August 18, 2016

Health Pot-pourri: Reading, Whole Grains: Yes. Antioxidant Supplements: Maybe Not

I subscribe to a dozen or more print newsletters about health care, and I get as many regular news updates in my email inbox. I make occasional reports like this one when I find items of particular interest.

Read Books, Live Longer?
Reading books is tied to longer life, according to a new report. Researchers used data on 3,635 people aged 50+ who had already answered questions about reading as part of a larger health study.

The scientists divided those people into three groups:
  1. those who read no books,
  2. those who read books up to three and a half hours a week, and
  3. those who read books more than three and a half hours every week.

Published in Social Science & Medicine, the study found that book readers tended to be female, college-educated and more affluent. Researchers then controlled for those factors as well as age, race, self-reported health, depression, employment, and marital status.

Compared with study subjects who did not read books, those who read for up to three and a half hours a week were 17 percent less likely to die during the next 12 years, while those who read more than that were 23 percent less likely to die. On average, people who read books lived almost two years longer than those who didn't.

Senior author Becca R. Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale, said the "survival advantage remained after adjusting for wealth, education, cognitive ability and many other variables."

Study leaders found a similar association among readers of newspapers and periodicals, but it was weaker. 

I need to get back to my bedside copy of The Boys in the Boat.

Eat More Whole Grains
If you want to live longer and healthier, you might want to munch on a slice of whole grain bread while sitting in your rocking chair reading a book.

August 15, 2016

Controversy over Medicare's New Hospital Ratings

Earlier this month, Medicare released its first comprehensive rating of hospitals. That review slapped average or below average scores on many of the nation's best-known hospitals, and awarded top scores to dozens of unheralded ones.

Medicare assigned one to five stars to the 3617 hospitals it reviewed. Only 102 hospitals got the top five-star rating, and very few of those are among the nation's best according to private rating services, like the one from U.S. News & World Report. In addition, very few of Medicare’s top picks are viewed as particularly elite by the medical profession.

Instead, five stars were awarded to relatively obscure hospitals, and to at least 40 hospitals that specialize in just a few types of surgery, like knee replacements.

Nearly half the hospitals -- 1,752 of them -- received average three-star ratings. Medicare gave the lowest one-star rating to 129 hospitals. In my hometown of Washington DC, five hospitals received only one star, including George Washington University Hospital and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, both of which teach medical residents.

I was pleased that the top rating for a DC-based hospital (3 stars) went to Sibley Hospital (now affiliated with John Hopkins).  It is the hospital closest to me and my first choice when I have to pick a hospital to get tests or other procedures done. A few of the hospitals in D.C.'s Maryland and Virginia suburbs did get 4 and 5 star ratings. 

Medicare based its ratings on 64 individual criteria, including patient reviews and rates for death and infection. All criteria are shown on Medicare's Hospital Compare website.

The Trade Association Reacts 
In a statement, the American Hospital Association characterized the new ratings confusing for patients and families: "We are especially troubled that the current rating scheme unfairly penalizes teaching hospitals and those serving higher numbers of the poor."

Medicare acknowledged that hospitals treating large numbers of low-income patients tended to do worse in the ratings, which didn’t consider patients’ social and financial situations.

August 10, 2016

"Smart 911" -- Signing Up Is a Smart Move

Today I received an email from my Palisades Village with the August newsletter. It included information about “Smart 911,” which I’d never heard of before. It sounds like a great idea, and I just spent about half an hour signing up and entering my personal data.

I've placed 911 calls several times in the past few years. This new service will give 911 responders instant access to my medical information. During an emergency, it might be difficult – or impossible -- to provide that important information.

Our community newsletter described the service – and the sign-up process – very clearly, so I'll just reproduce it here.

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Smart 911 is a free service that allows a participant to create a safety profile that will be provided to 911 responders in the event of an emergency. A call to 911 from any of the phone numbers listed on the safety profile will automatically display the safety profile information to the 911 call taker. Smart 911 allows safety profiles to be created for all the individuals associated with the phone numbers listed on the profile. This system can be invaluable in an emergency by giving emergency responders instant access to medical and safety information.

To sign up for Smart 911, go to https://www.smart911.com. Signing up is relatively straight forward; if computers are alien terrritory, enlist a computer literate friend to help you with the process (there is no option for signing up by telephone). The online system will ask you to input your name, email, user ID, password, phone number(s), and address. You must verify your phone number by following the instructions on the screen; once you click on the verification "button," you will get an almost instantaneous call back on your phone, and will have to press "1" to complete the verification process.

August 9, 2016

Ronni Bennett: "A Meditation on Making Friends While Old"

My last blog post was based on a recent piece in the Harvard Health Letter about the risks -- especially for seniors -- posed by loneliness and isolation. That article included some suggestions for combating those threats, although I've regularly seen similar tips from other sources. 

Today, I read a post by Ronni Bennett (my favorite blogger) in which she reflects on what many of us long for... not just a friend, but a close friend. A best friend. 

The Washington Post has characterized Ronni's blog Time Goes By as "the quintessential seniors' blog." I couldn't agree more. After checking it out, you may want to do what I did -- click on the "Subscribe" link. Here's Ronni's post, in full.

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Judging by the number of online stories about loneliness and feeling alone many, many people are longing for a close friend. A best friend. Most of all, someone to trust.

These articles are usually written by people much younger than you and I who presumably get out and about to a wider variety of places than old people tend to do and meet more people.

But one particular change in employment – working from home – has made finding friends much harder for them than during my career years.

According to a recent study, 45 percent (!) of U.S. employees work from home and that doesn't count freelancers. So finding a friend may be one area of living where youth and age have a lot in common these days.

Or not. Old people are not as likely to hang out in bars and clubs. Old people's oldest friends die at a greater rate. Our energy and stamina trim the number and duration of sports and other physical activities where we might meet others.

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