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September 24th, 2008
11:35 AM ET

Keeping your drive alive

By Sabriya Rice
CNN Medical Associate Producer

My 85-year-old grandfather is making a transition from a life of preparing taxes to a life less taxing. After living in the same New York apartment for 56 years, he's moving to Florida. Though diabetes has affected his vision, and he's struggling with a leg injury he suffered during World War II,* mostly he's as healthy as a horse. But because of his age, our family was naturally starting to worry about him living alone.

The move wouldn't be unusual except one of my grandfather's mottos in life has always been "If you stop, you die." And in a sense, he is stopping. After more than a half of century working as a self-employed tax preparer, remaining an active community leader and a regular attendee at a historic Baptist church in Harlem, he's giving it all up to, as he says, "twiddle his thumbs."

He's excited about relaxing, and will be in good hands with people who love him. But I can't help but wonder how the transition will affect his health. What if he starts to view himself as "old" – which is something he has never done? I turned to some experts for guidance.

According to Dr. James Lah, a neurologist at Emory University, my concern is legitimate. He says one of the biggest hazards after retirement, whether at age 55 or 85, is that people lose what has been for years a "routine of stimulating activities." The worst thing you can do when you retire, is to "retire." For the elderly, organized senior communities are great in the absence of extended family. But no matter where you go, Lah says, the most important thing is to set up a schedule – a daily routine – to help maintain mental activity and purpose.

This sentiment is shared by Dan Buettner, a longevity explorer and author of the book “The Blue Zone” (www.bluezones.com). He says many of the world's longest-living people share a concept known in Japan as an ikigai, or a sense of purpose. Buettner offers the examples of a 103 year-old Costa Rican man whose daily task is to prepare soup for the entire family, and a 104-year-old woman in Loma Linda, California, who makes it a priority to collect and recycle cans from her neighbors. It may sound obvious, but "feeling needed" can add extra years to your life.

Simply put, having a sense of purpose gives you something to live for. And as both Buettner and Lah agree, some of the residual effects of having that purpose are: remaining vigilant about general health, taking medications and eating well.

So, as my grandfather starts anew in the Sunshine State, I am comforted knowing the change doesn't mean the end. He won't really just "twiddle his thumbs." In fact he already has the next few months booked, and may be able to squeeze me in only around December. Unless, of course, he goes on that cruise he's planning.

Have you ever had a similar concern? What sense of purpose keeps you going?

*He suffered the leg injury on February 6, 1945, deactivating bombs during World War II. He served as a sergeant with the 113th Engineering Battalion. Did I mention – his memory is impeccable?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


August 4th, 2008
10:19 AM ET

The smoky truth on hookahs

By Sabriya Rice
Medical Associate Producer

Over the weekend, I went to a Greek bistro with friends and immediately noticed the lovely, fruity smell filling the room. That's when I saw an oddly shaped, smoky gadget passing from person to person. The hookah. I'm not a smoker, and really didn't think twice about it until the hookah passed by my table and several people adamantly insisted I have a puff.  When I mentioned I am training for a half-marathon and, for the sake of my lungs, I would have to decline, I was told "Relax!"  Followed unanimously by, "It's healthy and it doesn't do damage like smoking cigarettes!" Since the aroma didn't jar in me the same "ick" reaction cigarette smoke often does, I was tempted to believe them. I declined but the journalist in me naturally wanted more information.

The hookah has been used for centuries, particularly across regions of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as a means of smoking tobacco. It is essentially a water pipe, and many believe the water helps filter out the toxins from the tobacco.  Some historians believe the myth of the healthy hookah started more than 500 years ago, when an Indian physician offered the idea, essentially, as a means of boosting sales for his new device. Alas, despite its alluring, fruity aroma, the truth is, smoking the hookah is no safer than smoking cigarettes. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, hookah use carries many of the same risks as cigarette smoking including: exposure to high levels of toxic compounds, increased risk of oral, esophageal and lung cancers, reduced lung function and decreased fertility.  In fact the World Health Organization estimates the typical one-hour session of hookah smoking exposes a person to almost 200 times the volume of smoke inhaled from a single cigarette. And sharing the hookah puts smokers at greater risk for transmission of diseases including tuberculosis and viruses like herpes and hepatitis. And yes, secondhand smoke from hookahs poses an equally serious risk to non-smokers like me.

I guess the moral of the story is, don't believe everything you hear. If you're going to smoke, no matter what the fashion, it's best to be aware of the consequences. As for me, if I'm going to choose my poison, as they say, I suppose I'll just stick to my chocolate addiction and to my own personal myth that eating tons of chocolate is actually good for me. The good thing though, is that my lungs will be healthy enough to actually run my half-marathon, and, I hope, curtail some of the negative effects of my vice.

Has this ever happened to you? Are there any practices people tell you are healthy, but you're not entirely convinced?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


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About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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