Surprising factors determine successful aging

30 May 2015

Motion is medicine; social interaction prolongs life; walking with friends accomplishes both and Cornell health experts from three campuses have the science and technology to prove it.

That was one of many takeaways from A Charter Day Weekend panel, ''Wellness, Fulfillment and Good Health.'' The panelists talked about the health care environment in which we live and age. Dr. Orli R. Etingin, an internist and Weill Cornell Medical College professor of clinical medicine, dispensed advice she gives patients who ask about vitamins and supplements. ''Some vitamins do work in certain clinical settings,'' she said. ''Vitamin D, for instance, is very important for bone health, and has been shown to augment the effects of antidepressants and mood stabilizers.''

Vegetarians, she said, might benefit from Vitamin B12 (not contained in plants), because it helps with nerve regrowth. Vitamin A could help patients with macular degeneration. Most people without diagnosed medical conditions, she said, can forego vitamins altogether and ''just eat food of every type and coloUr.''

Deborah Estrin, professor of computer science at Cornell Tech, talked about how to personalize health care. ''Many people can't do anything to change the environment where they live, but we can, if we want, change health behavioUr. And we can also begin to use tools to pay more attention to how different medications or treatment regimens are working for us and to give better information to our clinicians as they care for us.''

Medically oriented apps on smartphones, Estrin said, ''are the feedback loops of health. The way we use smartphones and wearable devices and our online behavior are all generating digital traces we call 'small data,''' she said. New apps document how users respond to medications or physical therapy. ''Now our behavior becomes data and is available for analysis.'' Small data, Estrin said, can detect early signs of Alzheimer's disease or whether arthritis is becoming more disabling.

From Cornell's Ithaca campus, associate professor of information science Tanzeem Choudhury also discussed technology in smartphones this time to detect mental illness. One system analyzes voice patterns from phone chatter. If that arouses concerns about privacy, Choudhury said, don't worry: Behavioral tracking is interested ''in how people speak, not what they're speaking about.''

Skirting physician-patient confidentiality issues because the life and personal habits of the late Helen ''Happy'' Reichert '25 were shared with Cornellians before she died at age 109 her geriatrician spilled the beans about the famous alumna's longevity.

Turns out Reichert had two important factors for longevity, said Dr. Mark S. Lachs, professor of medicine and co-chief of WCMC's Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology. Drinking red wine wasn't one of them but financial resources and good genes were.

''Wealth is one of the most compelling risk factors for longevity. Probably not wealth itself, but the things that got you wealthy in the first place, like locus-of-control and mastery and other things my psychology colleagues talk about. But Helen also had a longevity gene,'' and he described recent studies showing that's what keeps age 95-plus people ticking.

For people with longevity genes, Lachs said, ''the usual rules don't apply: They're not especially active Helen said she had never been to a gym in her life and never took supplements, other than a Budweiser at night.

''At 101 she told me she was thinking of taking up smoking. I said, 'Helen, that's probably not a good idea.' She said, 'Mark, I outlived several primary care doctors; I plan to outlive you!'''

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