Posts by Liz

Meditation in motion: Tai Chi and the ‘pause

Posted by on Jul 11, 2011 in aging, heart disease, mind-body therapy | 0 comments

I’ve written about yoga and meditation/mindfulness training and how both may help with menopausal symptoms in terms of alleviating stress and improving overall wellbeing. However, what about Tai Chi?

Tai Chi is an ancient Chinese martial arts practice that uses a self-paced system of soft flowing movements to improve respiration and deep relaxation. It has also been shown to boost muscle strength, coordination and physical condition, improve balance and like yoga and mindfulness training, benefit overall wellbeing. On the health side, it’s been linked with better sleep quality and duration, enhanced circulation and in fact, is considered a weight-bearing exercise akin to aerobic exercise of moderate intensity. As such, it may even help prevent osteoporosis. Yet, unlike regular strength training Tai Chi appears to offer an important means by which risk of metabolic heart disease during menopause may be reduced.

For women specifically, hormonal changes – namely a steeply progressive increase in testosterone — can contribute to a risk of developing metabolic syndrome (i.e. the cluster of risk factors — abdominal fat, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels and insulin resistance –that increases the likelihood of developing heart disease and diabetes). Moreover, as women age, the ability to effectively metabolize blood fats and maintain ample antioxidant defenses in their bodies requires higher maximal aerobic capacities (which inherently decline with age). Conversely, being sedentary deteriorates the efficiency by which fats are burned or utilized by the body and also negatively affects antioxidant defense lines and their ability to adapt to sudden or chronic exposure to oxidative imbalances in our bodies that can wreak havoc on cells and lead to build up of plaques and heart disease.

Where does Tai Chi fit in?

Yogic pranayma breathing has been linked to improvements in antioxidant capacity and in lower oxidative stress markers. Moreover, it may also improve cardiorespiratory function. Tai Chi combines postures with slow, deep breathing (i.e. 6 breaths per minute) and may also convey the same benefits. In a recent study published in the Journal of Aging Research, 8 premenopausal and 7 post menopausal sedentary women were asked to participate in an 8-week Tai Chi program that involved the following:

  • 75 minute training sessions twice weekly consisting of  a 5 minute check in, 10 minutes of stretching/warm-up, and 60 minutes of a modified 18-posture Tai Chi and Tai Chi fan style. The Tai Chi routines coupled breathing to music, took a minute to a minute and a half per motion. The women learned five to 10 postures per week and the complete set was practiced for two weeks. Instructors were also sure to monitor and correct postures during each class.
  • Twice-weekly, 60 minute at-home practice that also included completion of a log that detailed the practice (to insure compliance).
  • Measures of body weight, diet, physical fitness, balance, flexibility, muscle strength, maximal aerobic capacity and blood samples.

Not only did 8 weeks of Tai Chi practice significantly improve balance, muscle strength and flexibility in both groups, but also produced as much as an 18% decline in a major marker for heart disease risk (i.e. plasma total homocysteine). Additionally, Tai Chi combined with measured, slow deep breathing improved the activities of antioxidant markers in the bloodstream that play a role in defending cells against damage from oxidative stress.

Although this study is quite small and bears repeating with significantly higher numbers of women, the findings do imply that Tai Chi and slow deep breathing have the potential to play an important role in improving functional/physical declines that occur during menopause and equally if not more importantly, improve antioxidant defenses against metabolic diseases, especially heart disease. Tai Chi is not only low impact, low-velocity and safe, but within the framework of menopause, it may prove to be a golden ring amongst alternatives to prevent disease. Meditation in motion, indeed.

Read More

An age-old problem: public relations as science. Guest post by Dr. Brian Hughes

Posted by on Jul 8, 2011 in aging, women's health | 2 comments

When I saw this post by Dr. Brian Hughes, an academic psychologist at the National University of Ireland in Galway, I knew that I needed to run it on Flashfree. In it, Brian discusses how ageism has become the advocacy project of the month, a hook to attract attention to a specific cause by feeding into the fears and anxiety that often accompany aging. Not only are women a primary target for these campaigns, but by couching the propaganda within a scientific context, it can be difficult to discern truth from fiction.

Although this post is a bit more verbose than what I typically run, I felt it was important to include it in its entirety. I hope that you’ll show Brian some love and spread the word, not only about the post but also his work on The Science Bit Blog. Many thanks Brian, for lending me your prose this week.

There is no doubt that in our increasingly image-conscious and superficially focused times, age discrimination presents a creeping civil rights problem. The tendency to judge the professional and social worth of a person on the basis of his or her apparent age can present artificial barriers to employment and respect. Moreover, age discrimination can dramatically compound sex discrimination, as such problems are often felt more acutely by older women. Therefore, it is no surprise to see recurring campaigns to promote positive attitudes towards people right across the age-spectrum, run by charitable organizations such as Age UK as well as by publications such as Mature Times.

As with any advocacy campaign, new research that provides insights into age discrimination must be seen as important. Scientifically gathered empirical evidence can be crucial in debunking negative stereotypes and in bolstering positive claims. But, alas, not all research is the same – some is little more than advertising propaganda promulgated by capitalists who see vulnerable social groups as lucrative target markets, whose concerns about social exclusion simply make them more likely to spend their money on a solution.

Unfortunately, it appears that advocacy groups are often ill-equipped to identify the difference.

Have a look at this recent lead story on the Mature Times website: “Women feel ‘invisible’ at the age of 46, a study has revealed“. The story describes new research conducted in the UK that pinpoints 46 as the age when women’s confidence begins to “plummet“. According to the research, this is how women begin to feel after they reach that age:

…two thirds beginning to hate what they see in the mirror – most blaming the fact that they now start to have grey hair, feel uncomfortable in their clothes and have to wear numerous pairs of glasses…

…more than a quarter of women feel embarrassed at having to pull out their reading glasses in restaurants and supermarkets as they feel it’s a clear sign they are older, knocking their confidence, and adding to their ‘invisibility’…

The survey also revealed that men no longer hold doors open for four in ten, and two thirds say that they never get offered a seat in public transport. A third of women surveyed said their partners were ageing better than they were which annoyed them.

According to the Daily Mail, which covered the study in their Femail section, the research was based data gathered from more than 2,000 British women aged 40 or older. By any standards this is a very large sample. The Mail were also able to describe more of the findings:

Grey hairs, failing vision and putting on weight all make some women feel increasingly less confident as they grown older…

The researchers found that women in their mid-40s also begin to fret that their views and opinions are no longer valid…by the time they reach their mid-50s, the majority of women say they no longer receive admiring glances from strangers or compliments from the opposite sex…

…This coupled with the steady increase of over 50s requiring glasses for reading, shopping and driving add to that feeling of being older and more “invisible”…

And just in case we were having difficulty visualising a woman over the age of 46, the Mail also provide a photograph of this nice lady to illustrate what they are talking about:

Hmmm. So what’s the problem with all of this then? Surely such findings can be seen as a reasonable depiction of the experiences of British women, given that over 2,000 of them were surveyed for the study? And do they not convey many of the subtle ways in which women (and presumably men also) can become ostracized by mainstream society once they reach a certain age?

The big problem is that this is not an orthodox research study. It was not presented for publication in the scientific literature, or — as far as we can reasonably surmise — peer-reviewed prior to dissemination by independent editors (or even by a research ethics review committee). In fact, this is nothing more than market research, which means its findings are likely to be skewed by the motivations of its sponsors. And in this case, the group who commissioned the research – Clarivu – have a hugely conspicuous conflict of interest.

Clarivu are a commercial company that specialize in vision correction. They perform refractive lens exchange procedures in which the eye’s natural lens is replaced with a synthetic alternative in order to improve failing vision. Their method offers an alternative to laser eye surgery, and is effective for both short- or long-sightedness. In other words, Clarivu are in the business of offering people an alternative to wearing glasses. Yes, glasses! Those things that are repeatedly described by British women as part of the reason they feel “invisible“. And guess what — Clarivu’s services are aimed specifically at people over the age of 50. Just the age at which women begin to realise the extent to which wearing glasses is ruining their lives!

Of course, Clarivu are not a charitable organization — they do all this in return for cash. In fact, in return for UK£3,395 (around US$5,400). And that’s just forone eye. Assuming you’d like to be able to see out of both eyes rather than just the one, the full treatment will set you back the bones of £7,000/$11,000.

One amusing feature of how these results were promulgated in the media can be inferred from Clarivu’s own website. Have a look at the testimonialpresented on their website’s front page:

Look! It’s the SAME LADY as was in the Daily Mail! So, in other words, not only did Clarivu’s PR department circulate copy for publication in newspapers such as the Daily Mail, but they also provided the illustrative photographs. And, by all appearances, the Mail just transferred the lot into their own newspaper without much questioning or analysis.

What we have here is a clear case of a conflict of interest. Can we rely on the media to be an effective gatekeeper in promoting objective reporting on newly claimed research findings? Can we really rely on these findings from Clarivuthat the aging process is an emotionally negative psychological experience? Is it merely a coincidence that this large-scale survey confirms Clarivu’s marketing stance that women over 46 should seek alternatives to wearing glasses? Unfortunately, given that Clarivu have a financial interest in particular research outcomes, we simply cannot rule out the possibility of bias in their execution, analysis, or reporting of these results.

This isn’t to say that we cannot rely on Clarivu to display impeccable moral integrity. We have no evidence that they are anything other than honest in their activities. It’s just that human nature itself will create the possibility of bias whenever conflicts of interest arise. This is why the scientific method promotes principles like objectivity and replication, as well as associated practices, such as blinding and peer-review.

It is disappointing that the study was reported as actual news in the mainstream media. It is particularly ironic that it was reported as news in outlets that would ordinarily see themselves as championing the cause of, on the one hand, older adults, and on the other hand, women. This is because these so-called research findings do little to advance the cause of marginalized groups. In fact, they help maintain the social exclusion of older adults, and older women in particular, by perpetuating negative stereotypes about the aging process.

So when Mature Times report this as news, they are essentially promoting age-discrimination; and when the Daily Mail’s Femail section do so, they are encouraging readers to judge the value of women based on superficialattributes, such as whether they wear glasses after they turn 46.

Age-old problems indeed…

Read More

Wednesday Bubble: working the transition

Posted by on Jul 6, 2011 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

I’ve been absent for about a week now. The reason? I’ve been in transition, not menopausally-speaking but literally and physically. I’ve moved about a mile away from my last home. However, it feels as though it’s taken miles to get here.

I spend a lot of time on Flashfree discussing how the transition (and midlife) affects our wellbeing, our general health and our moods. And I would like to offer that this stage of life comes with a set of challenges that feel unlike any other. Whether it’s a change from full house to empty nest or a divorce or a new career, it’s tough. Throw a move into the mix, and well, it’s enough to get a person out of sorts.

The last time I moved, I was in another sort of transition. You can read about that here. This time, the move was again, out of my control but it was in my hands and on my terms. And as such, this transition, albeit difficult, holds promise for all good things to come.

Sheer exhaustion permeates the rambling words on this page and yet, underlying them is a hope that I’ve not felt in quite some time. So, I am taking a mental break this week. Friday’s post will be a guest post and next week Flashfree will be back to business as usual.

I’ll be working this transition to the fullest. Hope you’ll stick it out with me.

Read More

Wednesday Bubble: it truly is the best medicine

Posted by on Jun 29, 2011 in humour, Inspiration | 1 comment

I’m especially happy to write this Wednesday Bubble because it’s inspiring and makes me want to jump for joy! Or better, yet, laugh a little. And even though this has been posted previously on Flashfree, it’s never to late to remind ourselves of the lighter side.

Several years ago, researchers discovered that humor therapy and anticipation of laughing or being amused (also known as mirthful laughter) positively affects immunity. In fact, findings from a series of five separate studies among healthy men demonstrated that just anticipating watching a funny video could increase beta-endorphins (hormones that elevated mood) as much as 17% and human growth hormone (which contributes to more optimal immunity) by as much as 87%. Elevated hormones levels were maintained throughout the video and as long as 12 hours after. Conversely, hormone levels did not increase in men who who did not anticipate watching a humorous video and instead, browsed magazines.

Similar results were seen in another study among healthy adult women; this time mirthful laughter was associated with significant declines in stress hormones and improvements in natural killer cells, which contribute favourably to immune function.

Over the past two years, researchers have been examining the effects of mirthful laughter on actual disease states. Findings of a year-long study presented two years ago at the Experimental Biology Conference suggest that watching a funny, 30-minute video on a daily basis may impart a long lasting impact on health that includes:

  • Lower stress hormones (epinephrine and norepinephrine) and related stress levels
  • Lower levels of inflammation that can contribute to disease
  • Significant improvements in HDL cholesterol
  • Significant reductions in harmful C-reactive protein levels (a protein that increase the risk for heart disease, heart attack, stroke and death)

This particular study evaluated laughter in patients with diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol who were also taking medication. Notably, similar positive outcomes were not seen in patients who did not have the benefit of watching the funny video.

What can we take away from this work and what does it have to do with menopause? Actually, I’d like to ask, what doesn’t it have to do with menopause and midlife?

During the transition, women are subject to hormonal stressors that affect mood, functioning, wellbeing as well as disease risk. If there are simpler, more natural ways to improve healthy states, for example, by daily laughter, shouldn’t we reach for them? I’d rather take a dose of funny over pharma any given day.

Here’s my gift to you: laugh today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And spread the joy. Nothing like a deep belly laugh to take some of life’s challenges away.

Read More

The more things change…

Posted by on Jun 27, 2011 in menopause | 0 comments

…the more they stay the same.

Hey Reader! Yeah, you!  I am beyond thrilled that you are here. And while I deal with some significant changes in my living situation, I am going to take this week to bring back some oldies but goodies. Wednesday Bubble will be fresh but today and Friday, a reprisal, in case you didn’t catch them the first time around.

So, without further ado…

Well. Well. Well.

wellbeing, that is. Is it elusive during the menopause?

Earlier studies have suggested that the way that a woman experiences menopause is dominated by several factors, including changes in the structure of their lives (e.g. social roles, personal relationships). When these changes do not occur as expected, for example, menopause starts early or late, they can cause greater distress than when they occur on time sot to speak. The same holds for menopausal symptoms; those that are perceived as normal are not necessarily unpleasant, while unusually heavy bleeding, emotional outbursts or frequent hot flashes can be disruptive.

I was intrigued when I ran across a study published in 2007  in the journal Contemporary Nursing which explored these very themes. Researchers recruited 18 women who were post-menopausal and self-described as having experienced ‘wellness’ during menopause. Interviews were conducted with all study participants, during which they were asked to describe in greater depth their experiences.

The study findings showed that the menopause experience was dominated by three themes:

The continuity of the experience

How women experience menopause is inevitably individualized and not easily generalizable. Indeed, data demonstrated that the nature of menopause and how women go through ultimately determine sits impact and how disruptive it is. More specifically, abrupt changes in menstrual patterns can be more jarring than incremental slowing and gradual cessation of menstruation.

How embedded menopause becomes in the rest of one’s life

In the course of the interviews, the researchers found that a woman’s ability to incorporate menopause into her life and routines versus allowing it to change the routines was key to maintaining an equilibrium. Hence, bothersome symptoms became only “only one experience among many and not the most outstanding.” Even hot flashes, which can truly disrupt a moment, became no more valuable to an overall experience than other daily events, mainly because these women did not allow them to disrupt familiar patterns and daily activities.

Containment of menopause

Participants who experienced a sense of wellbeing during menopause were able to compartmentalize their symptoms and for the most part, did not allow them to encroach upon the emotional or psychological domains. These women rarely if ever, experienced irritability, nervousness, anxiety or moodiness.

So, what does it mean?

Overall, the researchers found that a key to a sense of wellbeing during the menopause is focus, i.e. women are not focused on physical symptoms but instead, consider them part of the the overall experience of being a woman and are able to place them in the background. In other words, “the body [is] experienced in a “taken for granted way” so that menopause is not disruptive to an overall continuity of living.

And what are you going to do to insure the well, well, well of your experience?

Read More