Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Protect Seniors from Norovirus Illness

Gastrointestinal illnesses are most common during the cooler months of the year. Those suffering from the unpleasant symptoms sometimes report that they have a case of the “stomach flu,” but this term really isn’t accurate; “the flu” refers to respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses.
The most likely culprit in these illnesses is a class of germs called noroviruses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), illness from noroviruses strikes up to 21 million people in the U.S. each year. This very contagious illness causes an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. For most people, a bout of norovirus leads to, at worst, two or three very miserable days spent close to the bathroom. But for seniors, norovirus illness can be serious, even fatal.
How do people catch norovirus?
You may have read about outbreaks of norovirus on cruise ships, in college dormitories or in hospitals and nursing homes. This is because the virus spreads quickly in closed places. Unsafe food handling practices can also spread the virus, making it the most common cause of “food poisoning.” You also can catch the virus from contact with someone who has it, or by putting your hand in your mouth after you’ve touched a contaminated surface or object. Infected people can spread the virus even before symptoms begin, and even days after they are feeling better.
What are the symptoms of norovirus?
The signs of norovirus include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain. The symptoms usually strike suddenly. People who have contracted the virus also may experience fever, headache and body aches. These effects usually last for one to three days.
How is norovirus treated?
Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. If you or a loved one develops a norovirus infection, bed rest is recommended. Drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids that are lost from vomiting and diarrhea. The doctor may recommend certain types of fluids to help replace important nutrients and minerals.
Norovirus may cause dangerous dehydration, especially in children and older adults. If you or someone you are caring for is severely dehydrated, call the doctor. Hospitalization and intravenous fluids may be required. Symptoms of dehydration include:
  • Decreased urination
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Dizziness when standing up
How can we prevent norovirus infections?
There is currently no vaccine for norovirus. The best way to avoid catching and spreading it is to use effective handwashing practices. Wash your hands with soap and water before eating or preparing food, and after using the toilet. The CDC reports that alcohol-based sanitizers can be used in addition to handwashing, but they are not a substitute.
Safe food preparation is another important way to avoid contracting the virus. Wash fruits and vegetables, cook foods to the recommended temperature, and disinfect preparation surfaces with bleach-based cleaners. The CDC warns that noroviruses can survive temperatures as high as 140° F, which is higher than we tend to cook some foods.
If you are caring for a person who has norovirus, immediately remove and wash contaminated clothing and linens in hot water (above 140 degrees) with detergent at the maximum available cycle length and machine dry them. Wash your hands after handling soiled items.
For more information about preventing norovirus and protecting yourself while caring for a person who is ill with the virus, visit the CDC’s norovirus information resources (
This article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have questions about norovirus or resulting dehydration, call your healthcare provider.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Caregiving Grandparents Need Our Help

There’s a humorous old saying among grandparents: “If I had known how much fun grandkids were, I would have had them first!” This reflects the fact that grandparents enjoy many of the joys of having small children in their lives—with far fewer responsibilities.
But for some grandparents, this is not the case. We hear a lot about the Sandwich Generation—people who are not only caring for their children, but also are providing care for senior loved ones. We know that these caregivers are often busy and stressed. Yet few people are aware of another population of caregivers: According to Generations United, today 7.8 million American children live with grandparents, and 2.7 million grandparents are the primary caregiver for their grandchildren.
Grandparents may end up serving as the primary parent for their grandchildren when the children’s parents are deceased, or are unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility, due to military deployment, substance abuse, incarceration, or mental illness. Generations United reports that grandparent-headed households are profoundly underserved, and calls for improved support services.
“Children belong in families. When they cannot remain with their parents, the comfort of a grandparent, aunt or cousin eases the trauma of separation,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. “Compared to children in non-relative care, children being raised by relatives do better. They have more stability, are more likely to maintain connections with brothers and sisters and preserve their cultural heritage and community bonds. Supportive policies help give caregivers the tools they need to ensure children thrive.”
Raising small children when you’re older can be physically challenging. Grandparents may experience conflict with the children’s parents. Their careers can be impacted, and they face financial hardship. The children many have emotional and behavior challenges stemming from separation issues.
University of Washington Professor LaShawnDa Pittman studied a group of Chicago grandmothers, and released her findings in a recent issue of The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. Pittman reported that two-thirds of grandmother-headed households live at or below the federal poverty line, and often aren’t eligible for or aren’t able to access the services that could help them. “They fell through the cracks in ways that have real ramifications for them,” said Pittman.
Complicating the picture, financial and legal assistance to support these families often comes from both ends—senior service and child welfare services. Fortunately, some states are addressing this growing population through kinship navigator programs to help grandparents work through the complexities of accessing information and services to support themselves and their grandchildren.
Pittman found that the grandmothers she studied were resilient and determined. She reports, “Even though raising their grandchildren is really hard, they wouldn’t have it any other way. One of the big things I heard was ‘My grandbaby won’t end up in the system. If that means I’ve got to make these kind of sacrifices, that’s just what it’s going to be.’”
These grandparents do a world of good for their beloved grandchildren—and, according to Generations United, save taxpayers more than $6.5 billion each year by keeping children out of foster care. It’s time to advocate for the needs of these families who model the powerful benefits of love.
For More Information
Read Dr. Pittman’s study here.
Find a director of kinship navigator programs here.
Visit the Generations United website ( to find much more information about grandfamilies.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

For Many Seniors, Gluten-Free is Not “Just a Fad”

Once thought of as a childhood disorder, celiac disease now is recognized as common in older adults.
Celiac disease is an inherited digestive disorder that occurs in people who cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Most people easily digest gluten, the substance that gives elasticity to breads and other doughs. But when people with celiac disease consume foods containing gluten, their immune systems react by attacking the lining of the small intestine. This can lead to malnutrition, anemia, brittle bones and other health problems. When a person with gluten intolerance continues to eat foods containing the protein, their intestines can sustain further damage.
Doctors once thought that celiac disease only developed during childhood. But the National Institutes of Health now reports that the disease actually becomes more common as we grow older, and some people develop it quite late in life. Exactly why some individuals only develop the disease in their later years is not known.
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
According to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, seniors with celiac disease may experience one or several of these symptoms:
  • Anemia
  • Fatigue
  • Digestive problems, including stomach pain, gas and diarrhea
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Bone loss
  • Depression and anxiety
  • An itchy, blistering skin rash
  • Tingling or loss of sensation in fingers
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
Celiac disease can be challenging to diagnose in a patient of any age, because its symptoms are similar to those of other digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis and even chronic fatigue syndrome. Symptoms can be even more subtle in senior patients, who often exhibit only minor gastrointestinal signs. Doctors often diagnose the disease using a blood test or a biopsy of the small intestine or skin.
The correct diagnosis is important: Over time, celiac disease can lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis, liver diseases and cancers of the intestine. Some researchers have even suggested a link between dementia and celiac disease. The longer a person goes undiagnosed, the greater the chance of developing long-term complications.
How is celiac disease treated?
At present, there is only one treatment for celiac disease: following a gluten-free diet. This means choosing foods that do not contain wheat, rye or barley. Giving up bread is only the first step. Gluten is hidden in many products, and diligence is necessary to be sure a person with celiac disease isn’t consuming it unknowingly. Gluten can be found in cold cuts, soup, candy, soy sauce, even in lipstick and medications, so it’s important to read food labels carefully. Fortunately, since 2006 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has required food labels to clearly identify wheat products in the list of ingredients.
The good news is that today many products are available in gluten-free versions. Gluten-free restaurants are opening across the country, and other eateries are offering gluten-free menu items and information on their menus. Grocery stores stock a wider array of gluten-free products. Many churches even offer gluten-free communion wafers these days! Once patients stop eating foods that contain gluten, many notice improvement within a short time.
Switching to a gluten-free diet can be challenging for older adults. After enjoying wheat-containing favorites such as bread, pasta and pizza for many years, it can be hard to give them up. The tiny print on food labels can be hard to read. And when dining out, seniors may be hesitant to ask their server about menu ingredients. So physicians and families should provide support and encouragement as seniors are making the switch. A nutritionist who is familiar with the dietary issues of older adults can offer suggestions for delicious gluten-free meals and snacks that provide the nutrients seniors need.
For More Information
Visit the website of the National Institutes of Health Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign to find current, comprehensive, science-based information about the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease. The site also offers resources for following a gluten-free diet.
This article is not meant to replace the advice of your doctor. If you are experiencing digestive symptoms or are being treated for celiac disease, follow the advice of your doctor.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

More Good News About Coffee

The American Heart Association says regular consumption of the beloved beverage is linked to longevity.
Drinking a second or third cup of coffee may do more than get you through a long day—it may also reduce your risk of death from heart disease and other illnesses, says a study in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. In the study, people who regularly drank moderate amounts of coffee daily—fewer than 5 cups per day—experienced a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases, Type 2 diabetes and even suicide.
The benefit held true for drinking caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, suggesting it’s not just the caffeine providing health perks but possibly the naturally occurring chemical compounds in the coffee beans.
“Bioactive compounds in coffee reduce insulin resistance and systematic inflammation,” said the study’s first author Ming Ding, M.D., a doctoral student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, Massachusetts. “They might be responsible for the inverse association between coffee and mortality. However, more studies are needed to investigate the biological mechanisms producing these effects.”
The findings are based on data from three large ongoing studies: 74,890 women in the Nurses’ Health Study; 93,054 women in the Nurses’ Health Study 2; and 40,557 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. Researchers assessed coffee drinking every four years using validated food questionnaires and followed participants for up to 30 years.
“Regular consumption of coffee can be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet,” said senior author Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., a Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology at Harvard. “However, certain populations such as pregnant women and children should be cautious about high caffeine intake from coffee or other beverages.”
The study was not designed to show a direct cause and effect relationship between coffee consumption and dying from illness. So the findings should be interpreted with caution, researchers said. One potential drawback of the study design was that participants were asked to report how much coffee they drank; however, researchers found the assessment to be reliable.
Previous studies found inconsistent associations between coffee drinking and risk of total and cause-specific death. This study adds to the literature that moderate coffee consumption may confer health benefits. However, more research is needed to determine how coffee affects the body and whether different types of coffee may play a role.
Source: The American Heart Association ( The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. You can read the entire study here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Improve Memory By Spring Cleaning Your Mind

Those little memory lapses we experience as we grow older can worry us. We’re introduced to someone but promptly forget their name. We look all over the place for our reading glasses, only to realize they are perched on our head. We save a document, but forget into which folder.
We might joke about “senior moments,” but of course, we worry. Could we be developing Alzheimer’s disease or another condition that affects our thinking and memory? The good news is, in most cases, memory lapses like this are perfectly normal as we grow older, representing an age-related change in memory function that begins around age 40. And we can take comfort in the fact that, in some respects, older brains are even more competent, with more of the qualities that we think of as “wisdom.”
Part of the problem, say experts, is that we simply have more information stored in our brains! It takes a little longer to find a piece of information as we accumulated a lifetime of memories.
Another change to be aware of is that our brains are less able to filter out “static” and clear out previous memories as we grow older. Multitasking becomes more challenging. An experiment performed by Concordia University in Quebec asked older and younger test subjects to perform a working memory task that included recalling and processing different pieces of information. Participants were shown a set of images and instructed to respond to each image in a certain way. The younger participants outperformed their older counterparts, because the seniors were more likely to offer the response that was appropriate to a previous image.
Head researcher Mervin Blair reported, “Basically, older adults are less able to keep irrelevant information out of their consciousness, which then impacts other mental abilities.”
What can seniors do to enhance short-term memory? Blair, who is now serving as a neuropsychology fellow at Parkwood Hospital in Ontario, suggested that focusing and reducing “mental clutter” may help. “Reduce clutter,” he said. “If you don’t, you may not get anything done.”
Here are five techniques that can help clear the clutter:
  1. Practice “mindfulness.” Take a class in meditation, listen to a relaxation tape, or try yoga or tai chi. These techniques can help even chronic multitaskers turn off a racing mind and focus better on one thought at a time.
  2. Turn off your gadgets. Nothing overloads our brains so much as our little electronic leashes that interrupt us in the middle of one task to focus on another. Go ahead, power down your smartphone for an hour—you’ll survive! And unless you are really paying attention, turn off the TV and radio talk shows. There is no use in adding a competing information stream.
  3. Listen to music to relax. Music can help us banish unwanted thoughts. To promote a tranquil state of mind, pick music that is calming and soothing. No matter what type of music you like, there are choices that will help you unwind.  But here’s an important caveat: as we grow older, it’s harder to filter out background sounds. If you’re trying to concentrate on something, it’s probably best to turn off the music. Teens can study while music blares; older adults, not so much.
  4. Write things down and put them aside. Are you fretting about tomorrow’s tasks even though there is nothing you can do about them today? Do you work problems over and over in your mind, obsess about past events, or compile an ever-growing mental “to-do” list? Keep a notebook where you can write down the thoughts that are swirling around in your head. The list will still be there when you need it.
  5. Get some exercise and spend some time in nature. Physical activity is a great way to clear the mind, and spending time in green spaces provides a calming sense of perspective. Much research in “ecopsychology”—the relationship between human beings and the natural world—shows the benefits of being outdoors, whether it’s a walk in the woods or a cup of tea in the garden.
With a little practice, you’ll be able to move some of that useless clutter out of your mind, leaving room for things you really need.
If you continue to have concerns about your memory, be sure to discuss this with your healthcare provider. Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions allows for the best possible treatment to slow the progression of memory loss. And it’s important to rule out reversible conditions that affect the memory, such as depression, chronic stress or the side effects of medications.