What I Learned From My First Year of Retirement

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, December 11, 2014

Now that I’ve been retired for over a year, I realized I’ve learned something about being retired. Ever since I retired, the most common greeting I get is, “How’s retired life?” I don’t know if folks are curious about retirement, or if it’s just their way of asking what’s new. Anyway, here’s my answer.

RetirementArrow

Money

When people bring up retirement, most of my unretired friends lament they can’t afford to retire. I have many friends that have retired and many that haven’t. It’s like the story about ants and grasshoppers. Some creatures hoard for the future, and some just hop around having fun. If you want to retire you have to transform from a hopper to a hoarder. I did that by spending less years before I retired. I just stopped buying shit.  If you want to know what retired life is like, live off 50% of your present income each month and save the rest for three years.

Now that I am retired I don’t seem to have any money problems – yet.  This morning when a guy was blowing leaves off my roof, I wondered how much it would cost me if he fell and sued.  Or could I pay for that kind of cancer drug that cost $80,000 a year? Or something bad happens that insurance doesn’t cover. We’re all one random catastrophe away from being ruined. Even though I’ve arranged to afford retirement, there’s always money problems to consider. As I tell my unretired grasshopper friends, every dollar you spend now is one you’ll want in old age.

I’ve got my finances in order, and hope the money lasts the lifetime I have left. But on a day-to-day level, being retired means watching pennies. If you’re the kind of person who has fun without looking at the bill, then I would recommend working as long as you can. In the past year I’ve been called cheap or tight a few times, and that bugs me. That’s not something I was ever called while working. But I realized, part of being retired is learning to live cheaper and hanging onto money.

The stereotype thing to say is “I’m living on a fixed budget” but that’s bullshit. Most people live on a paycheck that’s the same every month, so a “fixed budget” doesn’t really convey the point. Being retired means learning to live on a reduced budget. There won’t be any merit raises or jumps to jobs with higher salaries. So no more fantasies for fancy cars, bigger houses and vacation adventures, and that affects you psychologically. Middle life is about expanding and upsizing. Retirement is about shrinking and downsizing.  But don’t get me wrong, it’s not depressing. Once you start living efficiently, you realize how wasteful living used to be.

As of now I don’t worry about money.

Do I Miss Work?

No. Not in the least. Work did provide a structure, filled up my time, and gave me a sense of purpose and value, but after 35 years at the same workplace, I was done. It’s extremely nice to have all my time free to do what I want.

However, I don’t know if I’m typical. I do know some retired people who are restless not working. I never use the word bored about myself, but if you’ve ever claimed to be bored, I’d be wary of retirement. Every night I go to sleep lamenting I didn’t have enough time. If I have any complaint about retirement, it’s because I still don’t have enough time. Having all your time free does not mean endless time, but for some people, it’s way too much time.

I worked at a university and helped a lot of people, so I got a certain sense of satisfaction from work, plus I felt like my efforts went to a good cause. Now that I’m not working I feel selfish, and that I’m not contributing to society. But that doesn’t bother me. I did my time, I’m retired. However, if you need constant proof of self-worth, you might not want to retire.

Am I Doing What I Dreamed of Doing?

I thought I’d write a novel after I retired. I always imagined if I had the time I would write a novel. I didn’t. Now I see that writing is a novel is something you have to do no matter how much time you have. I don’t have that drive. But this also taught me who I was before retirement is the same person afterwards. I don’t know if this applies to other people or not, but I’m guessing if you’re retiring so you can be a different person, it might not work out.

I haven’t given up on writing fiction, but I’m becoming more aware of what’s involved. It’s real work – like a job. It takes discipline and dedication.  Right now I’m enjoying not working and just puttering around with my hobbies. Some people continue to work after they retire, and some don’t. I haven’t decided. I feel no need to work. I wanted to write novels because I think I have some good stories to tell, but I’m not motivated by money or success, so it’s hard to push myself to work hard again at something with no immediate rewards. But that’s another aspect to retirement.  Retiring is a kind of letting go. Picking an age to retire is picking an age to let go. You’re letting go of work and ambitions of success.

Live With Less

Disregarding the issue of money, retiring means living with less – unless you’re a natural born hoarder. You start thinking, “Do I need this big house?”  “Do I need all these clothes?” “Do I need all these books?” “What am I saving all this junk for?” and often the answer is no. I guess hoarders always answer yes.

Giving up cable was great for me.  Susan works out of town M-F and has cable at her apartment. When she retires we’ll get cable again because she’d go crazy without it. But for me, having fewer channels sharpened my sense of self.  I’m pretty much down to Netflix streaming, PBS, and the NBC Nightly News. And I’m good. I’m very good. I have more great shows than time to watch.

Now here’s the danger of this trend. I had a friend, John Williamson, who before he died, had gotten down to only liking two things in all of reality – the music of Duane Allman and Benny Goodman. When it comes to pop culture I’m still expanding my interests, but I can foresee a time when I’ll contract. I don’t know if I’ll jettison as much as Williamson, but I can sense the beginning of that urge. One to withdraw into stuff I love and forget everything else. Well, as they say, you can’t take it with you.

There’s something appealing about living with less. It’s a feeling of streamlining. Of scraping the barnacles, packing to travel light, of seeking Zen simplicity.  My guess is getting old causes two extremes.  You become a hoarder or monk. I’m on the monkish side.

Fewer Friends

Working at the same university for thirty-five years made me feel I knew a lot of people, and I did. But work friendships really don’t transfer to retired friendships. Some did, most didn’t. I tried to keep in touch with some people. I called them three times. If they never initiated a call back, I gave up. The job place is a powerful source of social contacts. The friends I see now are mostly the same people I saw before I after work before I retired.

If you love a lot of casual friendships keep working and don’t retire. If you’re not your own best company, think real hard about retiring. Luckily, hanging around the house is no punishment for me.

Happiness

If you aren’t happy at your job, you might not be happy retired. Scientific research has found most people are happier at work than in their leisure. People generally find happiness when doing things, and for most people, work is where they often get things done. Now that I’m retired I’ve also learned that I’m happiest when I have things to do.  At the end of the day, I feel best when I can remember several things I did that day. It doesn’t take much though – finishing a book, cooking a pot of soup, publishing a blog, cleaning off a desk, watching a documentary, doing something with a friend. People who get bored are people who don’t know what to do.

It’s also rewarding to think of two or three small tasks each morning, and actually get them done before the day is over. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have to be much – order new underwear, pay a bill, visit the library, clean out a drawer, zero out my email inbox. My days are happily filled by with little pursuits.

Now that I’ve been retired over a year, and I’m getting into my new routines and habits, I’m starting to discover new things about myself. Work filled so much of my time that it distorted my view of life. Now that I have all my time free I’m seeing myself differently. Who I planned to be in retirement is much different than who I’ve become. But then, fantasies are always different from reality.

Before I retired I imagined filling my time on big projects, but I’ve discovered that it’s more about the little projects that count. Big projects take weeks, months and even years to accomplished. For day-to-day happiness, it’s all about how many little things I can do in a day. Before I retired I thought being free from 9-to-5 work meant I could finally write that novel. And that still might happen, but writing a novel takes a very long time, and if I had to wait until one was published, it might be years before I found the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Becoming Different

Even though I’m the same person as I was in youth and middle age, I’m also becoming different. I’m not really old at 63, I’m sort of like an infant elderly person, just learning to crawl. From this vantage point I can see becoming old is transformative. I have no idea what it will be like. But I feel like I’m in a marathon and I’d better pace myself.

JWH

Alive Inside: The Most Inspiring, Emotional and Scariest Movie I’ve Seen in Years

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, November 24, 2014

At the end of the classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, when Big Brother wants Winston Smith to confess his thought crimes and betray his lover, they tell him that every person has one thing they fear more than anything else, and that fear can be used to break a person. Over the years, I’ve noticed that my friends each have something they fear to see in movies. That there is a subject they can not bear to see, and will always avoid films that have scenes that trigger those fears. Often that fear is to see cruelty to animals or children, or realistic violence. I have met people who claim they can watch movies about the most horrible monsters that can be imagined so long as they are make-believe, but any movie about a realistic monster, whether serial killer or cancer, is something that’s too frightening for them to handle. It makes them run away. What makes you run away?

In recent years I’ve noticed that the deepest fear some of my friends have is of getting old, and they can’t handle any portrayal of elder years. The sight of the aged, especially in a nursing home, is enough to put them into a deep existential panic. And stories about Alzheimer’s or dementia, is their trigger that Big Brother was talking about when they spoke to Winston Smith.

So, it’s going to be a hard sell for me to recommend Alive Inside, a documentary about how music brings memories and self-awareness back to aging souls slumped in wheelchairs and warehoused in nursing homes. This film shows us humans deformed by age and memory loss, some that can no longer respond to any verbal commands. Then Dan Cohen puts a pair of Koss headphones on their time-ravaged heads and presses play on an iPod shuffle, and we see their souls return. It’s like in the book/movie Awakenings, about real life Rip Van Wrinkes who had gone to sleep in the 1920s because of side-effects of the 1918 influenza and given L-DOPA and reawaken in the 1960s. The effects of music on releasing lost memories was dramatic like that in Alive Inside. It’s as if music can reanimate long dead personalities and bring them back to the awareness after leaving reality for years.

I found Alive Inside profound. It made my spirit soar, and my body cry. Alive Inside has a simple message: we can help millions of people that we’ve hidden away in nursing homes. The film also asks why did we lock up all those old people in the first place.

Even though I’m promising people a peak emotional experience, I’m guessing many of my friends will quickly put this movie recommendation out of their minds. I am often accused of being morbid because I like to dwell on depressing subjects. I never feel depressed by facing reality. It’s quite the opposite. I was feeling lonely last night, and watching this documentary exhilarated me, and filled me with positive energy. I woke up at 4:30 this morning thinking about it, and got up at 5:30 to write about it.

Yet, there’s still the problem of getting my baby boomer friends to share this experience. Sooner or later we must face getting old. We must accept that our bodies are going to morph into the scary figures we see hunched down in wheelchairs in Alive Inside. The only way to escape this fate is to die, and the fact that millions of people are living in nursing homes tells us death won’t rescue us all.

You can contribute or volunteer at Music and Memory. Remember, Christmas is coming up. And they take used iPods too.

If our fate is to grow very old, then we need to start preparing our psyches for it now, and that brings me to another documentary we saw Friday night that tells another story about getting old, Advanced Style. This film was about older women living in New York City that use fashion to keep their hearts young. It’s message is to keep trucking in style until you die. The film was based on a book and blog of the same name.

The old people in Advanced Style are much easier to watch if you’re age-phobic, because the women are outrageously charming characters, independent and not living in nursing homes. So Advanced Style might be the first to see of these two if you are a baby boomer afraid of dementia and wrinkles.  Alive Inside is far more powerful, but to be honest, it’s not for the faint of heart. I do think both films are great strengtheners for our hearts – but sometimes its hard to look into the face of the future. I recommend Nietzsche’s advice, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Watch Alive Inside even if you are very afraid of getting old and losing your mind, it will make you stronger.

See, here’s the thing I see in films like these. We all die, but some of us die a long time before our bodies go. What we want is for the mind and body to go together. Sometimes that’s beyond our control, but sometime it is something we can control. Alive Inside hints that even when it looks like our minds have been flushed down the toilet, we’re still here, hiding behind the neurons. Both movies offer hope that if we keep trying we can survive until we die.

Alive Inside and Advanced Style are available on Netflix streaming, and the usually sites to buy.

JWH

Blogging, Aging and Maintaining Mental Abilities

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 31, 2014

It’s amazing how some old sayings reflect unfathomably deep wisdom. Two of which that come to mind are “Use it or lose it” and “You don’t know what you’ll miss until it’s gone.” Some of these old sayings don’t become relevant until you’re old, which is a shame, because such knowledge would give the young a savvy advantage. It’s always difficult to predict what to keep using until you need it in the future.

handwriting

Take handwriting. Until a few weeks ago when I discovered it was gone and I missed it, I never gave it two thoughts. When I had a pinched nerve in my neck and couldn’t type for a few weeks, I truly missed the ability to write in cursive. Now that I can type again, I’ll probably forget that I really needed to write without a machine. I’m sure one day I’ll again regret the loss of that skill, so I should practice it now. But I won’t, will I?

The trick now is to recognize the skills we do wish to keep, and keep practicing them. Blogging has taught me the value of practicing verbal skills. Both for writing and speaking. If I stop blogging for any length of time I feel my ability to use words begin to fade. It’s subtle, but it’s there. If I go without writing long enough, it’s not even subtle.

When I was younger, and watching my father’s generation of men die off, my uncles and other older guys I knew, seemed to withdraw into themselves as the years passed by, and talked less and less. I know I’m making crude generalizations here, but men, and maybe women, seem to lose their conversational abilities as wrinkles become more numerous. When I was young I assumed aging involved a withdrawal from life, either from boredom, lack of interest, or a diminishing urge for self-expression. Now I wonder if it’s a fading ability to communicate. Either put words together into concise thoughts, or lose the ability.

When I don’t blog my mental muscles to shape paragraphs gets flabby. Since most of my friends are women, I tend to spend most of my time listening. I’ve lost the ability to argue, and my verbal skills of discussing ideas are beginning to fade too. When I do talk to men, our old ability to battle with words has been lost to a détente of friendship.  My old buddies are guys that I agree with, and I’ve given up on confrontational acquaintances. Maybe I should be more aggressive in my blog writing and find some wordy foes to spar with.

If the only thing you do is watch television, then the only skills you’ll have when you get old is sitting and watching. Maybe that’s why all the old men I knew stopped talking?

Every time I write an essay I can feel my brain working out. It’s like being at the gym and pumping iron – I can feel I’m lifting heavier concepts with systematic practice. I doubt blogging is for everyone, but I expect everyone needs some kind of verbal exercise that includes both conversation and writing. And it may even help to learning handwriting again.

JWH – Happy Halloween

Mind Over Matter In Old Age

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 24, 2014

My last day of work was 10/22/13, at a job I started in the previous century on 11/14/77.  It’s been one year not working, and the time has flown by like Boeing jetliner.  When I retired I had big plans to write a novel, but the urge has diminished. The fantasy of writing doesn’t completely go away, but my discipline to work mostly has. My days pass by so fast that I wonder how I ever found time for a forty-hour work week. And like a butterfly, my memories of being a caterpillar are fleeing fast. It’s really strange to live by flitting here and there, wherever my whims entice me. Maintaining a positive mental state while deteriorating physically is now my chosen career. The job requirements are learning to master mind over matter.

Being happy pursuing piddly activities is a great skill to acquire. I hang out with friends, read books, watch television, play music, write blogs, mess with my computers, shop for used books, cook food, do chores, and that seems to be enough. I now live in a different mental world where I work to maintain my health by not getting mentally old. The daily goal of getting old is to avoid being old. Luckily, I have a naturally happy nature, and I don’t get bored. I’m well suited for retired living.

I’m constantly learning new things, mainly because I love documentaries and nonfiction books, and I love browsing the Internet for fascinating news stories, like “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?” from this week’s The New York Times Magazine.

New York Times

 

The article starts off,

One day in the fall of 1981, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. Then they passed through the door and entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed to conjure 1959. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment, cooked up by a young psychologist named Ellen Langer.

Ultimately, what this experiment reveals is feeling younger means acting younger.

The men in the experimental group were told not merely to reminisce about this earlier era, but to inhabit it — to “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” she told me. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” From the time they walked through the doors, they were treated as if they were younger. The men were told that they would have to take their belongings upstairs themselves, even if they had to do it one shirt at a time.

In the end, the men,

At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.

The article goes on with more details about additional experiments, and they remind me of how I like to time travel by returning to things I loved back in the 1960s. I always thought when old people returned to the interests of their youth they were merely being nostalgic. Maybe we’re rejuvenating. Maybe wanting to write a novel is taking me back to when I was young and wanted to grow up to write a novel. I’ve often wondered if I’m too old to do something so young. If this research is right, writing a novel will make me young.

Although it doesn’t appear that I’ve done that much in my first year of retirement, I do feel like I’ve learned a lot. It’s a strange new life living without a job to define my days. I absolutely love being retired. It feels like I’m back in college preparing for an exciting career. This time of constant reflection reminds me of the 1970s and all the New Age philosophies I studied. The journey is the destination.

JWH

How Science Fiction’s Futures Changes For Every Generation

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 23, 2014

If you are old, has the future you imagined in childhood unfolded during your life? If you’re young, what do you hope to see happen in your lifetime?

I grew up in the 1960s with my visions of the future inspired by 1950s science fiction. Flying cars were not what I hoped for, but evidently many people from my generation expected them and are disappointed we aren’t living in a Buck Rogers future. No, what I expected to see as I grew old was the colonization of the Moon and Mars, and the manned exploration of the solar system. I wasn’t optimistic enough to expect Star Trek like interstellar travel in my lifetime, but I assumed it would arrive after I died. It’s so disappointing to spend a lifetime watching humans never leave orbit. What are we waiting for?

I did expect large flat screen televisions, and they did come to pass. Didn’t see the internet coming even though I was majoring in computer programming in 1971, nor did I imagine smartphones. I guess I lacked the imagination, but so did everyone else it seems. I’m also disappointed we don’t have intelligent robots, or sentient AI machines. After space travel, robots were the biggest tech breakthrough that 1950s SF promised.

Although I hoped we’d have visitors from other star systems I never really thought it would actually happen. I did think we’d make SETI contact by now.

Contemporary science fiction often feels obsessed with apocalyptic visions of the future, and we had those too when I was growing up. But kids today seemed enchanted by future teens fighting oppressive dystopian governments. I can dig that, back in the sixties challenging authority was very popular. I guess blows against the empire never go out of vogue.

Which brings me to Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer, a science fiction anthology of positive science fiction. It was inspired by the essay “Innovation Starvation” by Neal Stephenson, at the World Policy Institute, in which Stephenson proposes, The Hieroglyph Theory,

Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

Hieroglyph

The list of stories can be found here, with links to discussion and research.

The Hieroglyph anthology offers strangely different visions of the future than the ones I grew up with, and sadly, I don’t find these new futurist vistas all that appealing. Many of these futures seem to come out of Wired Magazine. In the introduction we’re told that young people today are all too often embracing a dystopian science fiction view of tomorrow, and that science fiction writers should offer a positive alternative. I think that’s missing the point of those YA stories, which are exciting adventure stories symbolizing growing up, and not visions of tomorrow.

Actually, the opposite of dystopian is utopian, and none of these tales in Hieroglyph are about perfect societies. I think everyone has gotten over the naive notion that the future will bring us peace and happiness. The real question is can the future always offer us more sense of wonder? This might reveal my jadedness, but this anthology doesn’t show me it will.

Although I’m embarrassed to admit this, I’m nostalgic for my old futures. Hieroglyph seems more inspired by 3D printers, the internet, giant towers that climb into space, mining the asteroids, social media possibilities, smartphone apps that make us empathetic, etc. Many of the stories are quite engaging as stories, but they aren’t inspiring like the science fiction I grew up with. Now that will be an unfair criticism if young readers do find a sense of wonder in them.

It might be because I’m 62, and these stories lack a sense of wonder to someone with so little future.  Yet, even if I don’t have much of a future, I’m not sure I’d want to live to see these futures come to be? I’d love to know if kids 12 or 22 reading these tales do find them wondrous?

There are millions of people around the world still hoping to build interplanetary colonies and conquer the final frontier, but there are billions of people on Earth that don’t see that future anymore, or maybe never did. Anyone who has embraced science more than science fiction knows faster-than-light travel is about as realistic as time travel, and that living on the Moon or Mars will be closer to cruel and unusual punishment than finding greener pastures to homestead.

Many of the stories in Hieroglyph did capture the struggle of humans surviving. They are  more grown-up than the fictional adventures I took in my teens. I did love Vandana Singh’s “Entanglement.” It was about technology being used to increase empathy. So does “Elephant Angels” by Brenda Cooper.  “By the Time We Get to Arizona” by Madeline Ashby seems far more savvy about the grit of the future, and the misuse of technology. And Karl Schroeder’s story, “Degrees of Freedom” suggests that there are new frontiers of democracy for us to explore. The stories of billionaires conquering outer space didn’t impress me. And although I loved the character development of Cory Doctorow’s “The Man Who Sold The Moon” a great deal, 3D printing leaves me limp. Bruce Sterling’s story about a man and his horse got me until it became science fiction.

All to often the best science fiction is about being human, and not spacemen, even when the characters live in outer space.

Overall, I’m left with the impression that the women writers in Hieroglyph have thought more about how technology could be good for us than the men. Now that I’m living in my childhood future, I imagine a much different future that might come to be after I ceased to be. It’s not about space adventures but solving our problems, both as individuals and as a species. It’s like an old man I saw in a documentary when he said, “If you’re the problem, and you go somewhere else, you’re still the problem.”

JWH

Making Sense of a Zillion Pieces of Advice

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 17, 2014

Have you ever notice how much advice the Internet offers?  The web probably has more advice articles than the complete history of women’s magazines.  From how to organize your life, to the most healthy foods to eat, to the best cities to live in, the quickest meals to fix, to how to fight memory loss, or meet the love of your life,  or which smartphones to buy, and so on, and so on. Some of the advice is based on scientific studies, but most of it is from personal experience, and probably a good deal is just some blogger making shit up.

What if we could consolidate all that advice into meta-lists so we could discover what the most common tips reveal? If one dietician says eating broccoli is great for your health, would you start eating it three times a week?  What if 2,000 different scientific studies proclaimed the virtues of broccoli? What if they said broccoli increases your sexual stamina, reduces cavities, clears your skin and conquers constipation?  At what point are we willing to take notice and act on advice? We’re all failures at keeping New Year’s resolutions, so is all this advice wasted on the undisciplined? Or are we all slowly evolving and improving from all these studies?  It’s taken about fifty years for most people to stop smoking.  And even with a Mt. Everest pile of evidence, many people still light up. When and how does advice become overwhelmingly convincing?

memory-loss

Memory Loss

The 800-pound gorilla squatting in my generation’s living room is memory loss. I don’t know how scary dementia is to people under 55, but for us folks over 55, it’s scarier than a serial killer with an idling chain saw. “Memory Loss From Alzheimer’s Disease Reversed For the First Time With Lifestyle Changes” is one article that grabbed my attention.  It’s based on this press report from the Buck Institute on a very small trial of ten patients.  Nine patients with varying degrees of dementia improved after 3-6 months following a specific 36-point  lifestyle guideline.  The tenth person with late stage Alzheimer’s didn’t improve.  The full report in PDF was published in AGING, September 2014, Vol. 6 No. 9.  Scroll down to Table 1. Therapeutic System 1.0.  The entire system is not easy to describe, but here’s a summary.  How many of these pieces of advice are you willing to follow to save your mind?

  • Give up all simple carbohydrates and gluten
  • Give up processed food
  • Eat more vegetables and fruits
  • Eat wild-caught fish
  • Meditate twice a day
  • Do yoga
  • Sleep at least 7-8 hours a night
  • Take CoQ-10, fish oil, melatonin, methylcobaliamin and vitamin D3 supplements?
  • Use electric toothbrush and flossing tool
  • Take hormone replacement therapies
  • Fast at last 12 hours between dinner and breakfast
  • Don’t eat 3 hours before bedtime
  • Exercise 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week

How many articles have you read in your life that recommended some of these lifestyle changes?  Over the years I’ve seen some of these recommendations hundreds of times. Why didn’t I start following them in my twenties, thirties or forties?  Why did I wait until my sixties to get down to business? Even though this report in AGING came out in September, 2014, its advice is quite common.  Just read these other articles.

This is just a half dozen articles out of whole libraries devoted to the subject. Yet, if you take the time to read them, you’ll see consistent pieces of advice show up time and again, and even interesting contrasting advice.  Such as sleep at least 7-8 hours, but it’s bad to sleep more than 9 hours.

It’s key in evaluating articles on the Internet to understand where the knowledge comes from. First check if it’s based on a scientific study, and see if you can track down the original study. Popular articles summarize scientific studies, and sometimes they slant their summaries.  See if there are other articles from other sites that take a different slant. Great essays will cover multiple studies, and even explain conflicting studies.

Most articles aren’t based on scientific studies. In those cases you have to evaluate the expertise of the person giving the advice. If you’re reading dating advice, what experience does the romance guru have? Is it just personal, or do they have a relevant degree, or work for Match.com? Plain old personal advice can be valuable, especially if that person’s insights are savvy and practical, and they fit your own observations and experience.

My point here is not to write specifically about memory loss prevention, but to show that there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge, and maybe even wisdom to found on any subject.  How do we evaluate the wealth of information?  Most people find it confusing that on so many topics there’s lots of contradictory advice.  So, how do we decide which recommendations are valid? Wisdom doesn’t come easy.

That’s what I’m wishing for here, a web site that collects and contrasts all the studies and averages them out for every issue we want to consider. I want a Meta-Advice site, a one-stop-shop for evaluating advice, organized like Wikipedia, that has an army of specialists hammering out summaries and comparisons of all the research for any specific subject people want advice on. Google is great, but if you use Wikipedia a lot, you’ll understand why it’s structural approach is better for organizing advice information.

Imagine going to this Meta-Advice site and looking up memory loss and CoQ-10.  Let’s say it evaluates 57 different research studies. The summary might not be conclusive – science rarely is – but it would give us the best current answer, even if it’s only a statistic like in 63% of cases using 23,204 subjects, memory retention was improved when CoQ-10 was used in trials varying between 6 months and three years.  I’m making up these numbers, but you should get what I mean.

When research scientists or PhD candidates want to explore new territory they do a literature review of all the previous studies. They need to find the boundaries of what’s known and not known. This Meta-Advice site should do the same thing, and make it understandable to the layman where the boundary of knowledge is, and what they can learn from it.

It is possible for an individual to go to Google Scholar and do a search on “Alzheimer’s and Dementia Prevention.”  But the results are overwhelming. Only the truly dedicated will wade through the massive number of articles available. That’s why a site like Wikipedia, where knowledgeable editors can predigest the information for the average reader would be a huge help. The Internet is coming up with all kinds of new ways of doing things. We have no idea what cognitive tools will be invented soon. If you think of the effective nature of what Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, IMDB, Flickr, etc., they all make managing information easier. I believe advice management is in need of an Internet makeover.  

JWH

Sitting is the New Smoking

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The new catch phrase I’m hearing is “Sitting is the New Smoking.”  This statement conveys so much.  It triggers memories about my dad, who died when I was 18, and he was 49.  He was a smoker, and survived two heart attacks and a stroke before he died on his third heart attack.  I always wondered how long he would have lived if he had never smoked.  It’s a shame he didn’t learn that smoking was bad when he was growing up, but that knowledge just wasn’t common back then.  What future common knowledge are we missing out on now?  Is sitting really the new smoking?

I have to wonder if my life would have been different if I had known sitting was so bad.  I’ve had back problems for years, and at the moment I’m having neck problems, with a pinched nerve.  Writing this essay is causing increasing pain in my arm.  And the pain is more than physical.  I am reminded of a classic episode of The Twilight Zone about a bookworm named Henry Beamis.  All he wanted to do was read put people wouldn’t let him.  Finally he’s the last man on Earth and has all the time in the world to read, and he breaks his glasses.  I retired thinking I’d have all the time in the world to write and read, and at this moment I can’t do either without aggravating my pains.  I’ve become Henry Beamis.

Pack Matthews gives me hope though in his TED Talk, “Sitting is the New Smoking but you’ve got Options.”

Matthews says pains are like canaries in a coal mine, warning us that we need to do something different immediately.  But he also promises that we’re never too old to improve.  Our body’s ability to readapt is impressive.  This video is well worth watching.  Even if you’re not suffering, knowing that sitting is the new smoking when you’re young and healthy is very important too.

When I was a kid I was very active, but as the decades progressed I’ve become more and more sedentary.  Even when I was a programmer and sat at my chair all day long I got up a lot, helping people out all over a four story building, and often in other buildings.  Now that I’m retired I spend almost all my time sitting, and its caught up to me.  I’ve got to develop routines of more activity.  In the video above, Matthews shows people a simple test to measure potential longevity as it relates to physical mobility.  Currently, I’d score very low.  But he promises that it’s possible to increase my score.

Watch the video and try the test yourself.  You might be surprised.

Just how bad is the sedentary lifestyle?  Is it truly equal to the life-shortening effects of cigarettes consumption?  The studies aren’t saying skipping exercise is bad for you, but the actual act of prolonged sitting is bad, and even causes cancer.  The trouble is we all do a lot of sitting.  Most of us work at a desk all day long at work or school, then we come home and watch TV for hours, or sit at the computer or play video games.  Even the educational pastime of reading which is good for your mind is bad for your body.

Just read some of the many articles on Google about this topic.

The conundrum we face is how to integrate more activity into our ass-in-the-chair lives.  I’ve been laid up where the only comfortable position I can find is reclined in a La-Z-Boy has made me think of alternatives for not being able to sit at my desk.  One thing I’ve considered is dictating my writing and converting it with Dragon Dictate to Word files.  That same solution would work with walking and standing.  However, my spinal stenosis and degenerative disc problems limit my walking, but I am trying to walk more.

Matthews wasn’t the only TED Talker to attack sitting.  Nilofer Merchant presented “Got a meeting?  Take a walk.”

Of course, my problem is writing at the computer.  How can I take a walk and write?  Well, people have come up with a solution, the treadmill desk.  I’ve seen stories about them on TV, and there’s lots about them on the Internet.  Here Jordan Keyes talks about this treadmill desk after using it for almost two years.

The above video didn’t say much about the health value of using a treadmill desk to me until I saw this older video, when we see Keyes in a much larger body.  Of course, he’s doing more than walking and typing to lose weight, but the two videos do effectively show how his efforts have made a change in his life.

But not everyone likes treadmill desks.  I’m not quite ready to spend $1200-1500 yet, but I’m thinking hard about this.  If anyone reading this blog uses a treadmill desk, please leave a comment below.

There are many things to consider in such a setup.  Unless you’re always working at the treadmill desk you’ll have to have a sit down desk also, meaning two computer setups, or using a laptop you move around a lot.  Many people are using standing desks that can adjust to sitting and standing.  These come in a huge variety.  And it’s possible to get just a flat treadmill to move under such an adjustable desk.

But if we stand around all the time, won’t standing become the new sitting?  I would imagine the key is to keep moving in lots of positions.  It’s really not practical to avoid sitting all day long.  I often see advice suggesting we get up and move around more, maybe once an hour.  I was recently told to think of my posture every time I go through a doorway, and was even given some exercises to try using with the doorway.  My chiropractor told me my ears should be above my shoulder, and that I had bad posture.  This fit right in with this graphic about ergonomics at the computer workstation.

office-ergonomics-by-physiotherapists 

Note how they want ears, shoulders and hip to line up.  I’ve developed sort of an old man slump, with my head tilted forward like a turtle’s head coming out of its shell.

I’ve always learned a lot physical therapy.  I think what I need to do, or even what we all need to do, if spend a few moments each hour doing yoga and physical therapy stretches.  I’ve already begun to ride my exercise bike more while watching television, but dang, even that involves sitting.

Sitting might be the new smoking, but giving up sitting is going to be impossible, at least for me, so the most I can hope for is keeping my ass out of the chair as much as possible.

JWH