October 30, 2015

Two Recent Events Trigger Memories of My Turnaround Six Months, 1977-78

Event No. One: GLBT Panel at BNA/Bloomberg

OK. I know the company's name is Bloomberg/BNA. But BNA will always be first to me. Thanks to the man shown on the left in this photo who is responsible for the biggest turn around in my life:

His name is John D Stewart. He was executive editor of BNA in 1955 and later became BNA's President. That was the year I was kicked out of Cornell Law School in March of my third year after I was arrested for conduct that I don't remember because I was in an alcoholic blackout. But I was told it involved a men's dorm at Cornell.

I thought at the time that this was the worst thing that could have happened to me. But, thanks to John, it turned out to be the best. During my undergraduate and law school years, I had worked part-time at the library of Cornell's New York State School of Industrial Labor Relations. The head of the library, Gormley Miller, was a friend of John Stewart's. Gormley called John and, without going into specifics (which he didn't know), told him of my expulsion but nevertheless recommended that John interview me. As a result, within a month of my expulsion, I began work at BNA.

I met the woman who was to become my wife at BNA and spent 40 enjoyable and rewarding years working there.

BTW, the other man in the photo is Bill Beltz who was hired a year after I was. He succeeded John as executive editor and then as BNA's president. He also was a treasured friend.

Fast-Forward to Today
A year or so ago, some Bloomberg/BNA employees formed a GLBT group. They decided to hold a forum to discuss BNA's history in dealing with GLBT issues. I was surprised and pleased to be asked to be on the panel that would lead the discussion.

The pre-AIDS GLBT history at BNA, as in most workplaces, was pretty much a blank slate since only a few employees were open about their sexual orientation. But at BNA, there was a GLBT-related event in the late 1970s. I talked about this at the panel forum. Here's the story:

My marriage in 1957 resulted in part from work I had been doing with a therapist who specialized in converting men from gay to straight. But the marriage resulted primarily from the fact that I had fallen in love with my coworker Diana LeBlanc.

October 29, 2015

How Can We Evaluate Claims Like Dr. Newport's Coconut Oil Cure for Alzheimer's and John Pepper's Conscious Walking Remedy for Parkinson's?

Two days ago, I posted some additional thoughts about John Pepper's campaign to get others with Parkinson's disease (PD) to work on "conscious walking" to alleviate (my word) or reverse (Pepper's word) symptoms of PD.

Almost immediately, a reader posted this comment:
you've been so very tough on dr mary newport's promotion of coconut oil for alzheimer's. seems like you're giving pepper an easier time. how come?
I'd half expected a challenge like this. It gives me a chance to talk about a concern of mine: How can we evaluate claims that are often made on the basis of personal, anecdotal stories?

First, let's take a look at the Newport and Pepper stories.

Mary Newport and Coconut Oil for Those with Alzheimer's
Dr. Mary Newport, the medical director of a neonatal intensive care unit in Florida, reported in 2008 on the dramatic improvements in her husband Steve's Alzheimer's after she began giving him several teaspoons of coconut oil every day.

Dr. Newport then wrote a best-selling book, Alzheimer's Disease: What If There Were a Cure? and soon became a regular guest of TV docs and media hucksters. Her appearance on Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network moved the CBN reporter to exclaim "God must have had a hand in it!" That interview on the network's webpage became one of CBN's most-visited sites.

The coconut-oil-for-Alzheimer's craze really took off. But -- as the Alzheimer's Association  emphasized -- many thousands of people tried the remedy, and very few reported relief similar to Steve's.

Several years ago, Dr. Newport suddenly fell silent. We began hearing reports that Steve had suffered some kind of health setback. Then, as I reported last fall, Dr. Newport made a blog post for the first time in a year, reporting that Steve had resumed his Alzheimer's decline. Dr. Newport wrote that she still hoped ketones and MCT oil and "food-based interventions" might help with Alzheimer's. But there was no mention of coconut oil in this context.

John Pepper and Conscious Walking for Those with Parkinson's Disease
John Pepper -- whom I've featured in several recent posts -- is an 81-year-old man from South Africa who was diagnosed with PD in 1992 but probably had it long before. He has tremendous willpower and determination. He decided that Parkinson's had damaged the part of his brain that deals with automatic movements, like walking.

October 28, 2015

A New Study on the Growing Impact of Income Inequality on Life Expectancy Hits Home

One after another, studies keep coming in showing that the income inequality gap in the U.S. keeps getting wider and brings with it serious consequences in most areas of our lives. A report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) last month on the growing life expectancy gap underscored the effects of income and education on old age. Demographers were staggered by its findings regarding the size of the increased gap.

The study looked at two cohorts. The first was men and women born in 1930. I was born in 1929. The second cohort was men and women born in 1960. My son was born in 1958 and my daughter in 1960.

Life Expectancy Gap
The NAS committee found that men born in 1930 who reached the age of 50 had a life expectancy of another 26.6 years (to age 76.6) if they were in the lowest income bracket. But for those in the highest income bracket, the life expectancy extended 31.7 more years (to age 81.7), so the gap between the two income groups was about five years.

For men born in 1960, life expectancy for those in the lowest income group was about the same as it was for the similar low-income men born in 1930 (about 26 more years after age 50). But for men in the highest income bracket, life expectancy at age 50 for those born in 1960 was projected to extend 38.7 more years (to age 88.7)... a full seven years more than the high-income men born in 1930.

The difference in life expectancy between the lowest and highest income groups born in 1930 was 5.1 years. For men born in 1960, that difference had stretched to 12.7 years.

For females, the gains for those at the top of the income brackets was even more spectacular. Lower-earning women actually showed declining life expectancy from those born in 1930 to those born thirty years later. The decline was attributed to increased smoking among the 1960 cohort. But those in the top-earning bracket who reach 50 can now expect, on average, to live another 41.9 years (to age 91.9).

So the gap in life expectancy for women in the lowest and highest income brackets was four years for the 1930 cohort. That gap surged to more than 13 years for those born in 1960.

Note: Remember that these life expectancies are for those who survive to age 50. Life expectancies at birth would be much lower.

Here we have one more study showing that the U.S. is increasingly "the land of opportunity" but especially for those with the most income and education.

Consequences of the Life Expectancy Gap
These widening gaps in male and female life expectancies mean that the rich get richer when it comes to federal benefits -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. In the 1930 birth cohort, lifetime benefits for low- and high-earning men were about the same. Among those born in 1960, however, those in the highest-earning bracket will receive $132,000 more on average than those in the lowest; the highest earning women will receive about $28,000 more.

October 27, 2015

Doidge on Brain Neuroplasticity and Pepper on Conscious Walking: Intriguing But Flawed Books

In my last two posts before taking a week off, I wrote about these two books:
  •  "The Brain's Way of Healing," the recent bestseller by Dr. Norman Doidge about the new science of neuroplasticity, which asserts that for conditions ranging from autism to stroke to Parkinson's disease, we can use conscious habits of thought and action to stimulate the brain to "rewire itself."
  • "Reversing Parkinson's Disease!" by John Pepper, who is featured in Doidge's book as an example of rewiring the brain by his developing and practicing "conscious walking." That activity works so well for John that he was able to discontinue his Parkinson's medications.
I spent a good bit of time last week researching and reflecting on the concepts put forth in the books.

Dr. Doidge and "The Brain's Way of Healing"
I read several reviews of Doidge's book. The most thorough and thoughtful in my opinion came from The Guardian, which did three separate stories: an initial review, followed by a write up on Doidge that includes an interview with him, and a final review.  Here are a few excerpts from these reviews:
Doidge is persuasive and curious as a writer, and rigorous as a thinker, what he writes about is the edge of our current understanding of mind and body.
While reading "The Brain's Way of Healing" I had a clear sense of other readers being divided – – some turning its pages with a hardening edge of skepticism, some with a growing feeling of wonder. Chapter by chapter, I jumped constantly between the two.
 . . . His next tale, from South Africa, is that of John Pepper, a man diagnosed with Parkinson's disease more than 20 years ago who has managed to reverse all of its symptoms using "neuroplastic techniques." Pepper, through trial and error, and an understanding of how Parkinson's typically acts against sequences of muscle memory, taught his body, first through entirely conscious relearning of the sequences involved in walking, and then in all other actions, how to think differently. Pepper had found, Doidge suggests, "through conscious walking, a way of using a different part of his brain to walk . . .  by "unmasking" existing brain circuits that had fallen into disuse.
Doidge believes that many of these cures are derived from “ancient Buddhist ideas,” but he argues that they can all be explained in terms of “western science,” as long as neuroplasticity is taken into account. For all I know, he may be right, but I would trust him more if he reined in his rhetoric . . . The idea that “the brain is part of the body”, that “the body can be used to treat the brain” and that “the mind can alter the brain” sounds not so much innovative as inane. And when Doidge offers his explanations of the physiological basis of neuroplastic medicine – telling us that neurostimulation can “power up the cortex” and “reset” the brain, empowering you to “turn off your fight-or-flight reaction” and “turn on your social engagement system” – his approach strikes me as figurative and flashy rather than phlegmatically factual. As for his much-repeated injunction to “rewire your brain,” it sounds like knockabout comedy rather than responsible medical advice.
 While recognizing that Doidge's book is based on stories, not scientific studies, I nevertheless find the subject of neuroplasticity fascinating and believe it offers a lot of potential for human healing.

John Pepper and "Reversing Parkinson's Disease"
I'm a member of two forums where people with Parkinson's communicate with each other. One is part of patientslikeme.com based in Cambridge Massachusetts. The other is part of HealthUnlocked, the largest social network for health information in the United Kingdom.

October 16, 2015

John Pepper’s “Conscious Walking” Helps Parkinsonians. And We Can Help John Help Others.

When I was diagnosed with Parkinson's six years ago, I bought half a dozen books about the disease and spent hours doing research online. 

The result? I got so discouraged that I came very close to selling the house I love and moving into an assisted living residence. What I had read scared me into thinking that my progressive, degenerative disease would quickly force me into wheelchair, where I'd languish with a frozen mask for a face. I'd suffer the typical side effects of depression, insomnia, and constipation.

If only someone had persuaded me instead to buy and read one of John Pepper's books. In yesterday's post, I discussed the rigorous "conscious walking" program John developed. Because of that regimen, he now leads a relatively normal life and hasn't used any Parkinson's medication since 2002.

Retard, Even Reverse, the Symptoms
In 2003, John wrote a book about his journey through Parkinson's disease: his setbacks, achievements, discoveries, disappointments, and ultimate triumphs. He wanted his book to give other people with Parkinson's the hope that we, too, could slow down -- or even reverse -- some symptoms of the disease.

Now in its fourth edition, the book describes how PD patients willing to work hard are discovering just how much the human body -- including the brain -- can heal itself. John's main subject is strenuous exercise, especially conscious walking. But he offers advice about other issues we face, too.

By walking, bowling, and playing tennis, Pepper has regained his physical flexibility and balance. He keeps his mind sharp by reading, playing bridge, working puzzles and games.

October 15, 2015

Norman Doidge's "The Brain's Way of Healing" and John Pepper's Conscious Walking for his Parkinson's

A few months ago, I started seeing reviews of Norman Doidge's new book, The Brain's Way of Healing. Here's what appeared in the Huffington Post:
His new book is a tour de force -- one of the most riveting books on the human brain and its mystery powers ever written. Doidge addresses the role of alternative medical therapies to what he claims can reset the dynamic patterns of "energy" in our brain, in some cases helping to restore relatively normal health to those whose fate seems hopeless.... These are people that traditional medicine all but abandoned as... untreatable. But they were rescued.
The review included this sentence: "It’s possible to start anywhere in the book and be mesmerized." When "Amazon one click" brought the book to my mailbox, I knew exactly where to start: Chapter 2, titled "A Man Walks Off His Parkinsonian Symptoms."

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the man was John Pepper, whom I know from our online exchanges in the HealthUnlocked forum for people with Parkinson's.

This new book isn't Doidge's first. Earlier, he'd written The Brain That Changes Itself, a bestseller that prompted Pepper to send the author this email in 2008:
I live in South Africa and have had Parkinson's disease since 1968. I do a lot of exercise and have learned to use my conscious brain to control the movements which are normally controlled by the subconscious brain. I wrote a book about my experience, but it has been rejected by the medical profession without looking into my case, because I no longer look like a PD sufferer. I no longer take PD medication, although I still have most of the symptoms. I walk 15 miles per week in three sessions of five miles. The glial-derived neurotrophic factor produced in the brain appears to restore the damaged cells.... I am sure that I can help many newly diagnosed patients, if I can encourage them to do serious regular exercise. Please let me know your thoughts on this matter.
The glial-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF) that Pepper described is a brain growth factor. The scientists who discovered GDNF in 1993 said it contributes to plastic changes in the brain by promoting the development and survival of dopamine-producing neurons, which Parkinson's destroys.

October 14, 2015

Light: Sleep’s Greatest Enemy

A recent article in The New York Times posed a question we ask more than we’d like: Why Can’t We Fall Asleep? 

Author Maria Konnikova begins by explaining what happens when we DO fall asleep:
  • Body temperature falls (though hands and feet warm up).
  • Circadian clocks synchronize.
  • Melatonin (the hormone that sets our sleep/wake cycles) flows through the body.
  • The brain quiets.
  • Blood pressure falls.
  • Pulse rate slows.
  • Breathing evens out.
Finally, sleep.

Not surprisingly, some of the world’s leading sleep experts report disturbing statistics:
  • We now sleep an hour and a half LESS than we did on work nights half a century ago. It used to be eight and a half hours; now it’s under seven.
  • 31% of us sleep less than six hours a night.
  • 69% report not getting enough sleep.
  • Between 1905 and 2008, children have lost about a minute of sleep each year.
Adults… children… this pattern of reduced sleep applies to everyone.

It’s not that we’re just getting up earlier. According to Elizabeth Klerman, head of the Analytic and Modeling Unit in the Sleep and Circadian Disorders division at Boston’s Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, “When you go to bed affects how long you can sleep, no matter how tired you are.”

October 13, 2015

Less Time Blogging: A Fellow Blogger Says It Much Better Than I Could

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my decision to cut back on blog posts. Rather than publish posts every week, as I've been doing since starting this blog six years ago, I'm now doing blog posts every other week. Last week was my first "off week," and I had planned to share my thoughts about the new arrangement today.

Several months ago, my favorite blogger, Ronni Bennett, made a similar decision and stopped publishing her excellent blog, Time Goes By, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Last Friday, she published an excellent post reflecting on that decision and its results. Her reasons and reflections are parallel to mine... so often the case with her posts. She just expresses them much more eloquently than I could. And I'll second the warning that Ronni got from her 90-year-old friends when she bemoaned the loss of energy between ages 65 and 75: "I don't know nuthin' yet about getting old until I live through the differences between 75 and 85."

So I'm going to extend my holiday by turning the rest of this post over to Ronni:

October 3, 2015

New School Year, New Blog Schedule

Fall has always seemed like the start of a new year for me, undoubtedly because I spent more than 20 years attending school long ago. So it was no surprise that I took a fresh look these past few weeks at what I've been doing, where I'm going, and what I need to do.

Perhaps the most important decision from this review is that I'll publish blog posts every other week. The alternate weeks will be completely free for me to do whatever.

For nearly six years, I've been putting up four or five blog posts every week. I've seldom taken more than three or four days off at a time. I love working on the blog, researching and writing.

But for some time now, it's been clear that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies have once again gotten things out of whack. I fall into the trap of living my life according to Mae West's maxim that "too much of a good thing is a good thing." The blog is the latest "good thing." It doesn't pose the same serious threat to my well-being that resulted from my overdoing the "good things" of alcohol, nicotine, and sex. But I'd be better off guided by the "less is more" mantra, which I've often discussed here in relation to our healthcare system.

The various threats to our health are probably my number one blog topic. Invariably, exercise appears at the top of every list of things we should do to counter those threats. But then I use the time and effort that goes into writing these posts as an excuse for my failure to get enough exercise.

With each passing year, it becomes harder and takes longer for me to transfer my thoughts into blog posts. The increasing rigidity in my hands creates more keyboarding mistakes. Learning to use the Dragon voice recognition software has helped. It would help even more if I spent some time at the Dragon learning center, but I'm too busy correcting my mistakes to do that.

The Pause That Refreshes
I've come up with a to-do list that includes a lot of items, like "learn more about Dragon." It will be interesting to see how many of them are crossed off a week from now. I'm typically much better at "Get Ready" and "Get Set" than I am at "Go."

October 1, 2015

Recommended Readings

Today I want to share a few articles I recently read and liked.

This first story appeared in the May 14 issue of The New York Times Magazine. Written by Robin Marantz Henig, it's a deeply felt work. Here's how it begins:

The Last Day of Her Life

When Sandy Bern found out she had Alzheimer’s, 
she resolved that before the disease stole her mind, 
she would kill herself. The question was, when. 

Sandy Bern, a Cornell psychology professor, found out she had Alzheimer's a month before her 65th birthday. She quickly decided “I want to live only for as long as I continue to be myself."

Over the next several weeks, Sandy told those closest to her about her diagnosis and her plan to end her life before she became incapable of doing so. No one in that inner circle tried to talk her out of suicide; they knew how fierce she could be once her mind was made up.

All they asked was that she promise not to choose a method that would be particularly disturbing — using a gun or jumping off a bridge into one of Ithaca’s famously beautiful gorges. Sandy had contemplated both of those options, but she didn’t want that sort of death either. “What I want,” she typed in her journal in an emphatic boldface font, “is to die on my own timetable and in my own nonviolent way.”

I was talking recently with a friend whose husband is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. She said he seems happier now than he had ever been -- a development not unusual among Alzheimer's patients. As the Bern narrative continues, it almost becomes a suspense story as the once strident Bern begins to mellow, and you wonder if she'll abandon her suicide plan

Here's  an excerpt from the article describing some of what was going on as Bern mellowed:
At one point, as Bern's power fades, her daughter, Emily, gives birth to Bern's first grandchild. Little Felix makes Bern think there might be some things her new self is better at than her former. 
She told Emily that her "new brain" might actually make her better suited to being a grandmother than her focused, hyper- analytical "old brain." She seemed to have found a way of being that she liked, content to sing silly songs and make nonsense sounds for hours on end. 
Emily, liked her mother this way too. As a child, Emily wanted to wear her hair long and take ballet lessons; Sandy, ever vigilant about gender stereotypes, nudged her to cut her hair and play soccer instead. But now Sandy didn't seem to care about such things. Emily thought that her mother was taking pleasure in life in a way that the old Sandy could not have anticipated – – and she found herself hoping that the joy her mother took in Felix might make her reconsider her intention to end her life quite so soon.
I hope these few paragraphs will encourage you to read the full story. Click here for that.