Archive by Author | agannac

Another Genius in Geriatrics!

In the US, every year the MacArthur Foundation gives an award called the “Genius Grant”(and $500,000 with no strings attached) to, what else, but a number of geniuses.  And this year it included a geriatrician, Dr. Eric Coleman!

Dr. Coleman, at the University of Colorado, is already famous in geriatrics for his groundbreaking work in care transitions.  An increasingly complicated problem, the fact that older adults are more likely to be in the hospital means that, naturally, they are more likely to be discharged from hospitals.  Discharged where?  Sometimes they are discharged back home, but sometimes to a nursing home or rehabilitation center and then back home.  Or– unfortunately– often back to the hospital.  The maze of transitions is only worse because doctors, nurses and the health care systems they work in do not do it well.   This is where Dr. Coleman comes in.  He has created systems to help make the back-and-forth to the hospital happen less often or happen more smoothly when it does.  And this is both an immensely complicated and immensely important problem to be solving– hoping to save money, lives, time and quality of life.

He joins some incredible people who have been honored in the past for their incredible work for older adults.

Last year, Marie-Therese Connolly, and elder rights lawyer was recognized for her work in elder abuse.  In 2009, Dr. Mary Tinetti at Yale won for her pioneering work in falls. And in 2008, Dr. Diane Meier at Mt. Sinai in New York won for her incredible work in palliative care for people at the end of life.

The more these leaders are recognized for their committment and contribution to the care of older adults, the more the world will see the important and serious problems facing older adults today.  Hooray to the geniuses working to help seniors!


Physical Fitness and Chronic Disease Prevention

In the most upcoming issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine (Sept 24, 2012), there is an article by Dr. Benjamin L. Willis and colleagues called “Midlife Fitness and the Development of Chronic Conditions in Later Life”.  Their findings lend more support to the idea that being more active helps prevent chronic conditions.

It was an impressive article in that they made use of a large cohort of subjects–18,670 total– that took a physical fitness test at one point in time in middle age (average age 49 years old).  They then looked at how many chronic diseases, through Medicare data, these people developed and when.  They found that people who were most active, compared to the least active, were less likely to develop chronic diseases.  Furthermore, when they did develop a chronic disease, they developed them later in life.  This is support for what is referred to as compression of morbidity, which is the phenomenon that now that people live longer, much of the morbidity of disease is also being compressed into fewer years toward the end end of life, so that overall we live longer, less-sick lives.

Some of the specifics– They considered people’s physical fitness by a treadmill test and measured their fitness by “metabolic equivalents” (METs; a measure of intensity of activity).  They looked at 8 chronic diseases: ischemic heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer of the colon or lung.  They report that for each increase in MET, men had a 5% lower risk of developing a chronic disease and women had a 6% lower risk of developing a chronic disease.  And this was true when they looked at each of the diseases on their own, meaning more activity protected against all of these various conditions.  (For reference: sitting watching TV is ~1MET, walking is ~3 METs, and running ~7-8 METs.)

They say that exercise did not appear to extend lifespan, but those who died had fewer chronic conditions before they did.  And, of course, there were several potential problems with the study.  There were more men(~80%) then women, and this was overall a white, well-educated group– so this is not representative of our country as a whole.  They also cannot really say if people workout more and can attribute good health to that, if they workout more because they are fundamentally more healthy, or if they are healthier and workout for a third, but related, reason (like maybe good genes?).

Overall, this was an intriguing study and lends support the idea that activity is good for us and means we will live healthier lives, from middle age onward.  Not many of us will waste  much time arguing this– we would rather spend it being active!

More links:

The article:

Interview with the author, Dr. Benjamin Willis:

Commentary in the same issue, “Thriving of the Fittest”:

NY Times article about the research:


Sleep and Dementia

We all know how bad our thinking can be when we don’t get a good night’s sleep, but over time poor sleep may put us at higher risk of more profound cognitive problems, like dementia.

Recent studies presented at the Alzheimer’s conference this summer show that sleep disruptions of different kinds– like sleep apnea (abnormal periods of obstructed breathing or stopping breathing), decreased time sleeping, or waking up often– can lead to real cognitive deficits.

Dr. Kristine Yaffe, from Univ of California, San Francisco, directs a clinic that evaluates and treats patients with memory disorders.  Her research makes an important contribution because it looks at direct measures of sleep by observing people’s sleep quality and their subsequent development of cognitive problems 5 years later. Many other studies have looked at people’s self-report of how they sleep, which is notoriously inaccurate, and the concurrent presence of memory or cognitive problems.  Such an approach does not address the question of which came first, the cogntive problem or the sleep problem, but Dr. Yaffe’s work suggests that in some people sleep problems may come first.  Persons with disordered breathing (like sleep apnea) had more than 2 times the risk of dementia later on.

Let’s not all stay up even later worrying that by not getting good sleep we are imperiling our brains.  The lesson is yes, get good sleep (that’s an order)!  And for us that take care of patients, we should be asking them about their sleep and daytime functioning– daytime sleepiness can be an indicator that someone’s sleep at night is not adequate– and get them tested for sleeping problems.  Many sleep problems can be treated, and doing so may save precious brain function.

Other links:

NPR interview with Dr. Yaffe and news story:

Photo credit:

Dementiabots: The movie, Robot & Frank

I went Friday night to see a movie just released here, Robot & Frank.  I knew I would love it just based on the premise, but it may just be my favorite movie in the last couple years.

Set in the “near future”, it tells the story of Frank, an older man suffering from early dementia, who is given a robot by his children to help take care of him.  The man, bored and isolated in a country town, gradually comes to enjoy the company and stimulation the robot provides.  The story gets moving when you learn that before his retirement he was a professional jewelry thief and now, with the encouragement the robot provides to be active, he realizes he can get back in the game and teach the robot to help him steal.  It’s a movie, so inevitably they get into trouble.

I am a sucker for movies about dementia because it is complex and a hard topic to do sensitively and well.  But Robot & Frank is about more than the vanishing mind.  It is about the person Frank was, is and always will be, and how dementia is just a part of that.  The movie and the actor, Frank Langella, make him shine as a character.  It is also about the stress that an aging and vulnerable parent puts on children, especially in the US, who live far away and have their own families or geographically distant careers.  In this way it touches on the way Americans in particular are dealing with dementia.

But it went from good to great because it got how we treat dementia right (Sadly, in the near future we still don’t have better medication to treat dementia it seems).  Now we largely treat dementia with lifestyle changes and support via caregivers and adult day programs.  The robot is basically a lifestyle manager– he gets Frank on a routine; he makes sure he sleeps enough; he keeps the house clean and orderly; he cooks and serves him well-balanced meals at regular times.   He endlessly proposes activites: let’s garden, let’s go for a walk, let’s play a game.  He knows that to keep Frank well he needs to keep him as physically and mentally as active as possible and keep a routine.  And then when Frank gets upset or angry, naturally he does not take it personally and can continue to work with Frank.  He does not get upset or burnt out — an unfortunate reality for many human caregivers.  By the end I was intrigued on how robots could be the perfect treatment to help people with dementia have the best functioning possible.

I would even suggest that Frank gets the idea to have the robot help him with burglaries because his brain is working better at this point, after the robot’s interventions have made him sharper.  This is not unusual.  When someone with dementia starts getting good care, they start doing better in many ways– mentally, socially and physically.

No matter, it’s all a movie anyway and such sophisticated technologies, while present in small ways– eg.  alerts installed at home to help family monitor their loved ones from afar, small fuzzy robots to help demented patients with behavior issues (see this prior post)— are a long way from being fully autonomous beings that can live with otherwise independent elders.  But I was impressed with how the screenplay and the movie treated the tangled issues of dementia, aging, and family tension and made it fun and funny.  Like anyone with dementia, Frank never stops surprising everyone, even the robot, who he reminds that “the human brain, it’s a lovely piece of hardware.”  Indeed.

See other reviews:

The Old Celebrate the New

Including all generations may be best for some

While I had high hopes for a scientific blog today, I find myself more reflective on a wonderful experience I had this weekend and its impact on the work I do.

I was lucky to attend the wedding of a close friend and his new bride.  It was under the relentless but magnificent sun in the scenic foot hills of Mt. Hood, Oregon.  We were hot, some of us even burning, but we joyfully celebrated with the graceful couple, twice— once with her family’s religious traditions, and once with his family’s religious traditions (welcome to the US!).  Beautiful, inclusive, rowdy and sweet, it was a wonderful series of events over two days.

I noticed, too, that the couple was fortunate to have, along with nephews and nieces and friends and parents, many of their grandparents and older relatives there. I couldn’t help but notice one older gentleman who attended every event.  He walked formidable distances to the meals and the ceremonies, but often one or two relatives would help him.  He walked slowly but deliberately.  And if anyone looked over at him, he smiled from ear to ear.  Despite clear difficulty, he was an undeniably positive force and seemed to spread cheer.  The groom acknowledged this man, his grandfather, in his wedding speech.  He said despite a recent broken bone in back and being 95 years old, he got up every morning and declared, “I’m going.”  And he was very grateful that his grandfather had come.  And I was amazed that, as far as I could tell, his grandfather stayed later than I did at the party!

As I watched the groom’s grandfather enjoy and take part in the exhaustive events of the weekend, I had a couple thoughts.

  • Many of my patients, when faced with difficulties that come with aging– pain, mobility issues, health problems– will talk about what they look forward to as what keeps them going, and it is commonly a grandchild’s graduation or wedding.  I thought I understood this, but it was beautiful to see.  And many of the other bloggers on this site have written about how having things to look forward to maintains psychological health and well-being.  That was clear to me this weekend.
  • For so many reasons– physical and cognitive function among the most important– I routinely try to identify and encourage patients to stay as socially engaged as possible.  Watching the engagement and joy of the groom’s grandfather, I thought about the recent and influential article by a colleague of mine at University of California, San Francisco, Dr. Carla Perissinotto.  She found that feelings of loneliness led to a higher rate of death and functional decline in a cohort of elderly US adults, independent of whether or not these adults actually lived alone.  This finding means that for us as geriatricians, knowing that our patients live alone is one thing, but actually asking them if they feel lonely and trying to find ways to help them feel less lonely is just as important.

At this spectacular wedding it was wonderful to see everyone of all ages celebrate and be together, but for one person, the groom’s grandfather, it may have actually prolonged his life.

Dance for Parkinson’s

So, this is a not an entirely new phenomenon, but it is new to me.

Every Friday I have clinic at a community clinic in Berkeley, California and last week we were visited by a local organzation, PD Active, a group that does advocacy and programs for people with Parkinson’s disease (PD).  If you don’t know much about it, PD is a brain disorder that causes difficulty with movement and usually affects older people (Michael J. Fox is unusual in that he developed PD very young).  It is characterized by slow movements that get worse–  hand and arm tremors, trouble buttoning a blouse, walking very slowly, talking slowly and losing the ability to make facial expressions.  As the disease progresses, people can suffer from frequent falling and ultimately dementia.

Needless to say, thinking of people with PD dancing is an incredible thought as they are often thought of as stiff and slow, even unbalanced.  Our visitor explained the incredible things PD Active does for people in the area– yoga classes, dance classes, support groups and advocacy events.  I am sure I will be recommending it to some of my patients with PD.  However, one thing he mentioned really caught my attention.  When he started to do Dance for Parkinson’s (a registered trademark), which was originally developed in Brooklyn at the Mark Morris Dance Group, he felt “graceful”.

Looking at their website and videos, I was incredibly moved.  Not only does it seem to get people to use their bodies in ways they did not think they could, it improves their mobility and safety.  Music and dance open up their brains and ability to move more.  See if you can bring it to your city!


PD Active in Berkeley, CA:

Picture from Dance for PD (R) website:

The Call for Patient-Centered Care

Some wonderful concepts in patient-centered care were the topic of several pieces in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine (March 1, 2012).  Overall, they discuss its critical role in the future of US health care reform.  One key article was co-authored by two of the US’s most prominent geriatricians, Dr. David B. Reuben, Chief of Geriatrics at University of California, Los Angeles, and Dr. Mary E. Tinetti, Professor of Geriatrics at Yale University.

In this article, “Goal-Oriented Patient Care—An Alternative Health Outcomes Paradigm”, Drs. Reuben and Tinetti discuss the movement in US health care to make patients’ values guide clinical care in a more meaningful way.  This is now an explicit aim of our ever-powerful Center for Medicare and Medicaid (see a prior post re Medicare, the US’s largest insurer).  Yes, patients’ values should guide decision making, but they begin to answer why and how it can be achieved.

As someone training in geriatrics, it did not surprise me that geriatricians wrote this succinct and timely article.  In our field, we frequently care for patients whose medical complexity makes it difficult to pursue the “standard of care” for many conditions. (Which looks bad on many traditional quality measures.  For example, the measure of average blood sugar considered optimal for diabetics is not helpful for older adults in whom it is dangerous to keep at such low levels, but many quality measurements do not take this into account.)

One example might be a patient who is older, not very healthy, and who has a newly discovered kidney cancer that may take longer to grow and cause a problem than she is likely to live.  Should she choose surgery to remove it when she may take months to recover and never get back to her prior state of health?  The decision of what to do must be a carefully considered one between the patient and her doctors.  The right answer lies in the complex mix of what the medical problem is, what is realistic, and what the patient wants based on understanding the medical options and her preferences.  But how do you measure this?  Should we even try?

Drs. Reuben and Tinetti suggest we should work with patients to understand their goals, and document this.  We should then measure whether or not the patient’s goals were achieved with such techniques as “goal-attainment scaling,” or other measures of how well a patient’s goals were met.  This should be part of how we look at quality in health care in a rigorous way.

The future is understanding that meeting patients’ goals are absolutely a critical part of how our health care system can be considered to be high quality.  And the future is finding ways to measure how well we actually meet patient’s goals so we can value those physicians and systems of care that do it well.  It will be very interesting to see how effective we are at doing this, and if indeed our paradigm shifts.


Reuben DB, Tinetti ME.  Goal-Oriented Patient Care– An Alternative Health Outcomes Paradigm.  N Engl J Med 2012; 366:777-779.