Down

(Courtesy of the CDC)

(Courtesy of the CDC)

By Dr. Audrey M. Provenzano
Guest contributor

One word comes to mind when I think about Mr. H: grit.

I met him while he was in the hospital with pneumonia, the latest in a long string of hospitalizations after he broke his hip in a fall. I would see him in the halls with the physical therapist, gripping his walker, utterly absorbed in the work of lifting each foot and placing it back down.

Every morning on rounds, Mr. H would joke with us: “You’re going to throw me outta this place today, right, doc? Don’t pass go, just go home!” But beneath his humor lurked true sorrow, anger and frustration over his loss of independence. Before his fall, Mr. H had never stayed overnight in the hospital; he took only a few medicines for high blood pressure, and lived alone with his cat — a simple life he lost in a second, and yearned each day to get back.

Many of us harbor secret fears about growing older, and what many of us fear most is the loss of independence, a tragic and terrifying possibility. I’d suggest a very specific focus for those fears: falls. The most common but least talked-about reason that older adults like Mr. H lose their independence is falling down.

Here is what I most wish everyone knew about falls: They are are common, they can be devastating and, most importantly, falls are preventable.

Falls are common

Incredibly common. Thirty percent of adults over 65 fall each year. Because falls happen all the time, we don’t think about how dangerous they are. Unfortunately, one in five falls results in serious injuries, including broken bones.

Falls can be devastating

Mr. H’s story is the story of hundreds of thousands of older adults. A fall may lead to surgery, and sometimes that leads to complications, like pneumonia. Some older adults in this situation regain enough function to go back home; sadly, many do not, and one in three is still living in a nursing home a year later.

Even worse, these types of injuries often lead to declining health overall, and 20 percent of older adults who break a hip die within one year from the medical complications that frequently attend such devastating injuries.

Falls can be prevented

How? Six key recommendations, backed by the CDC, some obvious, some less so: Continue reading

Caregiver Nation: Snapshot Of 43 Million Americans Who Give Unpaid Care



By Marina Renton
CommonHealth intern

A high-stress job that requires a full-time commitment for no pay.

What kind of work fits that description? The answer should resonate with more than 43 million Americans: unpaid family caregiving.

As the population ages and more people need care, the ratio of available family caregivers to care recipients is declining, and efforts to support family caregivers are beginning to make headway in the political sphere.

Among those who need that support most: “higher-hour” caregivers, who spend more than 21 hours a week on caregiving, according to “Caregiving in the U.S. 2015,” a report released this summer by the National Alliance for Caregiving and the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Ask Massachusetts resident Diane Gwynne, 56. After her mother’s sudden death this past December, Gwynne found herself trying to balance her career and household responsibilities with caring for her 92-year-old father, who has dementia.

“I was so overwhelmed,” Gwynne said of when she first started caring for her father. “It was so sudden. I didn’t even know where to turn.”

Last year, Gwynne’s mother had an intuition that the Christmas of 2014 would be the family’s last. Gwynne’s mother was in her 80s and her father was seven years older, in his 90s. Both were feeling the effects of age.

“My mother said, ‘I want to put all the decorations up, because I think this is going to be our last year all together,’ ” Gwynne recalls. Her mother, it turned out, was unknowingly predicting her own death: She passed away just before the New Year.

Suddenly, her bereaved children found themselves managing the estate, taking their father to medical appointments, and making arrangements for his day-to-day care.

Caregivers By The Numbers

Caregiving in the U.S. 2015,” a report that comes out every few years and aims to profile the nation’s family caregivers, looks at the demographics of family caregivers, along with the emotional, physical and financial challenges they face.

Based on the results of online interviews with 1,248 adult caregivers who provide care to adults, the report offers a quantitative snapshot of the country’s caregivers. Among its findings:

• Approximately 43.5 million adults in the country have provided some form of unpaid care to an adult or child with special needs in the past year.

• About 39.8 million Americans have cared for an adult (over 18 years old), and 34.2 million an adult over 50, in the past year. In other words, about 18 percent of U.S. adults have shouldered some unpaid caregiving responsibilities in the past year.

• The average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman caring for a relative. (Eighty-five percent of caregivers look after a relative, 49 percent a parent or in-law.)

• Less than a third of unpaid caregivers retain some kind of paid help.

While she had helped out both her parents in recent years, it wasn’t until her mother’s death that Gwynne and her sister became the primary caregivers for their father.

Continue reading

Calcium, Vitamin D For Osteoporosis: Are Recommendations Skewed By Conflicts Of Interest?

A photo illustration shows over-the-counter calcium supplements. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

A photo illustration shows over-the-counter calcium supplements. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth Intern

Might commercial influences be driving the widespread recommendation of calcium and vitamin D supplementation for the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis?

That’s the conclusion of an analysis published in the journal BMJ, written by Andrew Grey and Mark Bolland, endocrinologists and associate professors at the University of Auckland.

The analysis — strongly refuted by organizations that advocate for osteoporosis research — further complicates the already contentious issue of whether it’s a good idea to take the supplements and if so, at what dosage.

The Supplement Conundrum

Women over 50 are most likely to develop osteoporosis, a bone disease affecting millions of Americans that results in bone weakness and increased risk of fracture. Calcium and vitamin D supplements are widely recommended to prevent and treat the condition.

“But as we point out, the considerable body of randomized trial evidence doesn’t support that practice,” Grey, the study’s co-author, wrote in an email.  “We wondered why practice hasn’t changed to reflect the evidence.”

To promote bone health, over half of older Americans take calcium and vitamin D supplements, which can be prescribed by a doctor or purchased over the counter, the authors write.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends adults take in 1,000 mg of calcium per day (1,200 for adults 70+ and women 51-70) and 600 IU (international units) of vitamin D — 800 IU for the 70+ set.

As of 2013, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not recommend daily calcium and vitamin D supplementation for non-institutionalized postmenopausal women to prevent fractures. This, they note, is not necessarily inconsistent with the IOM’s recommendations, which do not specifically discuss fracture prevention.

The supplements have been standard clinical practice in preventing or treating osteoporosis in older adults since the early 2000s. Since then, however, studies have emerged to contest their effectiveness, according to the paper. Continue reading

Elderly And Drugged: Far More Psych Meds Prescribed To Old Than Young

Evidence suggests that anti-anxiety medications like Xanax increase the risk of falls in older adults, which can cause a cascade of problems. (johnofhammond/Flickr, with edits by WBUR)

Evidence suggests that anti-anxiety medications like Xanax increase the risk of falls in older adults, which can cause a cascade of problems. (johnofhammond/Flickr, with edits by WBUR)

By Nell Lake
Guest Contributor

Are we over-treating the elderly with psychiatric drugs?

That’s the natural question arising from a recent report that found adults over 65 are receiving psychotropic medications at twice the rate of younger adults. The study, published in this month’s Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, also found that elders are much less likely to get their mental health care from psychiatrists or to receive psychotherapy.

What’s the problem? First, psychotropic drugs generally pose greater risks to the elderly than they do to younger patients, and non-drug approaches, from therapy to meditation, may be as effective as psychotropic medications for some seniors’ mental disorders, without the risks.

The findings suggest that physicians and insurers should reassess psychotropic drug use among the elderly, says lead author Donovan Maust, a geriatric psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.

Maust’s team used 2007-2010 data from the CDC’s National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey and from the U.S. Census to compare the rates at which older and younger adults — those 65 and older, and those 18-64 — get prescribed psychotropic medications during outpatient doctors’ visits. After analyzing more than 100,000 of these doctor visits, and taking into account the fact that the younger population is much larger than the older one, the researchers found that older adults were much more likely to be prescribed psychiatric drugs for anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions. Researchers also found that these seniors were less likely to receive other types of non-drug treatment for their mental distress.

The importance of all this is fairly clear: The elderly population is booming, and seniors use the health care system more than any other demographic. So, finding safe, effective and appropriate treatments for their mental health problems is critical — for the well-being of a large swath of people, and as a policy matter.

Too Many Meds, And The Wrong Kind?

Psychotropic drugs pose both direct and indirect risks to the elderly: First, the drugs themselves can be dangerous. The American Geriatrics Society lists many psychotropic medications as potentially inappropriate for elderly patients. Continue reading

Happy 100 To You, And You — Centenarians Multiply, At Forefront Of Age Wave

Ethel Weiss, 100, dances with her daughter Anita Jamieson at the “Party Of The Century” at the Brookline Senior Center on Wednesday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Ethel Weiss, 100, dances with her daughter Anita Jamieson at the “Party Of The Century” at the Brookline Senior Center on Wednesday. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

It’s a rare milestone, to turn 100 — but not nearly as rare as it used to be.

This week in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, the senior center hosted more than a dozen local centenarians for a “Party of the Century.” In the not-so-distant past — centenarian parties in 2002 and 2007 — party organizers had to reach out to centenarians from all of Greater Boston to gather a critical mass for a fete.

But now, the 99-and-over set has so grown that the party had to limit itself to just Brookline, says Ruthann Dobek, director of the Brookline Council on Aging. And if the numbers keep growing, she told the crowd, “we’re going to have to start it at 105 or 110 to be eligible.”

The centenarians are the leading edge of the fastest-growing sector of the population: people over 60. In this state, the population over 60 has grown 17 percent over just the last five years, and the over-60 cohort will soon outnumber people under 20 for the first time in history, says David Stevens, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Councils on Aging. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: To Promote Cognitive Health (It’s Official)

(Diabetes Care/Flickr)

(Diabetes Care/Flickr)

The venerable Institute of Medicine came out with a report this week on cognitive aging (yes, that means you…) and a few things that can help avert the inevitable. The panel’s No. 1 recommendation? “Be physically active.” Enough said.

To be clear, “cognitive aging is not a disease,” the report notes. “Instead, it is a process that occurs in every individual, beginning at birth and continuing throughout the life span.”

That process impacts the brain like no other body part, the authors say. And while the extent and quality of cognitive aging (read: decline) varies greatly, many older men and women will experience problems related to the speed at which they process information, the ability to problem-solve and make decisions and, of course, memory. (Lost keys, anyone?)

Putting a little silver lining on things, the IOM news release quotes the chairman of the committee, Dan G. Blazer, the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Duke University Medical Center, saying that “…wisdom and knowledge can increase with age, while memory and attention can decline.”

So what should we do about our aging brains? The report is clear:

· Be physically active.

· Reduce and manage cardiovascular disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.

· Regularly discuss and review health conditions and medications that might influence cognitive health with a health care professional. A number of medications can have a negative effect — temporary or long term –on cognitive function when used alone or in combination with other medication.

The committee also identifies additional actions for which there is some scientific evidence to suggest positive effects on cognitive health:

· Be socially and intellectually active, and continually seek opportunities to learn.

· Get adequate sleep and seek professional treatment for sleep disorders, if needed.

· Take steps to avoid a sudden acute decline in cognitive function, known as delirium, associated with medications or hospitalizations.

· Carefully evaluate products advertised to consumers to improve cognitive health, such as medications, nutritional supplements, and cognitive training.

Continue reading

Sexual Reality: The Checkup Podcast Debunks A Few Myths (Like Size And Age Matter…)

Possibly our juiciest segment yet, the latest installment of The Checkup podcast, our joint venture with Slate, takes on some sexual myths and offers a bit of reality.

We bring you surprises about penis size, stories of great sex over 70 and new insights on how both men and women are lied to about their sexuality. As we have in past segments, Carey and I offer our fresh take on research-based news that could brighten up your life below the waist. Check it out here:

And in case you missed our last episode, “Grossology” (including a look at the first stool bank in the nation and research on the benefits of “bacterial schmears” from a mother’s birth canal) — you can listen now.

And if you want to hear earlier episodes: “Scary Food Stories” includes the tale of a recovering sugar addict and offers sobering news to kale devotees. And “On The Brain” includes fascinating research on dyslexia, depression and how playing music may affect our minds.

Make sure to tune in next time, when we present: “High Anxiety,” an episode on the (arguably) most prevalent of mental health disorders.

Each week, The Checkup features a different topic — previous episodes focused on college mental health, sex problems, the Insanity workout and vaccine issues. If you listen and like it, won’t you please let our podcasting partner, Slate, know? You can email them at

Why To Exercise Today: For Long-Term Weight, It May Matter More Than Diet


The usual wisdom goes: You really need to be active for your health, but you can’t count on exercise as a weight-loss method. Some people even gain weight when they ramp up exercise — and not just muscle mass.

But if you look at the big picture and the long haul, people who succeed at long-term weight loss tend to have high levels of physical activity. Now a new study of more than 5,000 Americans in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise finds a strikingly strong link between exercise and weight — arguably stronger than the link to diet.

The American College of Sports Medicine offers this summary:

The study found that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was significantly associated with two measures of weight status – body mass index and waist circumference.
For both men and women and in all age groups, higher levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity were associated with lower BMI and smaller waist circumference.
The associations of diet quality with weight status were much less consistent; higher diet quality was associated with lower weight variables in only a few gender and age groups.

Which groups? From the paper’s abstract: “Diet quality was inversely associated with the weight status variables only in men age 30–39, 40–49 (BMI only), and 50–59 and women age 50–59.”

And of course, if you’re in one of those cohorts now, you won’t be forever. More from the summary:

“The study also found that, as age increased, physical activity declined, diet improved, and BMI and waist circumference increased.”

In other words, even as we get more virtuous in our diets, we tend to exercise less and gain weight. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Avoid Brain Shrinkage As You Age



Middle-age adults take note: the exercise you shirk today may lead to shrunken brain tissue in a couple of decades.

This, according to research presented at the American Heart Association Epidemiology/Lifestyle meeting in Baltimore this week.

After reviewing exercise data taken from more than 1,200 adults who were around 40 years old — a subset of the Framingham Heart Study — researchers found that twenty years later when these same individuals underwent MRI scans, those with “lower fitness levels in midlife also had lower brain tissue levels in later life,” said Nicole L. Spartano, Ph.D., lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Though the findings are preliminary, Spartano says it looks like there’s a link between lower fitness levels and faster brain aging. Since the MRI’s in this study were done on people about 58 years old, the researchers didn’t expect to see high rates of dementia, but they did detect “the beginning of shrinkage,” Spartano said. “We look at the brain MRI as an early warning sign for deterioration. This may give us some idea of decreased cognition a decade or so later.”

Specifically, the researchers evaluated fitness based on how the heart changes in the early stages of exercise. Continue reading

Study: For Sleep Problems In Older Age, Try Mindful Meditation

(Fairy Heart/flickr)

(Fairy Heart/flickr)

Insomnia is insidious, infuriating and often debilitating.

For anyone who has suffered with eyes-wide-open at 4 a.m. it’s not terribly surprising that more and more Americans (particularly older people and women) are being prescribed serious drugs to help them sleep.

But these medications, known as benzodiazepines, have been linked to numerous health problems, ranging from an increased risk of dementia, to car crashes and falls. And once you’re on them, it’s hard to stop, as I can attest from personal experience. While debate continues over the safety and effectiveness of these medications, a small study suggests that an alternative approach may offer some relief.

Research published online by JAMA Internal Medicine found that a practice of mindful meditation — basically just focusing on breathing and remaining in the present moment while observing your thoughts easily drift by — may help certain people with sleep problems. “Mindfulness meditation practices resulted in improved sleep quality for older adults with moderate sleep disturbance…” the report concludes.

The study, by researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, reflects a growing body of evidence showing that the practice of “mindful meditation” can be used as a low-cost, non-drug intervention that can, in certain cases, reduce stress and help with other physical and mental health woes.

Here’s more from the JAMA release:

Sleep disturbances are a medical and public health concern for our nation’s aging population. An estimated 50 percent of individuals 55 years and older have some sort of sleep problem. Moderate sleep disturbances in older adults are associated with higher levels of fatigue, disturbed mood, such as depressive symptoms, and a reduced quality of life… Continue reading