Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Nun Study, Lessons for a Healthy and Long Life.

Have you wondered why some people live a long productive life without any touch of senility? Aging gracefully is what we are all looking for. We visit our doctors yearly and undergo different tests to unmask diseases that can be treated before they kill us. In spite of this intense medical care, we fall prey to age induced diseases like Alzheimer's which is predicted to affect about 14 million Americans by 2050.

Much of what we know comes from the Nun Study, conducted at the convent of the School Sisters of Notre Dame on Good Counsel Hill in Mankato, Minnesota on 75 to 107 year-old Catholic sisters. The study on Alzheimer's disease and ageing has given us some insights into ageing and dementia. The following are some of the helpful highlights of the study:

Linguistic performance in early life appeared to help prevent Alzheimer's disease. The greater the "idea density" in early life, the lower the incidence of Alzheimer' disease. Though the brain is physically destroyed by Alzheimer's changes, the people with high idea density maintained the capacity to keep their brains functioning in spite of the loss of the brain tissue.

Exercising the brain helped. Those Catholic sisters who have taught all their lives (most of them have Master's degrees) showed moderate decline than those who have spent their lives in service based tasks. Exercising the brain stimulates new neurons concomitant with the new stimulant. The more we stimulate the brain, the more neurons we produce.

The nuns do not drink, neither do they smoke. They live quietly and communally (and hence have social support).

The Sisters have positive attitudes to life. The positive emotions that come from spirituality is a boost to the Sisters' mental health. They are all loving, happy and hopeful and show gratitude.

Among the nuns with physical evidence of Alzheimer in the brain, physical evidence of stroke invariably showed outward symptoms of dementia while only half of the nuns without stroke had outward symptoms of dementia. Hence Alzheimer has a cardiovascular component.

"If your brain is already progressing toward Alzheimer's," says Snowdon, "strokes or head trauma which can produce similar kinds of brain damage can put you over the edge." His advice: wear a helmet while biking, motorcycling or playing contact sports; buckle your seat belt; and drive a car with air bags. Meanwhile, keep strokes at bay by keeping your cardiovascular system in shape: avoid tobacco, get regular exercise and eat a balanced, healthy diet.

Those nuns with high folate levels in their blood have little evidence of Alzheimer type brain damage after death. Folate reduces the level of homocysteine, a crystal-like substance that damages the lining of the blood vessels. Hence adequate folate levels may decrease stroke and hence protect the brain cells from damage.

Those nuns who live longer without signs of Alzheimer "think no evil, do no evil and hear no evil."

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Everyday is a Miracle. Embrace it and Live like There is no Tomorrow

"There are two ways to live your life.

One as if nothing is a miracle,

The other as if everything is a miracle."

-Albert Einstein

We take the common things in life for granted. For example, we expect the night to come at the end of the day and likewise the day to come at the end of the night. The mystery of the smoothness of the transition is lost on us since we know that as sure as the night comes so will the day. However, if we pause and observe the rhythms of nature such as life and death, day and night, the rise and fall of the tides of the sea, the rhythm of our breathing, the changes of the seasons, we will appreciate the glory of God as the hymnist wrote:

"The heav'ns declare Thy glory, Lord,

In every star Thy wisdom shines

But when our eyes behold Thy Word,

We read Thy Name in fairer lines.

The rolling sun, the changing light,

And nights and days, Thy power confess

But the blest volume Thou hast writ

Reveals Thy justice and Thy grace.

Sun, moon, and stars convey Thy praise

Round the whole earth, and never stand:

So when Thy truth begun its race,

It touched and glanced on every land.

Nor shall Thy spreading Gospel rest

Till through the world Thy truth has run,

Till Christ has all the nations blest

That see the light or feel the sun.

Great Sun of Righteousness, arise,

Bless the dark world with heav'nly light;

Thy Gospel makes the simple wise,

Thy laws are pure, Thy judgments right.

Thy noblest wonders here we view

In souls renewed and sins forgiv'n;

Lord, cleanse my sins, my soul renew,

And make Thy Word my guide to Heaven."

Isaac Watts -1719

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Meditation, Your Prescription for Health

The daggers of yesterday are perpetually stabbing us in our ribs. Tomorrow's phantom ghosts stare at us. Our lives are torn between the polarity of the past and the future. Teilhard de Chardin, a theologian once said,

"We are not humans having a spiritual experience. Instead, we are spirits having a human experience."

The human experience is however not easy. The journey has its stressful moments. These moments are obstacles we have to scale in order to prepare for the next experience. The obstacles are stressful events that strengthen the soul for what lies ahead. Gail Brook Burket described it in this way:

"I do not ask to walk smooth paths

Nor bear an easy load.

I pray for strength and fortitude

To climb the rock strewn road.

Give me the courage and I can scale

The hardiest peaks alone,

And transform every stumbling block

Into a stepping stone."

When we are stressed, our muscles and joints are under tension. That is why stress can cause headaches, neck pains, backache and joint aches. Most of the time medications don't work on these symptoms. Our mind is affected too. We can't think clearly and all sorts of harmful thoughts go through our minds. Most of the thoughts have no basis but imagined. We can use meditation to calm our minds, control our breathing, restructure our toxic thoughts and relax our muscles and joints.

One simple but effective form of meditation is the deep breathing technique with progressive muscle relaxation. To perform this technique,

  • You may sit or lay down. Your eyes may be open or closed. Imagine your lungs are deep in your belly.
  • Take a deep breath slowly deep into your stomach and exhale slowly.
  • As you do this your mind may be wondering over all sorts of thoughts. If they are positive thoughts, don't cling to them. If they are negative don't reject them. Slowly come back to your breath.
  • Relax your muscles while breathing. Concentrate on your neck muscles and relax them while breathing. With the next breath concentrate on the right shoulder muscles, then the left shoulder muscles, then the right elbow, the left elbow, the right wrist, the left wrist, the abdominal wall muscles, the right hip joint, the left hip joint , the right knee, the left knee, the right ankle, the left ankle the right toe and the left toe.
  • You should continue to breathe slowly In and out. Imagine the muscle stretching between the nape of your neck and your tail bone. Relax the muscle.
  • By now all your muscles should be relaxed as you continue your deep breathing.
  • Imagine you are on an island in Bahamas and you're lying on a float on the sea in front of your hotel and the sea waves are gently buoying you up and down.

I like to do this before I get out of bed in the morning because as soon as I am out of bed my day has started and I have to get ready for work. If you are a beginner, you can meditate for 10 minutes to begin with and increase the time when as you become more adept. You will master this technique over a period of time. When you do, you would take a shorter time to get to the deep relaxation state. You should practice this 2x daily and you won't regret it.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Patients' Spirtuaility Influence Their Health

An article that appeared in the April 9th 2007 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that 85% of physicians who responded to a questionnaire believed that spirituality had positive influence on patients' health.

"Physical and emotional health are connected. For example, stress can have effects at the cellular level. Women under stress have their cells age about a decade faster than women not under stress. There is evidence of the effect of stress and anxiety on heart attack, on survival, stroke and high blood pressure. If nothing else, it affects patients' motivation toward recovery."
Harold Koenig, MD

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Stress Response, the Body’s Protective Armor can Harm Your Health.

Jane's appointment to my office was at 9am. She had another appointment with her internist to adjust her diabetes medication at 10am. I was late to the office because I had an early morning delivery of a baby girl whose mother had diabetes mellitus. When I entered her room, she was visibly angry. Her blood pressure was 160/100mmgh. She has no history of high blood pressure. She was upset that she was going to miss her next appointment.

I immediately apologized and asked her to close her eyes and imagine her lungs were deep in her abdomen. I instructed her to take a deep breath slowly into her lungs and exhale slowly, keeping her mind on the breath in spite of distracting thoughts. She went through the breathing exercises for about 5 minutes after which I took her history and examined her. After the examination, the medical assistant took her blood pressure reading again. It had come down to 140/80mmg.

The office visit itself may be stressful in itself. Jane was also stressed at the office because of my being late and the fact that she was going to be late for all her appointments including going to work. The perception of threat to her well choreographed schedule overwhelmed her and caused physiological effects of releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and steroids. If Jane's stress had continued over a number of months, the body's adaptive response to the stress would have been overwhelmed because of the magnitude of the allostatic load.

The mini meditation that Jane had at the office was enough to decrease her hypertension and anxiety. Imagine meditating daily. Daily practice of meditation has been found to decrease the stress response by inducing the relaxation response. The relaxation response has been associated with decreased blood pressure, breathing rate, recuperating from harmful effects of stress, with regain of natural ability to cope with additional stress as well as many other positive health effects.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Restructrue Your Mind, Heal Your Body, Stay Healthy And Happy

"That day when evening came, He said to His disciples, 'Let us go over to the other side।' Leaving the crowd behind, they took Him along, just as He was, in the boat. There were also other boats with Him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.(Mark 4:35-38a NIV)

Jesus joined his disciples on a boat ride. The blowing winds and the rocky motion of the boat put Him to sleep while the disciples went about their fishing business. There were other boats in the neighborhood, all doing the same thing, fishing to make a living. Out of the blue, the nice breeze got out of hand and started rocking the boats. In spite of the storm and the waves as high as mountains, Jesus snored away. You can imagine the anxiety and fear that gripped the disciples. They wondered what kind of man Jesus was if He could sleep through such a storm. They woke him up and asked:

'Teacher, don't you care if we drown?'"(Mark 4:38b)

"Quiet! Be Still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. (v. 39)

He asked His disciples,

"Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" (v। 40)

Even when we walk with Jesus we can still have storms in our lives that can give us the creeps. We have to remember that other people are experiencing the storms too. The storms came even when Jesus was in the boat. We have comfort that when we stay close to Jesus. We are assured that when we call on Him He is able to rebuke the storms to leave us alone. All we have to do is to believe that he is able to come to our aid when we need him. This should be our mantra day in day out until it becomes part of us.

Your defense is to restructure your mind to help you fight the onslaught of anxiety that results from the disruption of your comfort zone. When this occurs you may feel you are the only one facing problems as it gets lonely when you are confronted with a tragedy in your life. Calling on Jesus will not work for you if you have not made him your partner in your life. Partnership comes with trust and open communication. If this is absent, the partnerships will not work. If you have not learnt to trust him, in your moment of need, you would feel naked and exposed without any shelter. You become the victim of fate. Mathew, writing in the New Testament addresses this cogently.

"22 ¶ And he said unto his disciples, Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat; neither for the body, what ye shall put on.

23 The life is more than meat, and the body is more than raiment.

24 Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?

25 And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit?

26 If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest?

27 Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

28 If then God so clothe the grass, which is today in the field, and tomorrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?

29 And seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind.

30 For all these things do the nations of the world seek after: and your Father knoweth that ye have need of these things.

31 But rather seek ye the kingdom of God; and all these things shall be added unto you. "

Mathew Chapter 6, 22-31

Thus anxiety, fear and life's uncertainties have been with us since the beginning of life. The formula for healthy peaceful living is Jesus' prescription above. We sometimes forget that our ancestors had the same uncertainties about life as we have now. As patients, if we stick to Jesus' prescription, we stand a chance of having joyful lives in the face of adversity.