Do You Want “Health by Stealth”? Your Surroundings Hold the Key…

The environment you live in can harm you or it can heal you and, between these two extremes, there’s a wide range of ways your surroundings can affect you.  On the harmful end of the spectrum are obvious environmental hazards like air pollution and leaded water (think Flint, Michigan). On the healing end, simply living in a neighborhood where there is vegetation and an abundance of bird life has been shown to produce positive mental health effects.  But there are many other subtle ways our immediate environment either supports or undermines our health.  In retirement our aging bodies and changing circumstances can make staying active more of a challenge; our environment can compound that challenge or, if we’re lucky or deliberate about where we live, our environment can, without us even noticing, deliver “health by stealth.”  Understanding how to read our surroundings to know how they’re harmful or healthful is the first step toward overcoming their limitations or making a change.

Three Approaches to Staying Active:  Which Are You?

I learned the term “health by stealth”—and gained a new appreciation for how our environments affect us—when I read a recent study from Britain called “Towards co-designing active ageing strategies:  A qualitative study to develop a meaningful physical activity typology for later life.”  To understand how older people (aged 65-80) thought about staying active, the study’s authors interviewed  and “typed” 27 people of varied backgrounds from Norfolk, England, and engaged those people and community leaders in a brainstorming discussion about how higher levels of physical activity could be encouraged.

Three “types” were identified.  “‘Exercisers’ had engaged in sport and exercise throughout their life but experienced physical ill health and limitations as barriers.  ‘Out-and-about-ers’ pursued social engagement and a variety of interests but experienced biographical disruption through retirement and loss of companions that limited social activities in later life.  A final type characterized people who preferred ‘sedentary/solitary’ activities.”

Typical efforts to engage older people in the Norfolk community included familiar gambits like offering lower-impact exercise classes in gymnasiums, but the study found that only ‘exercisers’—already comfortable in gym settings—were drawn to such classes.  The other groups, particularly the ‘out-and-about-ers,’ were used to activity as a byproduct of other pursuits like gardening or social outings with friends, and weren’t interested in “exercise” for its own sake.  In the brainstorming session the study participants and community leaders developed innovative solutions, ranging from big investments like expanding walking trails and bike paths, to more easily enacted ideas like matching older people with younger neighbors to walk their dogs while they’re at work.

How Does Your Neighborhood Measure Up?

Think about the next ten or twenty years of your life.  Inevitably, you’re going to slow down. Now think about where you live.  Does your neighborhood—say, a quarter mile in every direction around you—have the infrastructure and amenities that will help keep you active simply as a byproduct of everyday life?  Imagine living in a place where you can walk or ride your bike to coffee shops, restaurants, the grocery store, perhaps even a theater. A place where you don’t have to drive your car to get to your Lifelong Learning Institute.  A place where there are parks and wildlife.  And, best of all, your friends live there, too.

How does your neighborhood live up to this ideal?  Maybe there isn’t a place exactly like this anywhere, but it makes sense to look at our surroundings through this lens and think about how it supports or undermines us as we age.  (One simple proxy for this is your neighborhood “Walk Score.” You can enter your address and find your Walk Score here.)  If your neighborhood undermines you, you may want to consider how you’ll compensate for its shortcomings and find ways to stay active as you age.  If you’re planning to move in retirement, look for a place where the neighborhood geography delivers “health by stealth”!

Take Regular Sauna Baths – Tuesday Tip – April 17, 2018

Regular hot baths or trips to the sauna can fight lower back pain, and have been linked to lower blood pressure, healthier hearts, and lower rates of dementia.  According to Dr. Ray Schilling, writing on his “Ask Dr. Ray” website, a research project links regular saunas to lower blood pressure and lower dementia rates, news particularly relevant to people in retirement.

Rustic Sauna

Scientists in Finland tracked the lives of more than 1,600 men for more than 25 years and found, according to their article published in the American Journal of Hypertension, that men who went most frequently to the sauna had the lowest blood pressure.  The same study showed that men who went to the sauna once a week had no “reduction” in dementia, while those who went 2 to 3 times a week had a 22% reduction in dementia and those who went 4 to 7 times a week had a 66% reduction in dementia.

Is it the Sauna Itself or the Social Experience?

Before you rush off to the sauna, consider the cultural dimension of the experience in Finland.  There, going to the sauna is just as much a social a experience as it is a physical experience and, as we’ve learned from many other studies, regular socializing has been linked to lower blood pressure and dementia rates.  (It’s a lot like going out for coffee with a friend, as I wrote about in an earlier Tuesday Tip.)  So remember to sauna with a friend!

Always consult a qualified medical professional before using a hot tub or sauna.

More Tuesday Tips here.)

Age in Place for a Happy, Fulfilled Retirement

One of the biggest decisions you’ll face in retirement, probably early on, is whether to move from the home you may have lived in for decades.  There are a lot of factors to consider. Imagine a piece of paper with two columns, one headed “stay” and the other headed “go.” On the “go” side of the ledger you might write:  reduce my property taxes, live in a smaller house without so many stairs, live someplace warmer and other reasons. On the “stay” side you might write: all my friends live here, I don’t want to start all over somewhere else, when the weather’s bad (too hot or too cold) I can spend a month someplace else.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?  Why Not “Age in Place”!

Now there’s another reason to stay, and that’s the burgeoning “aging in place” movement in the United States, a grassroots movement led mostly by citizen groups who have formed local organizations to help each other stay in their homes as long as possible.  Though national organizations now exist to help support these local groups, the real action in this movement is hyper-local.

Two organizations, one in Massachusetts and the other in New Jersey, were the pioneers in the aging in place movement.  Beacon Hill Village, founded in 1999, enrolled its first members in 2002 and describes itself as “a member-driven organization for Boston residents 50 and over” providing “programs and services so members can lead vibrant, active and healthy lives, while living in their own homes and neighborhoods.”  For an annual individual membership fee of $675, Beacon Hill Village members have access to a slate of cultural, educational, and social events, as well as discounts from services ranging from home handymen to gym memberships, all carefully vetted by Village staff.

Community Without Walls, in Princeton, N.J., has a similar purpose as a “person-to-person social network providing members with opportunities for social interaction, mutual assistance, and access to other support resources, helping us to remain active members of our communities as we age.”  Founded in 1992, Community Without Walls (CWW) has grown to 450 members organized into chapters with 50 to 100 members each. (Why 50 to 100?  Perhaps “Dunbar’s number” provides an explanation.)  CWW describes its dues as “modest”; unlike Beacon Hill Village, it doesn’t have a paid staff.

200 Aging in Place Villages So Far, 150 In Development

It’s difficult to say how many aging in place organizations there are in the United States, but the Village to Village Network says there are more than 200 open “villages” and another 150 in development.  My suburban Boston town, Lexington, Mass., has a member-driven organization called Lexington at Home with annual dues of $25.  The website of the National Aging In Place Council (NAIPC) lists 19 local chapters in places ranging from Naples, Fla., Kansas City, and Columbus, Ohio, to Minneapolis and many California locations.

Nothing in Your Area?  Start Your Own!

To find out if there’s an aging in place organization in your community check the NAIPC local chapter list or the Village to Village Network’s interactive map, contact your state or local senior service agency, or start Googling!  If there’s nothing in your own area, you and your friends can take matters into your own hands as others around the country have in starting their own organizations.  For inspiration, try reading Beth Baker’s book “With a Little Help from Our Friends:  Creating Community as We Grow Older,” and for more practical guidance you can order Beacon Hill Village’s (very expensive) “Founder’s Manual.”  Starting your own aging in place organization will add purpose to as well as launch a whole new chapter of your life in retirement.    

Access Free Learning Resources Online – Tuesday Tip – April 10, 2018

Are you interested in learning more about U.S. Civil War history before a summer trip to visit battlefields, or about the emperors of Rome before a trip to Italy?  Are you determined to arm yourself for the culture wars with a better understanding of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection? Want to brush up on your Spanish or French, or learn Arabic? No? How about relaxing and watching one of 1,150 free movies? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, I have the website for you!

Open Culture Holds a Wealth of Free Learning Resources

The Open Culture website describes itself as “The best free educational & cultural media on the web.”  It boasts a library of 1,300 free lectures, more than a thousand “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses), 1,150 free movies, 700 free audio books, 800 free eBooks, and more.  The website’s lead editor is Dan Colman, Director and Associate Dean of Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program. “The common thread running through his career,” says Colman’s profile on the website, “is his interest in bringing relevant, perspective-changing information to large audiences, often with the help of the internet.”  Open Culture is not associated with Stanford University.

Open Culture’s home page features a blog with interesting and eclectic new content appearing almost daily.  Recent articles include “Stephen King Creates a List of His 10 Favorite Novels,“ and “The Genius of Harry Beck’s 1933 London Tube Map-and How It Revolutionized Subway Map Design Everywhere.”  

Open Culture is an essential resource for all lifelong learners.  Check it out today!

More Tuesday Tips here.)

“The Longevity Code” by Kris Verburgh, MD – Book Review

“The Longevity Code,” by Belgian doctor and science writer Kris Verburgh, covers at least three related topics, each of which might easily have been a separate work.  By trying to cover too much ground, however, the book only partially succeeds in any one of its topics. Subtitled “Secrets to Living Well Longer from the Front Lines of Science,” it covers the biological roots of aging and, briefly, gives an overview of new research proponents believe will lead to discoveries that will “reverse the aging process.”  But at heart “The Longevity Code” is a diet book, with lots of valuable information in its pages if you want, as I do, to understand the role of our food choices in healthy aging and retirement.

If you’ve ever read a diet book from cover to cover, you know the formula.  There’s a chapter at the beginning presenting the scientific theory behind the diet, followed by several more chapters laying out the day-by-day and week-by-week program the author wants you to observe, followed by recipes, recipes, and more recipes.  Verbrugh turns this formula on its head, devoting most of the book to the science of what on his website he calls “nutrigerontology,” “which studies the impact of nutrition on the aging process and aging related diseases.”  In the back of the book, almost as an appendix, there are twenty pages of recipes.

The core of “The Longevity Code” is a methodical journey through the science of how poor food choices age us faster and cause age-related diseases.  The first part of the journey is a straightforward discussion of, in turn, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The second part steps into more complex topics like how diet affects the structure of our cells and of our DNA as we age.  The third part sets forth what Verburgh calls “The Longevity Staircase,” moving from practical advice on “avoiding deficiencies” to coming breakthroughs that may (I’m skeptical) “reverse the aging process.”

The most accessible and valuable part of the book explains the role of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats in aging, and any reader of this section will come away resolved to make better dietary choices in each area.  

Proteins

“As time goes by,” Verburgh writes, “our cells become so filled with aggregated protein that they no longer function well.  That causes them to age:  Heart cells no longer contract properly; nerve cells do not transmit signals efficiently; digestive cells do not absorb food as well as they used to.  Finally, many cells simply die, strangled in a web of proteins.” But there’s hope:  “… certain substances in our diet, and our diet itself, can slow down the agglomeration of proteins in our cells.”  There’s a clear hierarchy:  white meat is better than red meat, omega-3 fatty acid fish (like salmon) is better than white meat, and vegetable protein—from nuts, tofu, beans, green leafy vegetables, and mushrooms—is better than fish protein.  

Carbohydrates

“The intake of carbohydrates, and particularly of fast sugars, triggers the production of all kinds of hormones that accelerate aging.”  These sugars spur the production of insulin and insulin-like growth factor (IGF) that cause cells to age and grow. Cutting out soda and candy is a no-brainer, says Verburgh, but that’s only the start.  Whole wheat is better than white bread but, for best results, get your carbs from foods like oatmeal and fruit that release sugar slowly into the bloodstream.

While Dr. Verburgh’s writing tends to be stiff, he occasionally finds a telling anecdote.  Most of us have read in the press or in weight loss books that diets high in carbohydrates can make us fatter than high-fat diets, but Dr. Verburgh’s story about goose liver pate drove that message home.  To make pate, geese are force-fed grains, not fat.  Remember that next time you sit down to a plate-full of pasta!  Do you really want to do to your body what French pate farmers do to their geese?  

Fats

As we age our fat moves from under our skin to places in our bodies where it can do great harm, like to our abdomens.  “That abdominal fat produces all kinds of inflammatory substances that are released into the bloodstream,” writes Verburgh.  “These substances make the blood vessel clog up faster, putting you at greater risk of a heart attack and dementia. People with abdominal fat have three times a greater risk of dementia.”  The solution is to eat more “good” fats like walnuts, because “people who eat a lot of walnuts have a faster and healthier brain. In addition, walnuts are good for the heart and the blood vessels.”

“Desert Island” Retirement Foods

“The Longevity Code” swings from technical (and not always clear) discussions of organic chemistry and cellular biology and justified rants against the food industry, to straightforward advice about the foods you should eat and supplements you might consider.  As someone who want to know why I should or should not eat certain foods, I found much of it very valuable, and it has already changed the way I eat and think about food.  

The book made me think about what are the absolutely best foods to eat if you want to live longer and healthier, and I’m working on another blog post tentatively titled “20 Desert Island Retirement Foods.”  Here’s the idea: if you could only eat 20 foods for the rest of your life, and wanted to create a list that would be both healthy and pleasurable, what would be on it? Look for that post before the end of April!

Visit The Retirement Whisperer Bookshelf.

Research Your Family’s History – Tuesday Tip – April 3, 2018

Genealogy—researching and recording your family’s history—is a pastime ideally suited for retirement, rich in learning, creativity, and purpose.  If you like history, want to challenge your computer and skills, and are interested in creating something of value for your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, genealogy may be just what you’re looking for.

The internet has put rich reservoirs of genealogical information at our fingertips.  Fee-based platforms like ancestry.com make it easy, perhaps too easy, to build a family tree.  The site will give you “ancestry hints” when its algorithm’s determine it may have information about an individual you’ve added to your tree, but these aren’t always reliable since it may have come from another subscriber with inaccurate information.  That’s why, if you get serious about genealogical research, you’ll want to learn about and adhere to the Genealogical Proof Standard.

Going Beyond the “Who” and “What” to “How” and “Why” of Family History

Building a family tree, with dates and locations of birth, dates of marriage, and dates of death, is only the start.  That work might answer the “who” and “what” questions, but the real fun is trying to puzzle out the “how” and “why” of your family’s history.  Why did your great-grandmother leave Italy for America, while her sisters and brothers stayed behind? I’m a genealogical beginner, but I already have one or two questions it might take me years to figure out.  My great-grandfather came to the United States from Colombia in the 1890s to work in New York City as a coffee importer and, somehow, met and married the daughter of a silk factory owner in Paterson, New Jersey.  How on earth did they even meet?

Genealogy Can Teach You About The Full Range of Human Experience

If your research helps you answer questions like mine, you’ll be able to write powerful stories your descendants will thank you for.  Every family has heroes and villains, secret and surprises, and if you can uncover and describe them, you’ll convey important lessons to your family about resiliency, the possibility of fresh starts, lies and love—in short, the full range of the human experience.

(More Tuesday Tips here.)  

Retirement Reflections #2 – How Am I Doin’? (63 years, 7 months)

I started The Retirement Whisperer blog to explore what retirement means to people of my generation, to get myself ready for this step—only a few years away now—and to pass on to others what I learn along the way.  (That’s why it’s a blog instead of a diary!) I kicked off my website and Facebook page in January with a post titled “Retirement Reflections #1 – Transitions.”  Since then I have posted twice each week—a long post on Sundays and a shorter series of “Tuesday Tips” on, you guessed it, Tuesdays.  I work full-time, so writing and posting to my blog is sometimes a bit of a scramble.  To gain a little perspective I intend, at the beginning of each calendar quarter, to step back and reflect on how I’m progressing on my journey.  This may seem self-indulgent, but I hope I’ve been clear that the purpose of this website is both to furnish practical inspiration and to inspire.  If I can inspire you to reflect on your journey by talking about my own, that’s a good thing.

(Before I talk about my own progress, I’ll mention the blog post from the last three months I’m most proud of, and that’s a report on how the Men’s Sheds movement is growing in the United States.  This concept, born in Australia in the 1980s and growing like mad in Great Britain and Ireland, is a remarkable social and civic innovation that I predict will become huge in the United States over the next decade while positively impacting the lives of thousands of American men—and women, too).

In a February post titled “What is ‘successful retirement’?” I proposed keeping five dimensions in mind as we answer this question and design our own retirement plans.  Here’s an “audit” of how I’m doing on each of these dimensions:

Fitness, Diet and Health

 I’ve been a runner for 45 years and along the way have run two marathons, a bunch of half-marathons, and more 5-milers and 5Ks than I count.  I’m 20 pounds below the Clydesdale class, but I’m definitely a plodder, and the extra weight I carry may finally have caught up with me.  Early this year I began experiencing a lot of knee pain and, in February, gave up running and began a weekly schedule that includes two long walks, two sessions on the elliptical trainer at the gym, and one session on the rowing machine.  My knees feel a whole lot better and I have to admit I don’t miss running—walking satisfies my urge to get out and see what’s happening on the streets and in the woods near my home.  I also lift weights three times a week and, inspired by Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon’s regimen, I’ve been giving more focused (and badly needed) attention to my abs.  On the diet side, I’ve been inspired by a book I’m reading called “The Longevity Code.”  I’ll share what I’ve learned from that book in a book review and other posts later this month and quarter.

Socializing

I already know this is the area I’ll have to work hardest on in retirement.  So, dear reader, I’m committing here and now to organizing a guy’s book club within the next three months.  (I’ll report here how it goes!) On the plus side, I get together with a couple of different friends once a month or so for coffee, one of whom I’ve known since middle school.  Just a few weeks ago he and I had lunch with another friend of ours from out of state we hadn’t seen in nearly 50 years.  Facebook is under attack right now, but I can tell you this: if it wasn’t for Facebook I probably wouldn’t be in contact now with that old friend, and this reunion wouldn’t have been possible.  But something even better topped that experience.  I’m married to the warmest and loveliest person I’ve ever met, and the “social” highlight of the last three months was celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary with a romantic weekend away and gourmet dinner.

Learning

   I love the steep, early part of a learning curve, and starting a blog has been both stimulating and, at times, frustrating.  I use WordPress for this website. It’s intuitive enough that anyone can use it, but it’s also as complex and sophisticated as you want to make it.  I know I’ve still got a lot to learn, that I’ve just scratched the surface of what’s possible. While going beyond the basics can be technically puzzling, it’s been a lot of fun and I’m committed to learning more about WordPress and making at least one significant technical enhancement to the site each quarter.  

Creativity

When I wrote my book “Master Class:  Living Longer, Stronger, and Happier” and the manuscript deadline loomed, I adopted a writing schedule that included several mornings each week and a full day each weekend.  Keeping to a regular schedule of blog posts for The Retirement Whisperer has taken me back to that time and has been a good reminder that the creative live isn’t about waiting for inspiration!  If you have a creative outlet in your life, or want one, it’s something to keep in mind. Whether your art is painting, quilting or writing, just do it! Self-discipline is actually what drives inspiration, and I’ve enjoyed getting back into the creative rhythm in the last three months.    

Spirit and Purpose

 When I launched The Retirement Whisperer I vowed not to avoid that subject-some-of-us-would rather-not-talk-about, the other end of retirement.  Looking back at the last several months it has, unfortunately, been a promise all to easy to keep. The mother of a work colleague died after a long illness and, this weekend, my wife is out of town for her aunt’s memorial service.  But this wasn’t the worst of it. Just a month ago my wife’s 44-year-old cousin died suddenly and unexpectedly. An emotionally wrenching yet inspiring funeral followed; hundreds of people attended and this young man was eulogized as “everyone’s best friend.”  For someone like me, who can all too easily withdraw into an interior life, it was an important and timely reminder of the importance of making connections and simple acts of human kindness.

What’s Next

So, where to next with The Retirement Whisperer?  Here’s what’s brewing:

  • More interviews and reporting (like the Men’s Sheds post) from the innovative frontiers of retirement.  Look for a report on the “aging in place” movement and other topics in the next few months.
  • More practical information about getting started on specific pastimes or hobbies you might be interested in taking up in retirement.  Look for the first “5 Keys to… “ post before the end of April.
  • I’ve been reading a lot about dietary science and I’m working on a blog post tentatively called “10 Miracle Foods for Retirement.”  I may even try to eat only those 10 foods for a full month and see what happens!
  • And, or course, more book reviews, more news from academic research, more Tuesday Tips and, three months from now, more Retirement Reflections!

Is there a specific topic you would like The Retirement Whisperer to research and write about?