Tag Archives: aging

To Your Health

Spring Chicken: Stay Young Forever (Or Die Trying) by Bill Gifford (Grand Central Publishing, $16.99, 366 pages)

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Spring Chicken is a book with an intended audience. You should read this book only if you are interested in living longer.

bill gifford

Bill Gifford is a rather average guy, with a receding hairline and a bit of a beer gut, who decides to investigate how to live to and past the age of 100. It’s pretty tricky stuff, especially since “your risk of dying doubles roughly every eight years.” What?

When we’re young, the risk (of dying) is fairly minimal; there isn’t much difference between age twenty-five and, say, thirty-five. But thirty-five to forty-five is a big jump, and by fifty our peers are popping up with breast cancers and colon cancers and high blood pressure and other scary ailments.

Yes, this death business is pretty scary stuff. But Gifford handles it with a great deal of humor and more than a dab of self-deprecation. The surprising thing is that, other than being born with good genes (such as the writer’s grandmother in her late 90s who eats an unhealthy serving of rich pastry each and every morning) and doing one of two things, he finds that there are no magic bullets to avoid aging. The key – how simple is this? – is not to avoid aging but to avoid aging as quickly as others in your peer group.

Gifford notes a harsh reality, that at a high school or college reunion of individuals the same age, some will appear to be older than their classmates and some will appear to be younger. This is, to some extent, the luck of the genetic draw but is also a reflection of lifestyle. (The individual who appears to be younger – such as the old friend who has retained a full head of hair, bright eyes and sparkling nails, may in fact be healthier; although this is not a hard and fast rule.)

Gifford’s self-assigned job was to find out what factors result in a person living a longer and, more importantly, a healthier life. He discovers that there has not been much substantive progress in this venture. Why haven’t we devoted as much time and energy to improving and extending human life as to, say, putting a man on the moon? To be sure, science and medicine are working to eliminate deadly diseases but whenever one is conquered another one pops up to take its place. (Gifford provides a logical explanation of why we age and die. Some of it has to do with the fact that the resources of our planet are limited. But the key is that human life is tied to the survival of the species, not the individual. Aging, in fact, is a visible signal to the world that we’ve moved beyond our essential, critical breeding years.)

If there’s no magic to aging slowly and extending life, what things can be done? First, as a research scientist-physician tells Gifford, “It’s very simple. Get off the couch.” Exercise is the drug. And it need not be strenous, back-breaking exercise. You can walk, jog, swim, or play tennis or golf. Almost anything done regularly which involves movement helps to extend health and life. (However, sports that involve stress and torque, like tennis and golf, are highly problematic for aging backs.)

Exercise is key because mobility is essential. Without mobility – and this is true in humans as well as for animals in general, disease and death are never far away. In Spring Chicken, Gifford includes practical tests that one can use to self-measure mobility.

So, exercise is one key factor in terms of longevity. Remember that Gifford discovered two important factors. However, no spoiler alert is needed as I’m not going to disclose the second factor here. You will need to purchase the book to learn that rather surprising “secret.”

spring chicken alternate cover

Read this book and stay young forever! Or, die trying.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

“Gifford’s survey of those who study aging and those who claim they can slow it down or stop it makes for a great read.” The Washington Post

Vitamania

If you read and enjoy Spring Chicken, you may also want to consider Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection by Catherine Price.

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Old Friends

“How terribly strange to be 70… Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” Paul Simon (“Old Friends”)

The Last Perfect Summer: A Novel by Ed Prence (Windy City Publishers, $12.99, 166 pages)

Then I paused for a minute. “Harry,” I said finally, “do you remember who you were?” “I was a baseball player?”

That passage right there from page 36 of Ed Prence’s sparse 166-page novel The Last Perfect Summer is the essence of the story.

This book is for anybody who still remembers what the term “ghost runner” means. It for those who remember “fastpitch” against the wall, overhand lob with a chain-link home run fence, and whiffle ball batting your favorite team’s line up from both sides of the plate. It is for those who’ve played it as well as those who love it.

In the story, Ted Tresh visits former Little League teammate Harry Kirkland in a care facility in which Harry is essentially condemned to die. Having lived for over a decade with other patients in similar but varying states of need and/or dementia, he’s had fewer than a handful of visitors. Harry lives in his own world of despair and confusion. When childhood friend Ted shows up for an extended visit, memories of the grand old game rekindle a semblance of life in the former cocksure Little League superstar.

Last Perfect Summer

As Ted reminisces with Harry about the good times from their banner Little League season, he detects sparks of humanity within Harry’s tortured being. Ted enjoys the afternoon, and, believing he is doing some good, stays for an extended period of time. In the end, Ted leaves the once-hopeful encounter disillusioned, and, when Harry’s fate is sealed years later, Ted legitimately cannot attend the funeral. Based on how this passage is written, while distressed on the one hand, it is likely that, deep down, Ted would not, or could have not have attended even if he were able.

The structure of the book alternates episodes from the story of their childhood and championship run and Ted and Harry’s visit. The relationship between the two characters is not only central to the story but the strength of the book. While the specific tales that bind them together are necessary, there might be a better way to get at them than alternating which disrupts the flow of the most powerful aspects of the tale. There are highlights in which certain points are made to great effect, but this is not consistently true.

When I was a kid, I visited family friend and former major leaguer and minor league home run king Joe Hauser periodically to keep him company and pass some time. Several times a year I heard the stories about Walter Johnson’s fastball and how much of a “sunuvabitch” Ty Cobb was. “Unser Choe” (Our Joe) was a local hero. He told endless stories, squinting at us through his pale blue eyes while chomping on his cigar. He came over on Christmas Day, always dapper with suit and tie and his remaining hair combed perfectly. Nobody parked near him in the retirement home after his 80th birthday passed or on our entire street in front of our house on Christmas Day. It wasn’t so easy for him to navigate the old Buick anymore, you know. And the tears over his departed wife came easily. Gradually, Joe drifted off into his own world and, then, he left us.

The Last Perfect Summer may not be a great “book,” but it’s a darn good story. Give me a good story any day. Rekindle a memory any time. Where would we be without either? Remember while you can.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author. Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

The Last Perfect Summer is available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.

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Another Roundup

Quick Looks at Books

True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life by Kevin Sorbo (Da Capo Lifelong)

The overly-long title gives you some idea of what this memoir is about.   The actor who played Hercules on TV was hit with a series of puzzling strokes that disabled him for quite a long time.   The first half of this true tale is interesting, but then the reader fully expects to find out – in the second half of the telling – what caused the strokes and/or how Sorbo was cured.   Neither happens and nothing much of interest (other than Sorbo’s getting married and having children) occurs in the last 140 or so pages.

This is the type of account that, if boiled down to six or seven pages, would have made for a heck of an interesting magazine article.   Unfortunately, at 276 pages it just seemed to go on and on without resolution.

The Me Generation by Me: Growing Up in the ’60s by Ken Levine (Ken Levine)

Levine writes about much of the growing up male territory covered so well previously by Bob Greene.   Levine, however, grew up in the greater Los Angeles area rather than in the Midwest.   While there are a lot of funny bits in this memoir, a good amount of the (Jewish-American) humor seems forced – more Woody Allen, if you will, than Jerry Seinfeld.   Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet (Riverhead Books)God's Hotel (B&N)

This medical memoir is best summed up in the quote, “The secret in the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.”   Dr. Sweet, who has practiced medicine for more than two decades at the Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, is a doctor who truly cares for the most indigent of patients; and she cares for the human-paced hospital which barely survived a closure scare.   At a time when some still wish to debate the benefits of a national health care system, Sweet explains why we should “still believe and act as if taking care of the sick poor is something that a society should do.”

Sweet goes on to explain how a physician can learn lessons from patients, such as the fact that “medicine no longer (needs to seem) so complicated.”   A hospital should still be just that rather than a dreaded modern “health care facility.”   Sweet also details how literally dangerous it can be for a budget-cutting hospital administrator to meet and get to know the patients – actual human beings and not just “residents” – for whose lives he’s ultimately responsible.

Most readers will find themselves wishing that Dr. Sweet could be their own personal M.D., providing medical care that’s less technology and more about instinct, feeling and a sense of bonding.   Oliver Sacks said this book “should be required reading.”   Indeed.   Well recommended.

How We Age: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Growing Old by Marc E. Agronin, M.D. (Da Capo Lifelong)

HowWeAge_358“…the burden of illness and the proximity of death force a special bond (between a health care professional and) patient and family.”

Marc Agronin, a psychiatrist for the Miami Jewish Health Systems is another caring doctor who has written about his relationships with elderly patients in How We Age.   Agronin makes clear that he’s also learned much from them:  “…no matter how many years I’ve practiced, I still find myself a student to the life lessons offered by these (patients).”   He specifically learns that his patients, no matter what their illness or psychological state, generally die with dignity and prior to their expiration, they acquire “the crowning glory of old age” (Cicero) – namely wisdom.   “Wisdom serves to calm (the) maelstrom (of decay), providing a way of thinking, feeling, and experiencing that brings order, harmony, and, for many, a great measure of happiness.”

To his credit, Dr. Agronin also – like Dr. Sweet – rejects the notion that the business of medicine has evolved into nothing more than “a business transaction between strangers.”   In his view, a doctor or psychiatrist and patient should be no less than truly friends, if not more.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers or authors.

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(A) Kiss from a Rose

The Weird Sisters: A Novel by Eleanor Brown (Berkley Trade, $15.00, 368 pages)

“See, we love each other.   We just don’t happen to like each other very much.”

This is the story of three sisters, and of their retired Shakespeare-spouting professor father and a mother stricken with cancer.   They are three very different sisters, which is what creates the tension in this family novel.

Firstly, there is Rose (Rosalind), the oldest and smartest one, born six years before the second child and twelve years before the youngest.   She has found a perfect man to marry but with one small problem:  He’s teaching at Oxford and wants to stay there, thank you very much.   Secondly, there’s Bean (Bianca), the glamorous middle daughter fired from her job in New York City due to a crazy little thing called embezzlement.   She’s a beauty but not quite perfect.   And, thirdly, there’s Cordy (Cordelia), the baby, the wild one pregnant with the baby of an unknown father.   Cordy’s always been a wanderer.   Is she finally ready to settle down?

It’s their mother’s cancer that brings them back together under the same roof in a small town in Ohio.   There’s not much oxygen to spare…  You are likely thinking that this is going to be one very predictable read; if so, you would be wrong.   This is a novel that surprises and delights.   Author Eleanor Brown seems to tell the story in flawless fashion – I kept looking in vain for the seams in the tale.   They’re there somewhere, but they seem to be woven with invisible thread.

Brown’s journalistic voice contains a beautiful tone which is never too strong nor too weak.   It simply feels like one is listening to someone accurately describing and detailing the events of three sisters’ lives.   And there’s likely more than a trace of real life in The Weird Sisters, as the author just happens to be the youngest of three sisters.

“There’s no problem a library card cannot solve.”

Anyone who loves literature and the greatest writer in the English language will treasure Brown’s educated and clever references to the writings of William Shakespeare.   Each of the daughters is, naturally, named after a character in one of the Bard’s plays, and their lives sometimes feel as if they’re characters in a play.

As the story unfolds, the three sisters must deal with their mother’s mortality and with their own coming to grips with what it is they actually want out of life.   In one sense, each of them must decide between an external (public) or internal (private) version of achievement.

Boomers and those of a younger generation will identify with the struggles of these late-maturing sisters:  “When had our mother gotten so old?   Was it just because she was sick?   Or was this happening to us all without our noticing?…  There was no one wondering about it – we were all getting old.”

“We were all failures,” thinks Bean at one point about herself and her siblings.   But they all wind up successes in a story that is wrapped up so beautifully well.   Contentment is the reward for the reading.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Weird Sisters was released in trade paperback form on February 7, 2012.   “Hilarious, thought-provoking and poignant.”   J. Courtney Sullivan, author of the novels Maine and Commencement.

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Bad to the Bone

The Complete Book of Bone Health by Diane L. Schneider, M.D. (Prometheus Books, $21.00, 491 pages)

Your skeleton is more than a bunch of bones.   Dr. Diane Schneider, a gerontologist specializing in the effects of aging on our bones, has crafted a wonderfully helpful and easy-to-use reference book – a comprehensive summary of the best research regarding osteoporosis, bone fractures and the medications that can assist in rebuilding bone mass.

All six parts can stand alone or the reader can proceed from beginning to end.   Regardless, the general layout of the narrative along with the generous use of bullet points, summary statements and anecdotal case histories makes it a go-to reference for the entire family.   There are illustrations that provide clarification of medical terms.

Dr. Schneider is able to convey critical information using a caring, but firm voice.   Her colleagues and other researchers are well-represented and acknowledged.   The many charts included in the treatment section list all the medications currently prescribed, calcium-rich foods, and study results related to bone density improvement and osteoporosis prevention.   Exercises are noted with ample warnings to avoid fractures and breaks.

Let’s hope there will be future updates to this very valuable resource.   Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Complete Book of Bone Health is available in hardbound and trade paperback versions, and as a Kindle Edition download.   The foreword was written by astronaut Sally Ride.

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The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women & a Forty-Year Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow (Gotham Reprint, $16.00, 352 pages)

“There were times…  when Kelly felt desperate, confused and shattered.   But she also embraced and loved.   And that sustained her.”

There are books that you read, and put down because they are not what you expected.   This is a book that you will read and occasionally put down for another reason – in order not to finish it too quickly.   It is a book to savor and embrace, whether you are female or male.

This is a nonfiction tribute to a 40-year-old friendship among the 10 surviving members of an 11-member high school clique.   They are a group of women who “reached maturity in the age when feminism was blooming.”   They grew up with the theme of empowerment resounding in the air.   Consider that on TV they watched not “I Love Lucy” or “Father Knows Best” but instead “Wonder Woman,” “Bionic Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

The original group of 11 girls – Karla, Kelly, Marilyn, Jane, Jenny, Karen, Cathy, Angela, Sally, Diana and Sheila – grew up in the relatively small community of Ames, Iowa; a place where they were literally surrounded by corn fields.   The corn there grows so high that it can hide cars.

This is a telling of the lives of this group (a real-life version of the story told in Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group) and their lives are touched with successes, tragedy, divorce, illness and death.   The outgoing Sheila was to die in her twenties under strange circumstances that have never been fully resolved.   In addition, the children of the group members have been affected by serious illness and two members of the remaining group have battled breast cancer.   On the flip side, a member of the group first became a mother at the age of 45.

“Having a close group of friends helps people sleep better, improve their immune systems, boost their self-esteem, stave off dementia, and actually live longer.   The Ames girls just feel the benefits in their guts.”

This book does its best in focusing on why it is vital for women “to nurture female friendships.”   We’re told, for example, “Research shows that women with advanced breast cancer have better survival rates if they have close friends.”   The matter of the peace and acceptance that accompanies aging is also well noted in The Girls From Ames.   “By their mid-forties, women know they’re at a crossroads.   They are still holding on to their younger selves, but they can also see their older selves pretty clearly.”

The one aspect of the book that may be slightly troubling is that males, particularly husbands and fathers, tend to come off as pale by comparison.   The men in the lives of these women are depicted as not being highly communicative, especially among other men (that is not how they get their needs met), and yet they are generally well-loved.   At one point the women of the group are asked to rate their husbands/partners, and the average score came out to 8.2 on a 10-point scale.   All in all, a very good score!

One man was asked to consider reading this book and he declined sending this message via e-mail:  “Unfortunately, I do not have plans to read the book, but please convey to the girls from Ames that I think they are pretty hot.”   That was from Tom (60 years old) in Ohio.

The girls from Ames are now mothers and female role models in their own communities.   But most of all they remain the best of friends.   They are friends, survivors and a mutual support network.   They have all been battered a bit by life and, except for the still greatly missed Sheila, they have made it through.

This would be a great selection for almost any book club, even one that includes a male or two.   The very best news is that the story of the women from Ames will continue.   The 13 daughters of the 10 women are extremely good friends.   Bravo!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.   This review is dedicated to the memory of Jeffrey Lloyd Zaslow, who was killed in an auto accident on February 10, 2012.

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Turn Back the Clock

The Memory Palace: A Memoir by Mira Bartok (Free Press, $15.00, 302 pages)

When she turned seventy-nine she wrote to tell me that although she was now legally blind she had decided to study medicine:  “I am thinking of going to nursing school…   That way, if I ever get sick or lose my sight completely, I’ll know what to do.”   I found a set of her teeth inside an old eyeglass case.

In The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok writes of a world that, sadly, too many of us will come to experience.   This is the world of the adult child whose parent is not only rapidly aging, but entering the throes of dementia or full-fledged insanity.   Whether caused by disease or mental illness, the results are the same – a parent terrified of having bad things happen to him or her brings those very results about through his or her own irrational behavior.   Bartok’s mother, Norma, was terrified of becoming homeless but became so after stabbing her own mother – who suffered from dementia – six times.

When her two daughters were young girls, Norma was diagnosed as having severe schizophrenia, and it cost her both a husband and a home.   Aside from the illness, Norma was a highly talented classical pianist who might have become a household name.   But it was not to be and Mira and her sister grew up in a hellish home with a mother who heard voices in her head, voices that caused her to lose touch with reality and normalcy.

As anyone who has lived through it knows, once a parent begins acting irrationally, their behavior will inevitably continue to deteriorate.   We no longer seem to have systems in place for properly dealing with the problems of the aged with mental illness.   They may be medicated or locked up for various periods of time (from hours to weeks or months), but they simply do not “get better.”

Bartok is to be commended for writing frankly about an adult daughter’s reaction to this, and it is mixed.   One third of her escaped by thinking back to the times when her mother was seemingly normal – a time before this parent’s rapid descent into madness.   One third of her lived in denial, literally trying to escape by hiding from her mother in Europe and elsewhere.   And the last third consisted of the daughter who sometimes had to take harsh actions against her mother – such as attempting to get a court to declare her incompetent – knowing deep down that the situation would only be resolved (made peaceful) with her mother’s death.

In this account it becomes clear to the reader that although Bartok lived a very difficult life due to their mother’s mental instability, she very much loved her mother and has wrestled with feelings of guilt (“I abandoned my mother to the streets.”).   As a young woman, Bartok was involved in an automobile accident that injured her brain and led to memory problems.   This provided her with a measure of insight into her mother’s faded connections with the world.

“…I go to the church and light a candle for my mother.   Not that I believe it will do any good; it’s just to remind myself that she is still lost in the world.”

By writing this blunt and painstakingly honest account of her mother’s troubled life, Bartok has performed an act of penance.   It is an act of humble penance in which she seeks to forgive her mother for literally losing herself.   It is an act of contrition in which she asks the world to forgive both herself and her mother for leading damaged lives.

This brilliantly written work reminds us that self-examination and self-forgiveness precede forgiving others for their real or imagined wrongs.   It’s a harsh world – a dark ocean – out there and we sometimes need assistance in navigating our way through it.   This memoir tells us that lighthouses exist.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“If memory is a palace, let me live there, forever with her, somewhere in the place between sleep and morning.”

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The Memory Palace was released in trade paper form on August 9, 2011.   “This is an extraordinary book.”   Audrey Niffenegger

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