What weird quirk of human nature makes us more excited about a cure than prevention?  Imagine the headlines:  “Cure for Dementia!”  Wouldn’t you want to be one of the lucky ones to have bought stock in that company?

I have a friend who’s a dental hygienist, and you couldn’t pay me to do her job: Nobody wants to go to the dentist, nobody wants to hear about all the things they’re not doing to protect their teeth and not get gum disease. 

Nobody wants to be preached at.  We all know we need to floss our teeth*, and brush twice a day.  It’s pretty simple.  But how many people don’t floss, except maybe right before they go to the dentist?  How many of us have lied through our teeth, so to speak, and vehemently denied doing this? 

Dude, all they have to do is start poking around in there, and when they see plaque and your gums bleed at the drop of a hat, they know.  How many of us say, “I hate going to the dentist,” and then pay big money to have fillings and root canals, or worse, to get bad teeth pulled and get dentures.

Well, it’s the same thing happening here, except instead of losing your teeth, you could lose your memory, and your ability to think right. 

This story appeared in the news last week.  It didn’t make nearly as big of a splash as I thought it should:  “Exercising in Mid-Life Prevents Dementia.” 

Prevents dementia!  If you’ve ever watched a loved one struggle with dementia or Alzheimer’s, you know that this is hell on all sides. 

But this! This is really wonderful news:  Some basic lifestyle choices can delay or even prevent this from happening. 

Can you imagine if some drug company had developed a magic pill, something you take in your 40s and 50s, that prevents dementia?  People would be saying, “Sign me up!”

exerciseThis is better than a pill.  Also, it’s free!  The good news from this story is that – like many things we’ve talked about in this blog – every little thing you do makes a difference.  You don’t even need to lift weights or buy a gym membership.  You get points for walking the dog.  Just keep moving!  Any activity is good! 

An Australian researcher, Cassandra Szoeke, Ph.D., and colleagues just published these findings in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.   They followed nearly 400 women, aged 45 to 55, for more than 20 years, and gave them periodic memory tests; the women learned 10 unrelated words, and then tried to remember them 30 minutes later.

The investigators looked at everything – diet, education, marital status, employment, children, smoking, mood, physical activity, Body Mass Index, blood pressure, cholesterol, hormone levels, etc.   Although younger age and better education (this goes with the “cognitive reservoir” that seems to protect against Alzheimer’s that we talked about in this post) were linked to a better baseline test, the one factor that proved most powerful in determining who didn’t get dementia was regular physical activity

Note: In these posts, I talked about weight loss and smoking, and exercise as a way of not dying of cancer.  This isn’t even about big-effort activity.  You don’t have to jog, or pump iron, or do some extreme sport to keep your brain working. 

According to Szoeke: “Regular exercise of any type, from walking the dog to mountain climbing, emerged as the Number One protective factor against memory loss.”  Also, she continues:  “The effect of exercise is cumulative.  How much and how often you do over the course of your life adds up.”

walkingEvery little bit helps.  What if you didn’t start at age 40?  That’s okay!  Even if you start at 50, “you can make up for lost time.”  I’m going to add my two cents here and say that at any age, doing something is better than nothing, and if you can do your brain a tiny favor every time you move around, then do it.  Don’t cop out and say, “Well, I’m too old to start now, I’m toast.”  No, you’re not.  Conversely, “I’m way younger than 40, I’ve got plenty of time,” is just a terrible attitude.  You’ve got an even better chance of making a difference in your lifetime health!  

After exercise, the other things that proved to be strong protectors against memory loss were having normal blood pressure and having a high level of “good” cholesterol. 

One neat thing about this study, funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Alzheimer’s Association, is that a lot of studies of memory loss start over age 60.  This is because the risk of dementia doubles every five years over age 65. 

The other:  There’s no prescription here for what you do, how hard you work out or how fast you run or walk.  The researchers found that it didn’t matter what people did, just that they did something.  The key is just daily exercise.  Seven days a week. 

“Start now,” says Szoeke, because if you wait, you will disadvantage your health.” 

*Note:  It turns out that dentists have been recommending flossing for a century without having done scientific studies to prove that it works.  Oops.  However, flossing does make your gums stronger and healthier, and removes food that otherwise might remain stuck between your teeth indefinitely, so it is a good thing to do.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

 It’s Really Hard to Lose Weight, and Now You’ve Just Depressed Me

I get it.  It is really hard to lose weight, and I would have depressed myself, too – except I know it can be done.  I am shaping up, myself, and I’m seeing results.  My kids got me to start going to the gym a few years ago.  Then I stopped doing weights and started running, but although I enjoyed it, I got plantar fasciitis and was hobbling around every morning when I got out of bed. 

Then my daughter sent me a link to this great website called Bodybuilding.com.  After doing just weights, and then switching to just cardio, I have finally figured out that it’s better to do both.  (I also want to state publicly that my daughter tried to tell me this, years ago, but I didn’t get it.  I do now.)

None of this is as hard as you might think.  Here’s the routine I have been doing:  http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/randy29.htm

I don’t even do all of it!  It starts with crunches.  I don’t do them.  I go to my local YMCA, and frankly, the floor is gross.  They have mats you can use, but they’re gross, too.  I don’t want to be on them.  This is not your fancy clientele, as evidenced by the sign over the water fountain telling people not to spit in it.  Sometimes people don’t read the sign, that’s all I’m going to say. 

There are 12 exercises, and before you think, “oh, Lord, how long will that take,” let me reassure you that each one just takes a few minutes.  And again – I don’t do them all!  It’s not that bad. 

barbellI start with the “barbell bench press.”  I do 40 pounds.  Don’t laugh; it used to be 30.  That’s okay.  If 40 gets easy, I will move up to 50.  Baby steps, people.  Then I do the dumbbell shoulder press.  I do 12 pounds each; again, you could laugh at the girly lack of weight, but it used to be 10 pounds.  One-arm dumbbell row, 25 pounds; it used to be 15.  Wide-grip lat pulldown:  I do 50 pounds.  It used to be 40.  Seated cable rows: I do 40 pounds.  That hasn’t changed, but I was doing it wrong at first, and now that I’m doing it right, that’s a good weight for me.  Barbell curl:  I don’t do it, but I do the dumbbell curls instead; 15 pounds, used to be 10.  Triceps pushdown:  I do 45 pounds.  I used to do 40.  Barbell full squat:  The pole that holds the barbells weighs 45 pounds; I add 50 to that.  Leg extensions: I do 50 pounds; used to do 30 when I started.  Lying leg curls: I do 50 pounds.  I don’t like them, so I often don’t do them.  And that’s okay, because I’m doing the other stuff.

treadmillThen I do 20 minutes on the treadmill; I used to run, now I walk briskly.  I also have a Chocolate Lab who is insane, and I take her for long walks, too.  Combining both the weights and the walking really has made a huge difference for me.    

I have also changed what I eat.  This has been difficult, because God help me, I love comfort food.  I grew up in the South, and when I go to South Carolina to visit my family, I gravitate to fried chicken, fried okra, fried catfish… notice a theme here?  Fried foods are very bad, as we talked about in a previous post.  Also, sweet tea is the house wine in the South.  I am drinking it straight, without the cup of sugar in each gallon.  My relatives are still speaking to me.

More concerning for me, is where my body likes to store fat.  I don’t have junk in the trunk, or thunder thighs.  Instead, my body wants to put on fat right in the tummy, where it causes the heart to work hardest.  It’s not much, but it’s more than I want.

I’m eating food that is better for me, and in return, I actually feel better for it.

You may find a diet that is perfect for you, and if that’s the case, more power to you.  I have found that slow and steady wins the race. 

Here’s my best tip: Every single little thing you do makes a tiny difference.  Have mustard instead of mayo.  If you get a sandwich, skip the cheese.  Get it on whole-grain bread. 

Don’t get chips with it.  If you say, “No way, I’m getting chips,” of course that is your right, and it’s your life.  How about maybe you get the small size instead of the “sharing size?”  At least there are fewer chips in there.  You’ve got to start somewhere.

Chicken has fewer calories than beef. 

Drink only water or something with no calories, like unsweetened tea.  Avoid soda like the plague.  Alcohol has a lot of calories.  You could start to lose weight right away if you just cut back on that.  Watch out for juice; it has a lot more calories than you think.  Eat a piece of fruit instead.  If you go to Starbucks, get a Refresher, which only has about 35 calories, instead of a Frappucino.  Don’t rely on diet drinks; that’s a whole ‘nother blog post, but they still make your body crave sweet things, and this does bad things to your insulin receptors. 

Make the effort to limit processed food.  Yes, when you’re tired and you just want to eat something fast, it’s a pain to cook from scratch.  I know this.  I have never been one to make a bunch of meals ahead of time, so I can’t recommend that approach, although a lot of people do it.  But it’s not that hard to get a piece of chicken and cook it.  You can buy frozen brown rice and microwave it; it takes three minutes.  Or cut up that chicken and stick it on top of a store-bought salad mix, then add a simple vinaigrette dressing.   

Fast food is bad.  Now, you may say, “But I have no choice, I’m on the road, I can’t carry food all the time.”  Keeping in mind that you actually could carry granola bars and fruit, I’ll say, “Okay, then watch your calories.”  McDonald’s posts the calories right on the sign.  If you just have to have a burger, limit your portion size, as the doctors say.  Get one of their original small hamburgers, not a cheeseburger.  Get a small fry instead of a large.  For God’s sake, don’t get a soda.  Your insulin receptors will thank you. It’s not great, and I wish you would do something else, but at least you will save hundreds of calories right there.  (I will note here that some nutritionists would say I’m being a traitor to the cause:  “Eek! Fast food burgers and fries are evil!  Shun them!  Get a salad instead.”  But a lot of people feel that when their doctor gives them a diet, it’s “my way or the highway,” and if they leave the highway once, they might as well just stay off-road.  I am hoping you will stay on the road for the long haul.)

Speaking of salads: Salads are good, but if you load them up with a creamy ranch dressing, lots of cheese and croutons, maybe some ham or bacon for good measure, with a big side of bread and butter, you are defeating your purpose.

Take the stairs. 

Don’t drive circles around the parking lot looking for that lazy spot right in front of the store.  Park farther away from the store and walk. 

When you start to exercise, don’t start with heavy weights.  Work up to it.  Don’t get on the treadmill, run fast and then poop out after two minutes.  Start by walking slowly.  In my opinion, it’s better to walk slowly for 20 minutes than speed-walk for five.  If you don’t have access to a treadmill, set a timer and walk for 20 minutes, at any speed you choose.  Anything you do is more than you would accomplish by just sitting still.  Trying means a lot.

Don’t get discouraged.  The worst thing you can do is try something, decide it’s too hard, then quit because you just know it’s never going to happen, and that you’re a loser, or whatever you might say to yourself.  You’re not a loser because you’re trying.  No judgment, only encouragement.  You are making the effort. 

Baby steps.

This lifestyle we have – I’m including myself here, because I’m fighting it, too – has got to change. 

We can do this.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

I am so happy.  I’ve been writing for the Prostate Cancer Foundation for several months now; everything I’m writing is for men with prostate cancer and their families.  It’s right up my alley – telling men what they need to know, what their doctors might not tell them or may not even know, and most of all, doing my best to be upbeat because there is so much hope out there for men at every stage of this disease.  When the PCF says the website is a “go,” I will be able to tell you more, and share all that with you.

But here’s a preview: One story has me so fired up that I just want to give you the highlights.  It turns out that prostate cancer is a disease of inflammation, just like diabetes.  You know what inflammation is – when you skin your knee, and it gets all red and hot around the wound.  That’s your body’s way of attacking the germs, and in the case of a skinned knee, it’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, the same process gets triggered on a much smaller scale within your cells.  A lot of things can cause inflammation within the cells, including fried foods and even sexually transmitted diseases. Those are topics for another post.   

Fat can trigger inflammation, too. It turns out that people who are overweight tend to have higher glucose levels, higher insulin levels, and to produce cytokines – immune system boosters, which can encourage inflammation; sometimes inflammation is good, if it helps you fight off infection, but other times, it can put added stress on the body and perhaps tip the balance toward cancer,

healthy foodThe good news is that it is never too late to change your lifestyle – and to have this change instantly lower your cancer risk.  If you lose weight and start to exercise early in life, you may delay or even stop some of the processes that lead to prostate cancer.  If you lose weight, and if you exercise after you are diagnosed with cancer, you will certainly be in better shape for treatment.  You will also help lower your risk of having the cancer come back.  If you are battling cancer right now, losing weight and exercising may help deprive the cancer of some of the things it needs to thrive.

This is not just happening in prostate cancer.  Yale scientist Melinda Irwin, Ph.D., M.P.H., presenting her research at the big yearly meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago, announced that she and colleagues found a “strong connection between exercise after (breast cancer) diagnosis and mortality.”  Even in women who had never really been active previously, starting regular exercise “seemed to show a great impact.” 

Irwin, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health, is probably not the favorite of the pharmaceutical industry; she has gone on record in the past pointing out that most large-scale drug trials don’t include a lifestyle component.  That’s because big Pharm “has no incentive to fund lifestyle behavioral interventions.  Why would they?  There’s no pill to take.”

And yet the connection between obesity and cancer keeps getting stronger.   ASCO, in a paper published in the online edition of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, has stated that being overweight “is associated with worsened prognosis after cancer diagnosis.”  It also said that if you are overweight and are diagnosed with cancer, chemotherapy or other treatment might not work as well; you may have more complications from treatment, may be more likely to have cancer develop somewhere else, and you have a higher risk of dying from cancer. 

ASCO estimates that as many as 84,000 cancer diagnoses each year are due to obesity, and that being overweight or obese is the cause of as much as 20 percent of all cancer-related deaths.  The National Cancer Institute has linked being overweight to “poorer outcomes in cancer patients,” and to raising the risk cancers including breast, colon, prostate, kidney, pancreas, esophagus, and gallbladder.

In a different study, European scientists just showed that having “central obesity” – fat in the belly, around the heart – makes you more likely to develop more aggressive prostate cancer.   The EPIC (for European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) study followed nearly 142,000 men from eight European countries for 14 years; the average age of the men when it began was 52.  Nearly 7,000 of those men were diagnosed with prostate cancer, and 934 of them died of it.  The scientists looked particularly at the men with the worst tumors.  They found there was a 14 percent greater risk of dying from prostate cancer for every 5-unit increase of Body Mass Index, and an 18 percent higher risk for every 10-centimeter (about four inches) increase in waist circumference. 

Having fat right around the waistline is already linked to Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease; now, apparently, it is linked to cancer.  That’s because, unfortunately, fat in this particular location happens to surround organs, and it stresses them out.

walkingThe good news is, the risks go down as you shape up.  With every pound you lose, every bit of fat that you turn into muscle, your odds of being healthier go up.

Irwin has found that brisk walking lowered levels of two major biomarkers, insulin and “insulin-like growth factors” (IGF), in postmenopausal women who had survived breast cancer.  Both are linked to a higher risk of breast cancer.   She also has noted that breast cancer survivors who are obese have a 33 percent higher risk of having cancer return, or of dying from breast cancer, than other survivors do.

However, women who lost 6 percent of their weight through exercise and diet had a 30-percent decrease in levels of a protein associated with breast cancer, and women who exercised after being diagnosed with breast cancer had as much as a 40-percent lower risk of having the breast cancer return, and of dying.

To sum up, people who lose weight and exercise can improve their odds of not dying from cancer significantly. 

©Janet Farrar Worthington

The day of discharge from the hospital – any hospital — is like being at a bad party or uncomfortable family reunion.  It’s interminable.  Everybody’s ready for it to be over, including you; you just want to go home.

 Shortly before it’s time to go, a nurse goes over your discharge instructions.  Maybe you nod a lot – but maybe you also glaze over, feeling too worn out or overwhelmed to think about the big list of medications and follow-up appointments.

If this haziness about what you’re supposed to do when you leave the hospital sounds familiar, that’s because you’re not alone.  It happens to a lot of us, and this is not good; that discharge information is crucial.  More than 39 million hospital discharges happen every year in the U.S., and nearly 20 percent of those people wind up back in the hospital within a month.   

Francoise Marvel

Courtesy of FSU College of Medicine

These are dismal statistics.  Francoise Marvel, M.D., a second-year resident in internal medicine at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, wants to change them – starting with helping heart attack patients who are at highest risk of being readmitted within that critical first 30 days.  I recently interviewed Marvel for Breakthrough, the magazine for the Johns Hopkins Center for Innovative Medicine.

Her key to helping these people recover: their cell phones. 

Studies show that about 80 to 90 percent of Americans own a cell phone capable of receiving medical information.  Rich or poor, young or old, tech-savvy or not; doesn’t matter.  Cell phones transcend demographics.

“Unfortunately,” says Marvel, who plans to specialize in preventive cardiology, “hospital discharge is a process that is fraught with patient safety issues.”  The discharge instructions are often written by an intern or medical student, and frankly, the quality varies.  That information is then handed off to a nurse, who conveys it to the patient.

Also, the timing is bad.  Patients may get the go-ahead to leave in the morning, but the actual discharge usually doesn’t happen until late afternoon.  The day drags on, and the last thing those people may feel like doing is sitting through a mini-seminar on medications, lifestyle and dietary changes.     

And yet – especially for those who have stents put in to help a clogged artery stay open – understanding and following this information truly is a matter of life and death.  Another problem, says Marvel, is that the proverbial wheel is being reinvented with every patient.  If you have been a heart patient yourself or been in the hospital room with a relative who has, you know the drill:  Go to cardiac rehab, avoid salt, measure your pulse and blood pressure, avoid alcohol and stop smoking.  Etc. 

But if you have a newly placed stent, what you hear in those discharge instructions is extra important: You must take aspirin and Plavix, two essential blood-thinning medications – these allow your blood vessel to knit a blanket of cells to cover the stent.  That stent is very sticky. Until the cells grow around it, without those blood thinners it’s almost certain that a clot will form. 

That message doesn’t always come through loud and clear, and some patients don’t understand the urgent need to take these pills every single day and not stop for any reason, and that “if they don’t do this, they will have a massive heart attack.”

This is far too important to tell people “right before they get in a wheelchair and get picked up by a family member,” says Marvel.  She cites a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing that 40 percent of patients over 65 “who felt that they had a good understanding of their discharge instructions” could not accurately describe the reason for their hospitalization, and 54 percent “did not accurately recall instructions about their follow-up appointment.”

hospital doorAnother study of recently discharged patients aged 64 and older found that “the majority did not understand the new dosing of medications they were taking” or the reasons for medication changes.  “What we know from the research,” Marvel says, “is that many patients are likely to come back to the hospital for avoidable reasons,” and the discharge process is largely to blame.

She is designing the Health-e App for smartphones.  It will serve as a “discharge navigator,” helping patients transition from the hospital to the home after a heart attack.  Designed for people who, like most of us, “don’t know the first thing about cardiac rehab,” the app will help patients follow up with the heart doctor and connect with a pharmacy.  It will walk them through changing their diet and also will connect patients with social services and help them apply for insurance if they don’t already have it.

  After a heart attack, most patients stay four days.  Marvel plans to give the app on Day 2, to “so they feel comfortable with it and have a chance to preview the app so they’ll know why and how they need to take care of themselves when they get home.”  This user-friendly, guided, evidence-based approach, she envisions, will be much better than “the four to five pages of relatively unhelpful, EMR (electronic medical record)-automated, inconsistent instructions.” 

The American Heart Association estimates that one in five men, and one in four women, die within a year after having a heart attack.  “Looking at the risk factors for why you would die within that window, medication and therapeutic adherence – knowing what you need to do and take, and being consistent – is the number one reason,” Marvel says.  “It keeps you up at night when you realize we keep giving the same basic instructions that were typed out 50 years ago. We’re doing a huge disservice to our patients.”

Smart phones, Marvel says, can become a tool for “wraparound care.”  But right now, hospitals are not routinely using them as such.  “If I ask you, where are your car keys, you might have to think about it.  But if I ask, where’s your phone, you know where it is.  You’re wearing it, or it’s right beside you.”  She believes that using the cell phone “is going to bring us closer to our patients.  In the hospital, they see us for 15 minutes, maximum, when we’re on rounds; in fact, that’s a long encounter.  It could be as little as four or five minutes.”

Marvel is developing a prototype with the help of student volunteers from the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering.  

©Janet Farrar Worthington

Do you feel connected, or tethered?

While you’re mulling that over, here’s another one: Can you handle downtime?  The art of loafing — made famous by such characters as Huckleberry Finn; the morbidly obese passengers of the spaceship, Axiom, in the Pixar movie WALL-E; and cats everywhere – has its good points.  There’s something to be said for taking some time to daydream.

Tell that to the experts who want to help us stay on task and be more productive.  “We’ve come to consider focus and being on as ‘good,’ and idleness – especially if it goes on for too long – as ‘bad’ and unproductive.  We feel guilty if we spend too much time doing nothing,” says Stanford psychologist Emma Seppälä, Science Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.  She has written a book, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success.

Goofing off in moderation can be very helpful, especially when you’re trying to think creatively.  In fact, Seppälä says, truly successful people “are successful because they make time to not concentrate.”  By just leaving the desk and taking a walk, for instance.  “As a consequence, they think inventively and are profoundly creative.  They develop innovative solutions to problems and connect dots in brilliant ways.”

Here are three simple ways you can “unfocus” your hard-working brain – and free it up for tackling problems in new ways:

mindless wanderingDo something mindless.  Don’t just sit there staring at your computer or focusing on one monumental task.  “To get a new perspective on something, we actually need to disengage from it,” Seppälä says. Don’t worry – your brain keeps right on working on a problem, even when you aren’t actively thinking about it.  Take a shower, or go for a walk around the block, or empty the dishwasher.  You and your brain will feel refreshed.

Do nothing at all.  Silence is powerful, says Seppälä.  Meditation or even just taking a “silence break” helps you think outside the box.  This is not that easy for many of us:  “When your mind wanders, thoughts and feelings can emerge that are not necessarily pleasant.  Being alone or being un-busy or quiet can open the door to troublesome thoughts or even anxiety.”  But hang in there.  If you keep at it, you can sit through these thoughts, “or walk through them, if your silent practice is a hike or a walk,” and “they will eventually pass, leaving room for free-flowing thoughts and daydreams.”  Doing nothing is its own form of exercise, and you get better with practice.

Play.  “We are the only adult mammals who do not make time for play, outside of highly structured settings like a Sunday neighborhood soccer game or playtime with a child,” says Seppälä.  Play stimulates positive emotion, and this, in turn, leads to “greater insight and better problem solving.”  Feeling good helps you see the bigger picture, instead of feeling trapped by the details.  If you’ve gotten rusty at playing, don’t worry – this is a skill that can be relearned.

And now, back to feeling constantly connected to the world:  this is not as good as thing as the smartphone makers would like you to believe.  Just ask Jenna Woginrich, who gave up her smartphone 18 months ago.   She wrote about it in the UK newspaper, The Guardian.

She didn’t just get a low-tech flip phone to “simplify.”  No, she jettisoned having a cell phone – any cell phone — altogether.

She doesn’t miss it.  She still has a computer and a landline.  “There are a dozen ways to contact me between e-mail and social media,” she says.  “My phone has become ‘the phone.’ It’s no longer my personal assistant; it has reverted back to being a piece of furniture – like ‘the fridge’ or ‘the couch,’ two other items you also wouldn’t carry around on your butt.  I didn’t get rid of it for some hipster-inspired Luddite ideal… I cut myself off because my life is better without a cell phone.  I’m less distracted and less accessible, two things I didn’t realize were far more important than instantly knowing how many movies Kevin Kline’s been in at a moment’s notice.”

connected cablesEven though her friends think her decision was nuts, she feels “rich,” she says, because the addiction was getting to her.  “I hated that anyone, for any reason, could interrupt my life.”  Worse, she adds, “I was constantly checking e-mails and social media, or playing games.  When I found out I could download audiobooks, the earbuds never left my lobes.  I was a hard user.  I loved every second of it. I even slept with my phone by my side.  It was what I fell asleep watching, and it was the alarm that woke me up.  It was never turned off… It got so bad that I grew uncomfortable with any 30-second span of hands-free idleness.  I felt obligated to reply to every Facebook comment, text, tweet and game request.”

No mas.  She got clean.  “I look people in the eye.  I eat food instead of photographing it and am not driving half a ton of metal into oncoming traffic while looking down at a tiny screen… And while I might be missing out on being able to call 911 at any moment, it’s worth the sacrifice to me.”

Woginrich says she’s glad to be back in the world again.  “It beats waiting for the notification alert telling me that I exist.”

You probably don’t want to give up your smartphone.  But think about putting more distance between yourself and it.  Loosen the tether, and see what happens.

 

©Janet Farrar Worthington

This post, as many Vital Jake posts do, came because of a conversation I happened to have with a guy at church.  He said he felt bad, and that he had been waking up with itchy eyes and a headache.  I asked him how often he changed his sheets, and he was stumped.  He didn’t know.  A few times a year, he said.

That’s not nearly enough (see below).  It’s also pretty gross.  Because even though a guy may consider himself a clean person – he showers daily, brushes his teeth, and wears clean clothes – if his sheets are chock full of days’ or months’ worth of his skin cells, dust mites, etc., then those sheets may be making him feel bad.

Sick in bedMaybe you made resolutions this New Year — things you want to do better, maybe a goal or two you hope to reach.  Here are two easy-peasy changes you can make in your life.  Both have the potential to make you feel better quickly.   

Change Your Sheets

Sheets can become gross fairly quickly.  I’m not even talking about that “what body fluids would a black light pick up?” way, either.   Sheets have to deal with a lot, including skin cells; food crumbs, if you eat in bed; dander and hair from humans and any pets; oils from the skin and hair; sweat; maybe some drool; residue from any skin care products you may use; and your own daily dirt, if you don’t take a shower or bath before bed.  All of these things can accumulate fairly quickly.  If you share your bed with a partner, a kid, and/or any pets, there’s even more of a buildup on those sheets.

dog in bedBacteria feast on sweat and oils.  Dust mites chow down on skin cells.  If you, like millions of Americans, are allergic to dust mites, this can be really bad – in terms of stuffiness, headaches, dry and itchy eyes, respiratory problems, and if you already have asthma, making it worse.  Most experts recommend changing your sheets at least once a week.  If your allergies are severe, you may need to change them every day.  My husband and I are both allergic to dust mites, and we have found, through trial and error, that we need to change our sheets every four or five days.  If we don’t, what happens is predictable:  we wake up with headaches and stuffiness.  When we change the sheets, we notice the difference immediately.   

Skeptical?  Try an experiment:  If you are having a headache, stuffiness and other respiratory symptoms — particularly if symptoms are worse when you first wake up — change your sheets and see how you feel the next morning.  At least, change your pillowcase, and if that helps, go whole hog and change the sheets and bedspread, too, and then keep doing it as often as you need to.

Then what?  Wash your sheets in hot water, or on the allergy or steam cycle in your washing machine.  If the water is cold or just warm, it’s not enough to kill the resilient, powerful, and evil dust mites.   

If you have fancy sheets that can’t tolerate hot water, you could find a washer with a steam cycle, get them dry cleaned – or better yet, get cheaper sheets that can take the heat. 

Also, vacuum your bedroom.  Look under your bed.  If there’s a lot of dust, guess what you’re breathing in?  If you have a fan either over the bed or aimed at it, check that out, too.  If there’s dust, that’s also blowing on you and your poor respiratory system all night long.  So vacuum or dust that, too, and don’t forget dust-trappers like curtains.  It all adds up.

Wash Your Towels

dirty laundryIf your answer to how often you change your towels is, “when they stink,” or “when they get gross,” maybe you need to have a better plan.   According to Steve Boorstein, who co-wrote a book called The Clothing Doctor’s 99 Secrets to Cleaning & Clothing Care, you should wash your bath towel often – like, after every three times you use it.  Bath towels tend to develop a distinct musty smell over time, for several reasons: 

One, we shed an estimated an estimated 1 billion skin cells every day.  A lot of them get rubbed off in our clothes, sheets (see above), washcloths, towels, and even in the washing machine (which also needs to be cleaned every so often, by running an empty load with a cup of vinegar or 1/4 cup of bleach.)

Two: Thick, luxurious bath towels may not dry out completely between showers, so they’re just a breeding ground for bacteria.  If you chuck your towel on the floor or in a hamper and then use it again, that constant dampness is basically hanging out the welcome sign for more bacteria to join the party, and stink up your towel.

Three: Fabric softeners not only make towels less absorbent, they can trap odors inside fabric.  So don’t use one on your towels and washcloths, and see if you notice a difference.

Bottom line:  If you can’t manage to change your towel a couple of times a week, then try to do it at least once a week.  Wash your laundry with hot water.  If you still feel like your towels aren’t getting clean, run bleach or vinegar through the washer.

Also, if you wash your face with the same washcloth day after day, you’re just rubbing that same dirt and bacteria right back onto your skin.  So don’t wash your face with a dirty washcloth, either.   If you can’t change it every day, at least, change it more often and see if you don’t feel better.

©Janet Farrar Worthington

grilled meatGood news for people who love barbecue, hot dogs, burgers, and steak cooked on the grill: It pays to eat your veggies.

The key to this story is something called “PhIP.” A few years ago, noted Johns Hopkins scientist Bill Nelson, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Sidney Kimmel
Comprehensive Cancer Center, began investigating its role in cancer. PhIP is a funny little word. (Pronounced “fipp,” it’s a short name for a long chemical
compound.) It sounds so harmless: “Hey, let’s get PhIP and go over to the club for some tennis,” or “I don’t give a PhIP what you do,” or “Let’s do some
PhIP shots!” But it’s not.

PhIP is found in meats cooked at high temperatures. It is a “pro-carcinogen,” a chemical that turns into something that can attack and mutate DNA, and is
known to cause prostate, breast, and colorectal cancer in rats. Unfortunately, we create carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents, with every steak we grill
or piece of chicken we fry, and PhIP is one of them. In 2007, Nelson and pathologist Angelo De Marzo, M.D., Ph.D., reported in Cancer Research
that when rats are exposed to PhIP, DNA mutations occur in the prostate. Since then, they have learned much more about this little sucker’s role as a
dietary contributor to cancer. I recently wrote about Nelson’s work for Discovery, the research magazine for the Brady Urological Institute at Johns
Hopkins.

The scientists have discovered that veggies help counteract the effects of PhIP. “When we fed rats tomato and broccoli along
with PhIP, the animals lived longer and showed reduced incidence and severity of prostate neoplasms (new, abnormal cell growth; particularly of PIN,
prostatic intraepithelial neoplasia – funny-looking cells that are linked to prostate cancer), intestinal cancers and skin cancers as compared to rats fed
PhIP alone,” says Nelson. “This provides even more evidence that eating vegetables may protect against cancer-causing agents like those in overcooked
meats.”

grilled veggiesThere is a twist to the story: Food safety pays off, too.
Nelson, along with De Marzo and scientist Karen Sfanos, Ph.D., has also explored the idea that prostate cancer may involve a combination of “environmental insults” – bad things in the diet, plus something else that weakens the body, like an infection. They wondered whether chronic inflammation, caused by bacterial infection, would make a difference in rats that had consumed PhIP. Using a specific strain of E.coli isolated from a patient with chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome, they found to their surprise that the charred food plus the nasty bug seemed to have a systemic effect.

Together, E.coli and PhIP caused an increase in the development and progression of cancer in the skin and digestive tract. (Note: many people have E.coli in their gut and it is harmless, but some strains can get into meat when it’s processed and can survive if the meat is undercooked.) The rats that received the double punch of E.coli plus PhIP fared worse than rats that ate the PhIP alone. In one study, the bacteria- and PhIP-consuming rats developed more precancerous lesions within the prostate and might have developed even more problems – except they also died sooner.

In further experiments, they found that “when we inoculated PhIP-fed rats with E.coli in the prostate, the animals developed acute and chronic
prostate inflammation out of proportion to that seen with PhIP ingestion or E.coli inoculation alone, and had more prostate neoplasms, intestinal
cancers, and skin cancers,” says Nelson. “This hints that prostate infections and dietary carcinogens might interact to promote chronic prostate
inflammation and prostate cancers, and that prostate infections might augment carcinogen effects on other tissues, as well.”

What does this mean for you? One, that if these things cause changes in the prostate, it’s a pretty good bet that they are hurting you elsewhere, as well,
so take precautions: eat a veggie in addition to a potato. Potatoes are delicious, but they don’t help fight cancer the way green, leafy vegetables and
tomatoes do. Two, tomatoes and broccoli probably aren’t the only vegetables that can help diffuse the bad effects of charred meat; these are just the ones
that were studied in this particular investigation. Three, don’t eat undercooked meat. You’re not just risking food poisoning, which comes in like a
freight train and goes away quickly; you may be adding to your risk of developing cancer.

Nelson, along with De Marzo, Sfanos, and Hopkins colleagues recently published two papers on these striking new findings in the journals PLoS ONE
and Cancer Prevention Research.

In addition to the book, I have written about this story and much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.”  As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.

 ©Janet Farrar Worthington