One of the things I dislike about the cultural markers related to elders is that so much of it is about poor health. There are uncounted numbers television commercials, repeated in static and video ads on the internet that also show up in magazines, all with remedies for health problems associated with old age.
Couple the ubiquity of these ads with almost as many touting cosmetic products that promise to make people look ten years younger and it is easy for elders to be defined in the minds of younger people only by ill health leading to covert and overt discrimination that shoves old people to the margins of life.
On the other hand, if you live long enough things go wrong – from ailments as medically unimportant as hair loss (apparently, in old women, hair migrates from the head to the chin and upper lip) to serious conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, stroke and others that are most common to old people.
I like to remind myself and readers that eighty percent of old people arrive at their graves having lived independently until the end. Much of that is due to medicine's increasing ability to control conditions not yet curable or preventable with various therapies that extend independent living. So I keep an eye on medical developments through several email newsletters that collect reports of recently released scientific research results.
Most are small studies that may or may not provide useful information leading to new or better treatment - only time and more research will tell. That's pretty much how science works – success after a lot of trial and error, disappointment and many incremental advances building on one another until a solution is found. There is hardly ever a giant breakthrough all at once.
Okay, all that is about disease. Other research turns up confirming or refuting long-held health beliefs. We've been through hundreds of them in our lifetimes: Caffeine is harmless; no, it will kill you. Lay off eggs; wait, we changed our minds, they're okay now. Orange juice is good for you; oh snap, it will wear the enamel off your teeth. Gingko biloba will improve your memory; never mind, we were wrong. And so on.
Two recent studies caught my attention, one because I would so like it to be true; the other for the consternation it creates.
Bum versus Belly Fat
A group of scientists at Oxford University in England reports that having a fat butt is better for you than a fat stomach.
“More waist or abdominal fat tends to lead to more fatty acids floating around the body where it can get deposited in other organs like the liver and muscle, and cause harm. This is associated with conditions like diabetes, insulin resistance and heart disease.”
This is not new information. However, this study says having a pear shaped body instead of an apple shape “actively protects” a person against heart disease. Don't I wish that were true (there is a reason I don't own a full-length mirror) – but I'm skeptical that a fat butt and thighs are good for me.
Self-Control is Contagious
A new study from the University of Georgia reports that people tend to mimic the behavior of those they associate with so that habits such as cigarette smoking, drug use and obesity spread within social networks as do, conversely, good habits such as regular exercise and healthful eating.
”In a just-published series of studies involving hundreds of volunteers, researchers have found that watching or even thinking about someone with good self-control makes others more likely exert self-control. The researchers found that the opposite holds, too, so that people with bad self-control influence others negatively.
“The effect is so powerful, in fact, that seeing the name of someone with good or bad self-control flashing on a screen for just 10 milliseconds changed the behavior of volunteers.” [emphasis added]
Although the 10 milliseconds is surprising, this strikes me as one of those things we've always known but had not been well-articulated before. Here's how I know:
Years ago, during one of my many attempts to quit smoking, I met a friend after work for a drink at a bar. She was smoking and that's okay. I can't stand holier-than-thou reformed smokers and have refused to become one.
I got through our first drink, then on the second one, I lit one of her cigarettes. One couldn't hurt, I thought, and it's such a pleasure. But on the way home, I bought a pack. On other occasions too numerous to count, I have eaten a dessert I wouldn't otherwise have done because a friend served it after dinner. Everyone else was eating it, I rationalized, how much could it hurt? In my case, ten pounds worth over several dinners a month.
On the other hand, I have an old friend who, about twice a month for decades, has spent the night in an opium den in New York City's Chinatown. Even though he shows no discernible ill-effects and I am curious about what it is like, I have had no inclination to try it. Two other friends are grossly obese and no, it's not their thyroid. Another who is of normal size, hasn't eaten a fruit or vegetable in years as far as I can tell, but he's still alive in his early 70s. None of them affect my (usually) health habits.
In addition, no gym rats I know have had the slightest impact on my dislike of exercise machines.
So although I believe the research is valid in general, I suspect the researchers are a bit more enthusiastic than is called for. I'm certainly not going to ditch friends who smoke, who tipple a bit more than may be good for them or who don't do anything more strenuous than push a cart through the grocery aisles.
The study is useful information, but there seems to be embedded in it somewhat of a new twist on blame-the-victim; in this case, blame the victim's friends. No, I am responsible for my behavior – for better or worse.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ellen Younkins: A Lost Love