Age Appropriate–Tips on staying healthy and active all throughout life
AS LONG AS WE REMAIN ON THIS EARTH, we grow older. Being old, however, is a state of mind. In this feature we learn about how an ancient martial art called tai chi can alleviate some of the symptoms of aging, how virtual reality is being used to help instigate old memories, and we investigate Alzheimer’s disease and some ways to deter it. All the while, remembering to be grateful for each and every day.
Learning Tai Chi and Qigong
Getting older isn’t always easy but I thought I’d done a pretty good job staying fit until I injured my shoulder. Suddenly, I couldn’t raise my right arm higher than my waist. I had embarrassing experiences of having to ask strangers to open doors for me. The feeling of being dependent and vulnerable was distressing. A friend strongly recommended Tai Chi. I asked, “Isn’t that a martial art and how am I supposed to do that with an immovable shoulder?”
She explained that Tai Chi was born from Qigong (pronounced Chee-Gong), which was created in China 5,000 years ago for health, consisting of graceful body movements and breathing. Tai Chi developed 3,500 years later, adding a martial arts component, an aspect not used in basic exercise classes. The difference between the two in terms of classes today is slight, with the objective being to nourish the body with chi (energy). Both focus on circulation, mindfulness, flexibility and balance.
I bought The Harvard Medical School Guide to Tai Chi. The author states that researchers have reviewed 507 studies and concluded that Qigong/Tai Chi classes are beneficial for many illnesses. They help relieve stress, depression, rehabilitate the heart and lungs, strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure, and more. The studies do not suggest the classes offer cures, but they can help relieve symptoms. The Arthritis Foundation cites Tai Chi as a way to relieve arthritis pain in the knees, joints and back because the gentle movements help reduce inflammation. I feel this information should be on a billboard on I-84!
Fellow classmate, Jeff Kieran, who’s had a hernia and two cancer operations says, “I came back to Tai Chi as quickly as I could to get my energy back.” Another student who has a neuromuscular condition told me her neurologist had prescribed Tai Chi and her orthopedist and physical therapist supported this idea. Eastern medicine takes the whole body into account with awareness of internal organs. There’s an emphasis on the mind body connection. Attention to the movements and breathing calm the mind.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends Tai Chi and states that every year three million older people are treated in the ER for injuries from falls. Tai Chi is done standing and you are constantly shifting your weight from one foot to the other. This helps train the brain for balance, much like a pianist practices the piano to train the brain for finger agility.
In a tai chi class there is a sense of camaraderie. It is a calming atmosphere with the quiet voice of the teacher guiding the class from one posture to the next without pause so that you are in slow but constant motion. It’s easy to try a class as there are no mats or equipment to buy and one can use a chair if needed.
Ultimately, word of mouth will create demand for more tai chi classes. A friend shares how they got off their pain medicine, a relative explains why they’re sleeping better, a woman shows you she can now lift her arm over her head. When my son-in-law’s grandmother was asked how she could shimmy so enthusiastically on the dance floor at a family wedding, she replied smiling, ”I take Tai Chi.” She was 90.
—Marlou & Laurie Newkirk
Virtual Reality Is for Real
Imagine viewing the stunning spectacle of the Aurora Borealis, exploring the pyramids of Giza, and walking amongst hundreds of penguins in the Antarctic all on the same day. You no longer need to be a jet-setting billionaire to enjoy these once-in-a-lifetime experiences—you just need virtual reality.
The concept of simulated, multi-sensory experiences first emerged in the realm of science fiction in the 1930s. The idea truly began to capture popular attention in the 80s, and by the late 90s, the appetite for augmented reality was strong thanks to Hollywood blockbusters like The Matrix. Unfortunately, the actuality of this technology was still rudimentary and decidedly underwhelming.
Fast-forward to 2019, where anyone with access to a VR headset and platform, can have an immersive 360-degree experience that is visual, audible, and in some cases even tactile. Finally the reality equals the virtual hype. And it’s not just for kids.
While many new gaming systems employ augmented reality targeted to teens and avid gamers, other companies have been focused on developing VR experiences for older generations. Case in point: the Boston-based start-up Rendever has been actively developing systems for seniors. This award-winning company promises to help users “explore the world and reconnect with family” using their VR platform. It not only works, the actual experience is fantastic.
A few years ago, RendEver partnered with Maplewood Senior Living, and together they created a pilot program that was tested in four Maplewood senior residences in Connecticut.
“The pilot program was so successful with staff, residents, and families,” Says Brian Geyeser, vice-president of Clinical Innovation & Population Health for Maplewood, “that we immediately saw the promise and decided to buy into the program. We scaled it up to include our 15 residential facilities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio. Everybody loves it!”
Rendever curates content specifically for senior populations and makes it user friendly for both residents and staff. The experience lasts long after the VR headset comes off. “It really inspires conversation,” say Geyser, “Later on or during dinnertime, we hear residents talking about where they went or what they saw that day, or telling their grandkids they took a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon.”
Maplewood also encourages family involvement. Through the use of Google Earth, users can travel together virtually to their favorite places anywhere in the world—the Eiffel Tower, a pink sand beach in Bermuda, or even their childhood home. “It sparks memories, and people begin to share stories from their past,” says Geyser.
VR technology has also proven to be a powerful therapeutic tool in assisting memory care residents.
“When an individual has dementia or Alzheimer’s the disease can trigger a lot of emotions and fears at different times of the day,” explains Geyser. “By being proactive, we can redirect them to a pleasant experience that distracts them before they get anxious. For instance, if they raised horses when they were younger, we can say, “‘Why don’t we go to the farm and you can spend time with the horses for a bit?’” It really helps.”
VR is also used by in-house staff for reminiscence therapy, helping memory care residents tap into past recollections. “When you take a virtual trip to revisit the home town you grew up in or get to see the place where you were married or had your honeymoon, it helps to trigger happy memories and is a key to unlocking them.”
Sometimes the results are nothing short of astounding. The experiences tap into emotions, bring up feelings of joy, and recreated experiences from decades before. “In one of our communities, we have a Swedish PhD psychologist who is in the middle stages of dementia,” says Geyser. “The technology allowed her to take a virtual trip back to Sweden, back to the campus where she studied. She was delighted. She lit up and started talking about the buildings, her time studying there, and her graduation for twenty-five minutes. She was thrilled and we were thrilled for her.”
New content and is constantly being added by Rendever, and it isn’t limited just to travel experiences. Currently they are working on an initiative that will allow a family member to “attend” special events in real time, such as a wedding of a grandchild, or a family reunion. There is also a wellness and physical fitness program in the works that helps to develop core strength and range of motion through participating in fun activities. For example, the user holds a virtual sword in one hand and has to pop balloons coming towards them. The individual has fun while also gaining fitness benefits at the same time.
These immersive experiences are exciting, educational, therapeutic, and joyful. VR isn’t just for kids. It’s for all of us.
A Look at Alzheimer’s Disease
Currently, Alzheimer’s Disease affects one in ten Americans ages 65 and older, or 5.8 million people, of which two-thirds are women. The number is projected to grow to 13.8 million by 2050. The disease falls under the general umbrella of dementia, which also includes frontotemporal dementia, ALS, Parkinson’s, Lewy body dementia, and vascular dementia. It’s one of the top causes of death in the U.S. yet it is generally accepted that there is no cure and current medications are relatively ineffective at slowing the course of the disease. This is daunting data, enough to make any one of us panic as we hit a time in our lives when we had expectations of a happy retirement and quality time with family and friends. And for those already experiencing the effects of Alzheimer’s through loved ones, it’s a daily reminder that getting older can take some unexpected and unwanted twists and turns.
To learn more about Alzheimer’s, we attendeed a talk by Dr. Jaime Grutzendler from Yale School of Medicine this past May. Dr. Gruzendler is a professor of neurology and neuroscience and director of experimental neuroimaging at Yale. He clearly and concisely explained that Alzheimer’s begins with the development of a sticky substance that accumulates in the brain, called amyloid plaque (a protein molecule), which gunks up the spaces between brain neurons. Subsequently, that plaque disrupts the electrical conduction that occurs between those neurons. As a result, synapses stop effectively firing, which adversely affects cognition. This process sometimes begins 20 to 30 years before symptoms develop. How does the plaque get there? Besides being assigned some genes that might place you at higher risk for Alzheimer’s (APO4 is an example), long-term bad habits also play a role. “Diabetes and hypertension must be treated,” explains Dr. Grutzendler, “because patients—especially after cardiovascular surgeries—can develop cognitive decline.”
Other positive changes can be made at any point in life to help deter dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As previously mentioned, management of diabetes is critical, as well as other health conditions that improve vascular activity such as exercise, weight management, and kicking the smoking habit; this is crucial for neuronal and synaptic health. Controlling hypertension (high blood pressure) early in life is another critical strategy.
While depression doesn’t cause dementia, there is a significant overlap between the two, because dementia can cause depression and depression can exacerbate dementia. This relationship is also present in sleep disorders, which Dr. Grutzendler noted is quite common in people with a variety of dementias; current studies may result in a correlation between lack of sleep and dementia. Additionally, elderly individuals who are even mildly cognitively compromised may see a worsening of symptoms after some types of infections, so it’s important to make sure these are treated promptly.
There may not yet be a magic bullet yet for curing Alzheimer’s disease, but gene research appears promising, especially for one isolated gene called Trem2. “There has also been a lot of progress in the diagnostic tools used and a lot of progress in clinical trials,” says Dr. Grutzendler, adding, “It is only a matter of time until something will work to slow down the disease.” Until the science is perfected, it seems that the best prevention for dementia may start with good lifestyle choices in your 30s, 40s, and beyond. —Susan Maurer