Health experts are talking about…

…why face-to-face connections may help you live longer. Chronic loneliness affects more than 42 million people in the United States—more than one-third of the population. It’s becoming an epidemic—as big a public health threat as obesity, say researchers from Brigham Young University (BYU). And it could even increase your risk of dying early from dementia, depression, falls, high blood pressure or other serious health conditions.

People in the United States with more social connections may lower their risk of premature death by as much as 50 percent, according to one study by BYU experts. In a second analysis, which included people from the United States, Europe, Asia and Australia, they found that social isolation, loneliness or living alone raised the risk of premature death as much as other common risk factors like obesity. Both studies were presented at the May 2017 meeting of the American Psychological Association.

More than a quarter of all US households are single person. Among the 46 million adults over age 65, 12 million lived alone in 2014. Older women were twice as likely as older men to do so, especially after age 85, according to the Population Reference Bureau and Pew Research. Additionally, both marriage rates and number of children per household have decreased over the past several decades. These trends can create conditions leading to increased isolation and loneliness, according to the studies.

However, researchers emphasized that it’s quite possible to live alone and have a large social network. The risk occurs when there is little opportunity to interact with others. This might happen for many reasons, including deteriorating mental or physical health, loss of mobility or lack of transportation.

Experts suggest limiting the possibility of isolation by doing advance social retirement planning along with your financial planning. For example, look for communities that include shared social spaces like parks, recreation centers or community gardens—environments that encourage people to gather and interact. Teaching children stronger social skills at younger ages could also help prevent isolation in later years. If medical professionals assess social connectedness during screenings, that could also help.

While social media can play a role in fostering connections, opinions are mixed about whether Facebook and other platforms are substitutes for face-to-face relationships. That’s because online experiences don’t always provide important clues to what a person may be feeling, like tone of voice and body language. Instead, researchers suggest unplugging—and seeking out in-person encounters.

…how we can maintain muscle strength as we age.

As we age, we lose muscle strength, which can drastically increase our risk for falls and decrease our independence. But recent studies show that there are ways to help reduce that loss by managing the protein we eat differently.

Protein is a key component of muscle building. Many of us skip breakfast, eat a no- or low-protein lunch on the go, then load up on protein and carbs at the end of the day. A healthier approach is consuming more protein, and more of it at every meal.

Researchers from McGill University in Montreal followed a group of healthy adults age 67 to 84 for three years. While muscle strength among all participants faded over time, those who ate protein more evenly throughout the day were stronger than those who ate most of their protein at one meal. The study appeared in the July 27, 2017, online issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Additionally, a majority of adults over age 50 don’t meet current recommended dietary allowances of protein—about 46 grams (1.6 ounces) daily for women and 54 grams (1.8 ounces) for men. And because of the way we age, adults over 50 actually require more protein per pound of body weight than those a decade or two younger.

Many experts now recommend that people over age 50 double their protein intake—to as much as 75 to 100 grams daily—to help minimize loss of muscle strength, a condition known as sarcopenia. A study from the University of Arkansas supports this concept. Among a group of 20 healthy adults between ages 52 and 75, some ate the recommended amount of protein daily while others ate twice that amount. Researchers found that those who ate more protein kept more of their muscle strength than those following standard dietary guidelines.

Protein also helps to reduce risk of bone fractures, diabetes and middle-age weight gain. The type of protein most helpful for muscles is found in beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products. It’s also in soybeans and, to a lesser extent, other beans, nuts and seeds, according to the Mayo Clinic.

To increase and space out your daily protein consumption more evenly, consider this menu: one egg (six grams of protein) or a cup of Greek yogurt (17 grams) at breakfast; a salad with three ounces of canned tuna in water (22 grams) at lunch; and three ounces of skinless chicken (28 grams) or salmon (22 grams) at dinner. Add in a half cup of quinoa (four grams) and black beans (eight grams)—and a few high protein snacks, like an ounce of raw almonds (six grams) or two tablespoons of peanut butter (14 grams)—and you’re well on your way to a well-rounded, protein-rich eating plan.

And remember, regular physical activity is also vital to keeping muscle mass.

…whether those over-the-counter hearing aids are really effective.

For the one in three older adults who suffer from age-related hearing loss, hearing aids make the world sound a lot better. But they’re very expensive and not covered by Medicare. That’s why only 20 percent of people who need hearing aids actually buy and use them.

Personal sound amplification products (PSAPs)—which cost hundreds, not thousands, of dollars and can be purchased online or in retail stores—could be the answer for those with mild-to-moderate hearing loss. A group of older adults tested five popular PSAPs against a standard hearing aid and no hearing aid. Four of the five PSAPs helped participants understand speech nearly as well as a standard hearing aid, and all did better than unaided hearing. Results appear in the July 4, 2017, issue of JAMA.

Although you don’t need to visit a licensed professional to buy PSAPs, hearing experts still recommend getting your hearing tested by an audiologist. Ask for advice about which device may be best for you. Some PSAPs, especially the very inexpensive models, can actually cause further hearing damage by over-magnifying sharp sounds. So don’t buy a device based on price alone; look for one developed by a hearing professional, such as an audiologist or otolaryngologist.

…how to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

We still don’t understand why some people develop Alzheimer’s disease and others don’t. But we do know there are risk factors, and addressing those we know about could make a difference.

Researchers believe up to 30 percent of Alzheimer’s cases may be preventable by living a well-balanced, healthy life. This includes eating a diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods and lean proteins, and avoiding fast or processed foods.

Physical activity and social engagement are also important components. Physical activity helps reduce Alzheimer’s risk by up to 65 percent, depending on the type of exercise and its intensity, according to James E. Galvin, MD, professor of integrated medical science at Florida Atlantic University. And social interaction reduces feelings of isolation and loneliness, which are known dementia risks. Galvin published a study in the August 2, 2017, issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society that looks at how we can reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Risk increases with a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle or alcohol or tobacco use, according to Galvin. Those with multiple health conditions, or a combination of health and lifestyle risks, up their chances of developing Alzheimer’s by more than 50 percent. Preventing or controlling health problems associated with increased risk for the disease—like diabetes, heart disease or depression—may reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s.

In addition to managing your health, you can help protect your brain by doing crossword puzzles, playing card games, using a computer, making arts or crafts, taking classes, having group discussions and listening to music. Even those with a family history of the disease can help reduce their risk and minimize memory loss by adopting an overall healthy lifestyle.

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