As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the thing that worries most of us is that we will lose our minds. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are scary diagnoses. It is a fact that as we age, our brains shrink and our neural connections start to dry up. The first thing to go is remembering people’s names. Fortunately, learning and challenging ourselves can rewire our brains. We find alternative pathways to help us jog our memory for things such as names and places.
There was a study done of people over the age of 75 that was conducted over 21 years. The object was to see which activities helped to preserve brain function and reduce the risk of dementia. Interestingly, reading reduced the risk by 35%. Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week reduced the risk by 47%. Bicycling, golf and swimming reduced the risk by 0%.
The activity that had the most benefit and reduced the risk by 76% was dancing! Not just any dancing did the trick. It was dancing that required split second decisions. Ballroom dancing such as waltz, swing and especially Argentine tango fit the bill and can help maintain your brain. All these dances require the need to lead or follow directions and move the body accordingly. That need to make quick decisions and communicate with a partner increases the wiring of the brain and can help prevent deterioration.
Argentine tango has also been studied to see the general effect on the health of seniors and also for those with Parkinson’s disease. The benefits include increased muscle tone, spinal chord stability, improved balance and flexibility, reduced stress and anxiety and increased self-confidence.
Patients with Parkinson’s disease had improved balance, endurance and self-confidence with frequent tango lessons. In one group that was studied there was a decrease in the progression of the disease with tango.
Besides the fact that dance and specifically Argentine tango can improve your health, it is incredibly fun. You do not need to be Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire. You just need to be willing to get over your inhibitions and give it a try.
“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful.“ ~Agnes De Mille
Last week I wrote about the fact that women (over 50) want to be happy. In follow-up I think it would be helpful to give a personal example by sharing my own search for happiness.
I have always been an upbeat person and have been reasonably happy. However, my level of happiness has grown especially after reaching the age of 50. That doesn’t mean that I walk around with a perpetual smile on my face or that I don’t get frustrated and discouraged. Believe me, it happens. In sharing my experience, I am hoping that others will be helped. Just remember. The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.
For many years I was in a typical medical practice where I was seeing up to 30 patients in a day. I was juggling my family, husband, house and trying to exercise and eat healthy but it was almost impossible. I felt like a failure. I could not give enough time to anything or anyone. I was miserable. I knew it was time for a change and I left the clinic I was working for. I enrolled in an online Integrative Medicine fellowship program with Dr Andrew Weil in Arizona. Our first fellowship week took place in Arizona and was the week surrounding 9/11.
Needless to say I could not get back home by flying and ended up renting a car and driving the long road back to Oregon. I had a lot of time to think on that road trip. I realized that it was time to clean up my act. I needed to walk the walk and eat healthy, exercise, and design a practice that worked for my family and me. No more potato chips for lunch. No more popcorn for dinner. No more excuses for not exercising.
Since college when I contracted mononucleosis I had always been tired. Miracle of miracles, the first thing that happened with my new program was that my chronic fatigue went away after about three weeks. No more blaming the guy who gave me mono! I found that my clothes were fitting better and I had enough energy to play with my children and think about the practice that I wanted to design.
I started my integrative medicine clinic known as Triune. Triune stands for mind, body and spirit, which is what I address with every patient that comes to see me. I work alone and I spend an hour and a half with each new patient. I have a partnership-type relationship with each one of them. I help most, not all, but this is a lot better than the progress I saw when I would spend 10 minutes with each patient. To feed my own spirit I learned to meditate and it has become as automatic for me every day as brushing my teeth. It keeps me grounded.
I began to get involved in medical reporting on the television news and now I have a weekly call in show where I give free medical advice. I write blogs and co-authored a book and I am really enjoying that part of my life. My kids are out of the house in college and working. My husband is happy practicing as a GI doctor. They all have their ups and downs but are doing well overall.
Two years ago I was asked to participate in our local Dancing with the Stars contest. I had never done ballroom dancing before. I was paired with a wonderful dancer who taught me Argentine tango. It was amazing. I fell in love with the tango and dance in general. After the contest (we came in third place!) I decided to keep on dancing. I was happy before but dance has kicked it up a zillion notches.
I would say that I am happier than I have ever been. I am so grateful for what I have and have found a way to be creative and productive. There are still things that get me down but I don’t stay down. If I ever start to despair I just think of all the good things I have in my life.
Many of us have a tendency to look at other people and their families and think that they have it better or easier. Remember, Pleasantville only exits in the movies; we all have troubles. How we deal with those troubles ultimately will determine our ability to find happiness. Have you found yours?
Women want to be happy, but this can be elusive. Focusing on health and wellness as I talked about last week is important. In addition, I have observed several things that happy women have in common. Knowing what these are can help to make it obtainable.
Most people think that if they had a ton of money they would be happy. Studies have found that the difference in happiness between those who make $5000 a year and $50,000 a year is huge. However there is no major difference in the level of happiness between those who make $50,000 a year and those who make $50 million dollars a year.
I have watched many women struggle over the last several years and those who have been able to use their creativity, ingenuity and imagination to find a way to improve their income have been the happiest and most successful. Having a sense of control over their destiny by finding a way out of their financial difficulties and designing their own jobs in some cases helped them to be happy.
Feeling connected is another common feature of happiness. It is interesting that when parents are asked what gives them the greatest joy in their lives they usually say it is their children. However, when you ask them about day-to-day issues, their kids actually cause them a fair amount of grief (especially during adolescence). It is that close relationship, that special bond with our children and significant others that is important with all of the ups and downs. Being able to see that connection (even on tough days) helps to promote happiness.
Having a sense of community is key. Women who have a group of friends and/or are involved with their community are generally happier than those who do not. Getting involved is easy even if you are not an extrovert. Volunteer at a food bank; join a house of worship or consider working for a political campaign group.
When people give to others they are able to improve their health and wellbeing. They live longer too. When they are busy helping others they tend to forget their aches and pains AND it makes them happy. If you have not done it, try it in just small ways. Smile at a stranger, see where help is needed in your community, or donate money to your favorite charity. It is amazing what can happen.
Abolish Resentment and Anger
I heard a great quote from St. Augustine, “ Harboring anger and resentment is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Anger can be productive in that it causes discomfort and helps us to change our circumstances. However when we hold on to it and it builds into resentment it only hurts us further. Happy people find a way to resolve situations when they find themselves getting upset and angry. If you find yourself holding on to anger it is time to get help. Exercise, learn to meditate, or consider seeing a therapist.
The Bottom Line
Happiness is something that we all want. We can have it by harnessing our creativity, nurturing relationships, and finding ways to give back to our community. To quote Aristotle, “ Happiness depends upon ourselves.”
Looking at the title of this blog you might wonder how I know anything about this subject. As a woman over 50 and a doctor to many, I feel qualified to answer this question at least as it regards health. Clearly we are all unique individuals and our wants and needs may vary but from my personal research these are the top three things that women want for their health and wellness.
1. A Healthy Brain
Most women who I speak with are most afraid of losing their minds. Alzheimer’s and dementia are diseases that touch us all in some way. None of us want to lose our memory and with that our memories. My advice has not wavered for a long time. The key to a healthy brain is to have a healthy heart. Eating a Mediterranean style diet and exercising, avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol, having preventive checkups that regulate blood pressure, cholesterol, weight and blood sugar will help to keep the arteries healthy and assure good blood supply to the brain. Taking supplements such as fish oil and folic acid can be helpful as well.
In addition, exercising the brain is important. Learn a new language, find new ways to get to work, avoid using the GPS on your phone and find your own way. And, there is more. An ongoing study of nuns has been illuminating. They have allowed themselves to be studied during their lives and have given permission to have autopsies after they die. What researchers have found is that there was a group of nuns who had Alzheimer’s disease on autopsy but showed no signs of it in life. The unifying feature of these women was that they had a positive attitude and lived a life with a sense of purpose.
How we live physically and spiritually is important for brain and overall health.
2. A Healthy Heart.
For many years, heart disease was ignored as a condition that was common to women. Research was focused on men because they were easier to study due to their lack of hormonal fluctuations. The results were extended to women and we were viewed as mini-men with periods.
Women are relatively protected from heart disease until we reach menopause as long as we do not have cardiac risk factors that include: high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, family history in a first degree relative, smoking, stress and depression, and a sedentary lifestyle. After menopause we rapidly catch up with men.
Fortunately, our hearts are now getting more attention since there is increased awareness that heart disease is the number one killer of men AND women. I know I am stating the obvious but we are different than men. We know that women with heart attack do not often have the classic symptom of an elephant sitting on the chest. Instead we may feel like we have a bad flu, jaw ache, overwhelming fatigue, nausea, sleep disturbance, shortness of breath and/or anxiety. One study found that 95% of women who had a heart attack when questioned afterwards actually had unusual symptoms during the month beforehand.
The key to a healthy heart is the same as those for a healthy brain. Eat healthy, exercise and prevent heart disease by seeing your doctor and being proactive by attending to cardiac risk factors.
As our ovaries poop out, we often do too. Up to two thirds of women experience menopausal symptoms, which can be distressing for around 20% although it seems like more since we are a vocal group! How can you not get upset when you can’t sleep, your vagina dries out, you feel like your brain is fogged up and you seem to be igniting from the inside out. In addition, there may be weight gain and a redistribution of fat due to the rapid loss of muscle that occurs if you don’t do strength train.
All women will benefit from healthy eating, exercise, and a medical evaluation to review their symptoms and receive treatment if necessary. Some may need hormone replacement. Often there is something else going on such as hypothyroidism, which commonly occurs at menopause. The symptoms are similar so they are often missed.
For vitality it is important that we take this time in our life to become number one on the list. We often put our children, husband or significant other, job, house, pets, and essentially everyone and everything else first. That is probably the most common advice I give. Take care of yourself or you will not be able to take care of anyone else.
Finally, what women want is to be happy. That however, is something that requires its own blog. So tune in next week!