April 30, 2012

Want To Be More Creative? Meditate!

Neuroscientists claim that our brains are more malleable than they once believed. "A decade ago we thought you got what you were given at birth and that was pretty much it," says Joshua Reynolds, a psychologist at New York University who studies intellectual performance. "But now we know that the number of brain cells can increase throughout your life through neurogenisis. There's great evidence that shows if you really work on a skill, the part of the brain associated with that skill grows."

The Sunday magazine section of last week's New York Times had a fascinating article on this research -- Can You Build a (Better Brain?) -- which I hope to use in a future post. But for now, let's just look at a recent report that is an example of the many studies being done on "neuroplasticity" -- the ability of the brain to change based on experience.

Meditation and Creativity
Like many Westerners these days, I've been an on-again, off-again practitioner of meditation. But I've been meditating regularly since my Parkinson's diagnosis three years ago. I'm looking for anything that might enhance my health and well-being, and regular mindfulness meditation seems to do just that.

April 27, 2012

NPR's Series: A Future with Aging Parents

I thank my lucky stars that I’m living a happy, independent life as an almost-83-year-old. And – so far – unlike so many others my age, I’m NOT creating burdens, financial or otherwise, for my kids.  Knock on wood!

A recent “Family Matters” series on NPR both underscored my current good fortune and reminded me of the need to plan for a more uncertain future.   In addition to the immense emotional burden of caring for elderly parents, the financial cost to the family of any care option is considerable. The NPR segment  reports these estimated annual expenses, based on a MetLife 2011 Market Survey of Long-Term Care Costs:
  • $87,235: nursing home, private room 
  • $78,100: nursing home, semi-private room 
  • $41,724: assisted living 
  • $21,840: home care, home health aide 
  • $19,760: home care, homemaker 
  • $18,000: adult day services 
And that’s just the beginning. It’s an interesting, worthwhile series about multi-generational homes, and how everyone is coping. Worth a look: NPR: A Future with Aging Parents

April 24, 2012

"Send the Elevator Back Down!" -- Kevin Spacey's Message from Monday Night's Helen Hayes Awards

I've been fortunate enough to attend the Helen Hayes Awards -- Washington's annual tribute to its theater community similar to New York's Tony Awards -- most every year since it began in the early 1980s. I always leave the awards celebration feeling uplifted but never more so than Monday night.

One reason was that the big winner was Signature Theatre's production of the musical Hairspray, which the four generations of Schappis saw last February and which my great-granddaughter Kaylee loved. It won five prizes, including the top honor for best musical.

The co-hosts for the show -- local actors Felicia Curry and Holly Twyford -- were terrific, as were the original song-and-dance numbers that spiced up the many award announcements and acceptances.

But the most inspiring part of the evening for me was the Helen Hayes Tribute, given each year to recognize a theater artist who exemplifies excellence in and commitment to the performing arts. This year's recipient was Kevin Spacey. Former president Bill Clinton paid tribute to Kevin in a video clip, and another video nicely summarized his achievements as an actor, philanthropist, mentor, and human being. His acceptance speech was a wonderful combination of humor and inspiration.

What resonated most deeply with me was his emphasis on the important message he got from his beloved mentor Jack Lemmon about the special obligation that those of us who have been reasonably successful in life have to "send the elevator back  down." This morning I found this video clip where Kevin expands more on this important theme:

Guest Post: LISINOPRIL -- "If Only I'd Known!"

I received an interesting email response to my post yesterday about managing my own meds. I thought it was share-worthy, and secured the writer’s permission to do just that:

Hey John,

Nice piece today on your blog about how you manage your medications. I wish I had read it a couple months ago. Here’s why.

In early February, during a visit to my GP for continuing bronchitis, she discovered “alarming” high blood pressure (168/108). So, in addition to prescribing the standard “Z-pack” (azithromycin) for the lung infection, she put me on lisinopril (20 milligrams a day), an “ACE inhibitor” to lower the blood pressure. Soon enough, my blood pressure entered normal range.

The next week, I went on a ten-day vacation in Arizona, and was positively miserable. I was coughing more than before, endlessly clearing my throat, and now producing vast amounts of (ugh, sorry about this) clear, slimy phlegm. Sleep became difficult because of the respiratory distress. People probably thought I had the plague.

Later in March, and with these continuing symptoms, I updated my doctor. Thinking, as I did, that the bronchitis was still unchecked, she put me on a new antibiotic (levofloxacin) for a couple days. I dared to hope that relief was at hand. But alas, nada. The onslaught of phlegm continued. 

April 23, 2012

My Game Plan for Managing All the Pillls

In my last post, I wrote about the over-medication of seniors. Today, I'll take a look into my own medicine cabinet and then describe some of the things I've done to manage this pharmacy. Here's what I'm taking:
  • Like most everyone I know, I've been taking prescription medication for years to regulate my blood pressure and cholesterol. Controlling the cholesterol has been easy. I started with Lipitor, and it has kept my cholesterol in a good range. I switched to the generic this year when it became available. Regulating the blood pressure also was easy until I developed a chronic cough with a med that had been doing the job. My internist then had me try several different meds that either didn't bring down the numbers, or caused side effects. We recently found one - Tribenzor - that brought the numbers down nicely, but I began to experience some nausea and general malaise. 
  • Insomnia has always been a recurring problem, particularly when I travel (which I do a lot). Vodka was my sedative of choice until I stopped drinking 34 years ago. Since then, I'd often resort to Tylenol PM, and -- when that didn't work -- I'd try Ambien. In 2006, I went through what I dubbed  "The Summer from Hell" -- several months of insomnia, depression, and panic attacks unlike anything I'd ever experienced. I'm now convinced the problem was triggered by abuse of Tylenol PM and Ambien during and after one of my trips to Asia.
  • My diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease in 2009 brought a new array of meds. For the PD itself, I was prescribed Sinemet (the brand name for the "Gold Standard" PD med combining carbidopa and levodopa). The prescription was the regular dosage (25mg carbidopa, 100mg levodopa) three times a day, plus the "extended release" double dose at bedtime to carry me through the night. I later switched to the generic carbidopa/levodopa. This prescription is almost always accompanied with a prescription for the exorbitantly priced Azilect. 
  • Depression usually accompanies PD, and my case was no exception. Initially, I was prescribed the antidepressant Elavil. It helped with my mood and sleep, but it also caused weight gain and morning fogginess. Because there were also warnings of possible cognitive side effects, I switched  to the over-the-counter 5-HTP, a serotonin booster.
  • Last but not least is the lower back pain -- the most disabling of all these ailments. Initially, it was attributed to a fractured vertebra after my car crash last August. The vertebra has healed, but the back pain remains. The continuing discomfort is now attributed to rheumatoid arthritis. I've been treated at Sibley Hospital's pain management clinic, but we haven't found anything to alleviate the pain. Then I discovered curcumin (and consulted "the best physical therapist in the world").
  • Oops! I almost forgot an added starter. I had my annual eye exam a few weeks ago and the eye doctor found early warning signs of macular degeneration. He advised taking an over-the-counter supplement with a particular combination of vitamins and minerals that has been found to ward off this condition, but only in 19% of those in danger. Researchers, while capable of such specificity in citing that percentage, still don't have a clue as to what determines who falls into the 19% or the 81%. So my guy said, since there aren't any known serious side effects, I might as well take the supplement on the chance I'm a 19 percenter. Several brands of the supplement are  available; I chose Ocuvite.
Here are some of the things that have helped me manage all these pills:

April 19, 2012

The Over-Medication of Us, the Elderly

Over the past months,  several themes keep recurring on my blog. One repeated topic is the key way that diet and exercise affect our health and well-being. Another – and the focus of today’s post – is the potential harm that often results from our increasing tendency to overmedicate ourselves.

A blog posting -- "Too Many Pills for Aging Patients" -- by the New York Times' excellent blogger Jane E. Brody got my attention. In the article, Jane recounts how her own 92-year-old aunt (“a walking pharmacy”) nearly died from overmedication, during a weeks-long hospital episode that added hundreds of thousands of dollars to the American health care tab.
In early March, my aunt was hospitalized for an episode of extreme weakness, sleepiness and confusion. She was found to be taking a number of medications and supplements: Synthroid, for low thyroid hormone; Tenormin and Benicar, for high blood pressure; Lexapro, for depression; Namenda, for symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease; Xanax, for nighttime anxiety attacks; Travatan eye drops, for wet macular degeneration; a multivitamin; vitamin C; calcium with vitamin D; low-dose aspirin; a lutein supplement; and Colace, a stool softener.

April 18, 2012

Will D.C.'s Summers Kill Me?

According to Harvard School of Public Health researchers, I'm more at risk from swings in summer temperatures than I am from the brutal, relentless heat and humidity of Washington summertimes.

The new research suggests that even small variations in average summer temperatures -- increases as small as one degree centigrade above "normal" -- may shorten life expectancy for elderly people with chronic medical conditions, and could result in thousands of additional deaths every year.

While previous studies have focused on the short term effects of heat waves, this is the first study to examine the longer-term effects of climate change on life expectancy.

April 17, 2012

Seven Myths about Alzheimer's (What I Fear Most)

I’ve written before on this blog about what I fear most. It isn’t death, or cancer (which I have), or Parkinson’s (which I have).

It isn’t falling, which I DO fear, for the mobility-ending injuries falls can cause. I’m committed to my exercise regimens in large part because I think they help keep me balanced, and on my feet.

What I fear most is dementia. Alzheimer’s. Mostly, it hurts to think of the heartache my family would suffer if I drifted away. I don’t imagine it would be much fun for me, either.

Not long ago, the online journal Dementia Today published a story titled “7 Myths About Alzheimer’s Disease.” Here they are:

April 16, 2012

DEPRESSION: Churchill's Black Dog. We All Have One. Use It!

Writing last Friday about depression, the frequent companion of Parkinson's, sent me back to my files to reread a favorite sermon preached by my treasured friend John C. Harper, the long-time rector (1963-1993) of St. John's Church, Lafayette Square ("the Church of the Presidents"). First delivered on April 23, 1989, it speaks for itself.

April 13, 2012

New Report on Treating Depression in People with Parkinson's

Some of the newer antidepressants can help treat depression in people with Parkinson's without aggravating other disease symptoms, according to a new report published in the April 17 issue of Neurology.

In the study, 115 people with Parkinson's received Paxil, Effexor, or a placebo. The researchers followed up with the participants for 12 weeks and found that both antidepressants improved symptoms of depression without worsening the motor symptoms associated with PD.

Depression and Parkinson's
Parkinson's Disease and depression go hand-in-hand. "Depression is the number one factor negatively affecting the quality of life for people with Parkinson's," said the author of the study, Dr. Irene Hegeman Richard, a neurologist at the University of Rochester (NY) Medical Center. "It causes a great deal of suffering among patients. The great news here is that it's treatable. And when the depression is treated adequately, many of the other symptoms become more manageable for patients."

Depression in people with PD is caused by the underlying disease, not the stress of dealing with a chronic disease, she added.

April 12, 2012

Time to Think About Getting Rid of That Grass Lawn?

And eliminating air, water, and noise pollution? And enhancing your enjoyment of your property?

Why not join your neighbors who are moving in that direction?

I made my first stab at doing away with a grass lawn when the huge, beloved hackberry tree that had dominated my back yard (and made it difficult to maintain the grass) died.  I decided to relieve my depression over that loss by doing something dramatically different. So I called in a landscaping contractor (the excellent Janet Gaskin) and asked her to replace the tree and the lawn with a small pond and waterfall, three river birches, and lots of perennials. No more grass.

It's now my Shangri-La. Relaxing in my favorite rocking chair on the back porch, overlooking this garden restores my serenity like nothing else. Looking at a grass lawn just wouldn't do it for me.

Here's what it looks like in summer and fall:

April 11, 2012

Want a Little Inspiration? Check Out 86-year-old German Gymnast Johanna Quaas!

It's no wonder this video has been viewed over two million times! I couldn't do what Johanna does, even when I was 20 years old:

Want to see just a little more?

April 10, 2012

A Lovely Easter with My Lovely Family

My March visit to Nepal and the good times with my Nepali families were terrific, but "there's no place like home." So I thoroughly enjoyed getting together with the four generations of Schappis at my son Todd's on Sunday.

Here's a shot of three of the generations:

That's my daughter Ann, grandchildren Colin, Emily, and Jessie and Jessie's two daughters Kaylee (with Colin) and McKensie (with Ann).

April 9, 2012

Phyllis Richman: Singing, Dancing, Moving

On May 3, 2011, beloved former Washington Post food critic Phyllis Richman -- like me, a Person with Parkinson’s – wrote a piece for her old paper. In that article, she questioned why Michael J. Fox – arguably our country’s most well-known PWP – described himself as “lucky” to have encountered the disease. Phyllis didn’t consider herself similarly fortunate for having developed Parkinson’s.

Her article generated lots of reactions. Many readers thought Phyllis had been less than generous in her comments about MJF.

I ran Phyllis’s article here on my blog, in a post that also generated lots of conversation. I reached out to Phyllis for a response, which she generously supplied, along with a favorite recipe for “Don’t-Tell-Them-How-Easy-It-Is Chocolate Mousse." You can read her article, the comments it generated, and her delicious recipe (which Phyllis described as a “peace offering”) here.

And so, I was happy to see a new article from Phyllis in the health section of the Post on April 2, 2012. This time, Phyllis describes the challenges – and mainly the successes – of her choir, dance, and exercise classes. She begins this way:

April 6, 2012

Why Is Turmeric / Curcumin -- While So Promising -- So Little Studied?

Let's wrap up our turmeric / curcumin / piperine series. To review:

Turmeric was dubbed "the spice of life" in ancient times. It's called "the holy powder" in India today and figures prominently in the millions of curries served up every day on the Indian Subcontinent. Ayurveda medicine attributes life-enhancing qualities to turmeric.

Those of us in the West might dismiss these claims as folklore, but over the past decade clinical studies have shown that curcumin -- the active ingredient in turmeric -- has great promise as a remedy for:
  • Alzheimer's
  • Parkinson's
  • MS
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Arthritis
  • Depression

April 5, 2012

Add Depression to the List of Ailments that Curcumin Might Help Fight

In my initial post on curcumin (the active ingredient in the spice turmeric), I noted that recent studies had found it promising for combating:
  • Alzheimer's
  • Parkinson's
  • MS
  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes
As if those results weren't enough, I just came across a  December 2008 study at Panjab University in India that found curcumin -- combined with piperine -- boosted levels of both serotonin and dopamine. It concluded:
The coadministration of curcumin along with piperine may prove to be a useful and potent natural antidepressant approach in the management of depression.
I did more research and found lots of anecdotal support for using curcumin as an anti-depressant. Example: http://bit.ly/I98p8q.

Amazing! These studies seem to indicate that curcumin and piperine together pack a veritable panacea punch. Why, then, isn't more being done to definitively confirm these findings and bring this "holy powder" to the attention -- front and center -- of doctors and the public?

That's the next topic in this turmeric / curcumin / piperine series.

Turmeric: To Take or Not To Take?

That is the question.

Yesterday's post reviewed recent studies showing promise for turmeric and its health-enhancing ingredient curcumin in fighting Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, MS, cancer, diabetes, and arthritis. But I noted that researchers have found that turmeric / curcumin is not readily absorbed into the human body. Studies are underway to overcome that obstacle. The standard medical advice in situations like this is to wait for the outcome of these studies.

But I have about half of the ailments listed above, plus a huge fear of Alzheimer's. I'm also 82 years old (soon to be 83). I may not even be around by the time these studies are concluded. Even if I'm still here, I'll be further down the road of the progressive diseases like Parkinson's and cancer.

April 4, 2012

Turmeric / Curcumin: Great Promise for Alzheimer's, Cancer, Parkinson's, Arthritis, and More. The Problem? Inadequate Absorption

I've been running across reports about the spice turmeric's promise for dealing with a variety of ailments. When I saw the list of conditions the spice might help, I decided some research was in order. I already have cancer (prostate), Parkinson's, and arthritis. Getting Alzheimer's is my biggest fear. What I found was very interesting and intriguing.

Turmeric and Curcumin
Spices are found around the world, especially in Southeast Asia. One of them -- turmeric -- has been called "the spice of life" since ancient times. In India today, it is called "the holy powder."

Turmeric is the essential spice in curry, a diet staple on the Indian Subcontinent. It not only jazzes up the food, but also helps prevent spoilage and protects nutritive value. So, if turmeric protects foods, can it do the same for our bodies which, after all, are built upon the foods we eat?

The chemical compound primarily responsible for turmeric's antioxidant power is curcumin. It belongs to a broad class of compounds called polyphenols, many of which have been found to have major health benefits for humans.

April 3, 2012

Sugar: Sweet and... Deadly?

For decades, Americans have waged a kind of war against sugar… and successfully, too. Since the 1970s, sugar consumption is down about 40 percent.

So, mission accomplished, right?

Far from it. Enter the new culprit: high fructose corn syrup. This processed substance gives the foods we eat that tantalizing sweetness we crave. Unfortunately, its effect on our bodies is the same as sugar’s. And that effect, according to Sanjay Gupta’s report that aired on 60 Minutes this past Sunday night, is toxic.

Sugar, Obesity and Diabetes
For years, we’ve heard about our country’s epidemic of obesity, the gateway to a variety of serious health problems. We spend more time sitting inert at home and at work, in front of the TV and computer. We’re embraced a “super-sized,” all-you-can-eat menu that includes over 130 pounds of sugar – in one form or another – per person, every year.

April 2, 2012

I Want to Die Like a Doctor

A recent article by Dr. Ken Murray titled “Why Doctors Die Differently” in the “Life and Style” section of The Wall Street Journal caught my eye. I can’t always predict content from the headline. But this time, I knew exactly what the story would reveal. Murray writes:
It's not something that we like to talk about, but doctors die, too. What's unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared with most Americans, but how little. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care that they could want. But they tend to go serenely and gently.
Serenely and gently. That’s for me.