weekly blog--one for the ages
This seemed to be the week where genetic testing came to the forefront. On Monday, my friend, who had grown up catholic in a small mountain-top village in Italy, called to tell me that he had just received the results of a DNA test which confirmed that in the 1600s (or earlier) one of his grandparents was an Ashkenazi (German) Jew. Adding to the intrigue, his family had emigrated to this village from Spain in the late 1400s when the Jews were forced to leave the country during the Inquisition. Until the genetic test, there had been no trace that any of his descendants were Jewish.
That same evening I went to a lecture at the library on genetic testing. The lecture was sponsored by the Newton Senior Center which offers a genetic counseling service. About 5 percent to 10 percent of cancers are strongly hereditary. So too are a host of other health issues ranging from heart disease to birth defects, hearing and vision loss, autism, muscular dystrophy, and more.
On Tuesday morning, STAT, a health and medical e-newsletter published by the Boston Globe, featured a story on genetic testing of embryos. The Pandora’s Box in all of this: the reliability of the results, and the ethical issues that are raised regarding the circumstances under which the test should be used, how the test is implemented, and what uses are made of its results.
Ever since the human genome was sequenced almost 15 years ago, a number of companies, such as Ancestory.com and 23&Me, have offered genetic testing services. By analyzing someone’s DNA, often through a blood sample or cheek swab, testing has offered the promise of uncovering their ancestral make-up or foretelling any hereditary-based health issues. But sometimes the results are wrong or may only be correct for a certain percentage of the time, which creates its own kind of uncertainty.
Adding to the complexity are the ethical questions that it raises:
The lingering question on genetic testing: is it worth it?
It’s hard to believe that I began swimming at Crystal Lake a week before Memorial Day and finished on Columbus Day. That was a record. Usually the outdoor swim season starts in mid-June and ends during the last week of September.
Swimming is considered the perfect workout, according to health experts. The buoyancy of the water supports your body and takes the strain off painful joints so you can move them fluidly. Research has also found that swimming can improve your mental state and put you in a better mood.
Other exercises that top the list for older people, according to a recent Harvard Medical School report: Tai Chi, Strength Training, Walking, and Kegel, which strengthens the pelvic floor muscles that support the bladder. Less formal but equally important: raking leaves, playing with grandkids, and food shopping where you have to carry the bags.
The bottom line: doing some form of aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes a day with two days of strength training a week is a seriously smart choice to improve your health and well-being.
It’s HubWeek once again in Boston, the annual event which celebrates the area’s business, technology and arts community. In its first go-round three years ago, there was hardly a mention of aging, the closest being demonstrations for drone deliveries and self-driving cars. Last year, one of the events highlighted the medical research taking place to extend health span, the years you live in relatively good health before succumbing to the diseases of aging.
This year the focus was on technology to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of caregivers. Alas, there wasn’t much to talk about resulting in what’s called a “Reverse Panel” where people in the field present issues that challenge entrepreneurs to find solutions. Of concern is a growing population that would prefer to age in place (stay in their homes and community), and a shortage of caregivers to provide support.
Keeping a person safe and comfortable at home starts with using smartphones or tablets that serve as a central platform to automate door locks, motion sensors, streaming music, blood pressure monitors, medication reminders, video chat and more. More complicated is developing technology that handles the activities of daily living such as bathing, cooking, grooming, cleaning, walking, using the bathroom, and oral hygiene.
Enter the world of carebots. Given Japan’s rapidly aging population, the country leads the way in devising more practical and affordable robots to help seniors handle daily tasks, and has allocated one-third of its budget for research, according to news reports. The big question that lingers: will robots ever be able to truly replace caregivers and provide the empathy and emotional support?
As we mourn the deaths in Las Vegas, guns and the rights of those who own them remain a contentious issue. What many people do not know is that people over the age of 65 have the highest rate of firearm ownership in the nation. As much as 40 percent of the country’s older population has a firearm in the home, according to the Pew Research Center.
Older people also have a high prevalence of dementia, depression, and suicide, leading to a lethal situation that adds firearm removal to the list of burdens of caring for older relatives. Concerns are not hypothetical. According to the FBI, in 2014 more than 5,000 people age 65 and older committed suicide using a firearm while at least 200 people in that age group killed someone else.
Conversations around the removal can be particularly thorny in places where firearms are powerful symbols of independence. The larger question looming: should age have a place in the broader national conversation on gun ownership?