Welcome back to Age Wise, your weekly update on the science of physical health and mental wellness at every stage of life. Here’s what’s new and interesting:
What Really Happens as We Die?
You’ve surely heard about the bright lights and other out-of-body, near-death experiences. Maybe you’ve had one — lots of people have. But what’s actually going on? Well, in a new review of the scientific literature, a diverse group of 18 physicians, neuroscientists, psychologists and other researchers say it’s become clear that the brain can remain active after the heart stops, and death is not quite as final as once assumed.
“Death is not an absolute state,” says study team member Sam Parnia, MD, director of critical care and resuscitation research at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “Rather, it’s a process that could potentially be reversed in some people even after it has started… brain cells do not become irreversibly damaged within minutes of oxygen deprivation when the heart stops. Instead, they ‘die’ over hours of time.”
Parnia and colleagues conclude that near-death experiences are consistently described as following a particular narrative arc. Studies involving brain scans support the idea that a dying brain generates a really interesting recall of life experiences (though not always positive). And, of course, some people come back from all that to tell their stories.
For all the details, read my latest story on Medium >
Is Aging a Disease?
This is such a huge and important question! Some scientists say biological aging is the source of many diseases, and therefore the only way to prevent those diseases is to classify aging itself as a disease, which would free up research dollars for the cause. But most experts and institutions stick to the conventional view that aging is a natural thing, not a negative departure from the norm, as expressed to me by Sharona Hoffman, JD, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University:
“Aging is a natural part of life for those who are lucky enough to live a long time,” says Hoffman, author of the book, Aging With a Plan: How a Little Thought Today Can Vastly Improve Your Tomorrow. “Aging should not be considered a disease in and of itself.”
The debate — gaining fresh vigor in recent years with advances in understanding disease causes even while science still can’t explain exactly why or how we age — is full of genuine scientific disagreement, laced with idealistic dreams of immortality, and loaded with ethical concerns.
Like, for example, aging already has enough stigma attached to it. Plus:
Philosophically, calling aging a disease implies it can be cured, just as some people are cured of cancer. That portends a future in which people never die. A cynic might say that such hubris insinuates that life as we know it is not as it was meant to be, that the most universal truth in life — its end — is just a cosmic glitch or a divine error, depending on your point of view, and one that needs fixing.
That’s just scratching the surface of the debate, which has been ongoing for thousands of years.
Nursing Homes Need an Overhaul
If you’ve ever had to put a loved one into a nursing home or other long-term care facility, you know how agonizing the decision can be, and you may have experienced how frustrating and often negative the entire experience can be. I actually know a 90-something man who moved his physically frail self and his wife who has Alzheimer’s out of a long-term care facility and into a rental home just to escape the bad experience.
OK, the point:
Nursing home residents are subjected to ineffective care and poor staffing, while facility finances are shrouded in secrecy and regulatory lapses go unenforced, according to a report Wednesday that called for wholesale changes in an industry whose failures have been spotlighted by the pandemic.
Those are the sobering conclusions of a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Read the full AP story >
Heart Failure? Seek Psychological Help, Too
After initial recovery from heart failure, people often need psychological support, but they often don’t get it, according to the European Association of Preventive Cardiology.
"Patients with heart failure not only have physical problems, but most also have significant psychological problems, too," said lead author Karl-Heinz Ladwig, MD, PhD, professor of psychosomatic medicine at the Rechts der Isar Hospital of the Technical University of Munich, Germany. "Psychosocial risk factors such as depression, social isolation, loneliness, and traumatic effects due to the disease are insufficiently considered in the treatment of these patients."
The effect can produce a negative cycle, as depression is, itself, a risk factor for heart problems.
Bottom line: If you or a loved one has a heart problem (or, frankly, any debilitating malady) consider the emotional consequences and whether having a professional to talk to might be really, really helpful and healthy.
Reader reactions to my article Are Naps Good or Bad?:
“I find that the most productive naps are sitting up so that I have a comfortable armchair in my office where I can just fall asleep for 15 minutes and wake up great. I do use an alarm.”
“I literally can't nap. Unless I'm really sick or exhausted, trying to nap just results in lying in bed staring at the ceiling.”
—Jennifer R. Povey
“Thank you for brining clarity to that. I've always thought it was good for the majority. Fortunately, it has worked for me since my 20s. The quick power nap when I can get it is a big reset. Feel clear headed and revitalized.”
“Naps were always my dad’s escape from my feisty mom when he was in trouble. She complained he was sleep deprived even after all that napping. Even at 80, I don’t think she’s on to his tricks.”