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Sharon Basaraba

Healthy Aging


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Electrical Stimulation for Paraplegics Holds Promise for Stroke Victims

Thursday April 10, 2014

A new study this week revealing that four paraplegic men were able to perform voluntary movements with their legs using an electrical stimulation device may eventually help older adults suffering paralysis from stroke or spinal cord injury.

The research, published online in the journal Brain, involved four men in their twenties who'd all been paralyzed for at least two years.  After electrodes were implanted just beneath the skin along the spinal cord, an electrical charge could be generated using a small wireless hand-held device, about the size of a TV remote.

Initially, the men were able to move their legs slightly, and with intensive physiotherapy to strengthen the muscles, have eventually been able to lift their legs and flex their knees and ankles on command.  No weight-bearing movements such as standing or walking have yet been possible.

Researcher and director of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation's NeuroRecovery Network Susan Harkema tells me that her team's discovery offers a viable alternative to the notion that nerve cells need to be revived and grown for spinal cord injury recovery.

"The vast majority of the current research - maybe 95% or more - is going into nerve regeneration.  While there have been significant advances in that area, our study shows that even below the site of the spinal cord injury, nerve cells may still be functioning years after the accident.  The spinal cord plays a bigger role in coordinating movement than we've ever thought, and we're learning that it may be as adaptable as the brain."

Harkema says that in the case of paralysis from stroke, more of the neurological system may be intact and ready to work than previously thought.  She believes that discovering how to get electrical impulses to those undamaged areas is an important new challenge to help stroke patients, and also for older people injured through falls or other accidents.

Research from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine published in the Journal of Neurotrauma in early 2014 found that falls among older adults now constitute the most common cause of spinal cord injuries, overtaking car accidents as a contributing factor. While we usually cite the mortality rate after a hip fracture, a spinal cord injury also carries serious risks to health, mobility and longevity of older adults.


Read more:


Claudia A Angeli, V Reggie Edgerton, Yury P Gerasimenko, and Susan J Harkema. "Altering Spinal Cord Excitability Enables Voluntary Movements After Chronic Complete Paralysis in Humans." Brain 2014. doi: 10.1093/brain/awu038.

Shalini Selvarajah, Edward R. Hammond, Adil H. Haide et al. "The Burden of Acute Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury Among Adults in the United States: An Update." Journal of Neurotrauma 31:228-238 (February 1, 2014).

Nerve Stimulation Trial Launched for Tinnitus Treatment

Monday March 31, 2014

Getty tinnitus

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) are recruiting participants who suffer from tinnitus, as part of a small clinical trial to assess a treatment to reduce or eliminate the sometimes debilitating condition.

Tinnitus is a persistent ringing or hissing in the ears, and tends to be more prevalent with age. Along with many other changes the body undergoes with time, cumulative damage to hearing can result in a faulty neural pathway, resulting in hearing sounds that do not exist. Tinnitus can manifest as chirping, clicking, or roaring sounds - all of which can impede concentration and sleep.

The new study will assess the effectiveness of a technique which aims to "reboot" the way the brain perceives sound at certain frequencies. The procedure uses vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) and was developed by researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas and a medical device firm MicroTransponder.  The trial will be based in four locations:  the University of Texas at Dallas, the University at Buffalo (SUNY), Buffalo; and the University of Iowa, Iowa City, with a fourth site to be announced in the near future.

You can read more about the technology, in my article Is There a Cure for Tinnitus?.

For more information, see the study's website here.


"NIH announces recruitment for clinical trial to test new tinnitus treatment device." Press release dated March 6, 2014.

Migraine Headband Approved by FDA Already in Canada and Europe

Tuesday March 18, 2014

A battery-operated device which aims to prevent the severe pain of migraine headaches has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but it has already amassed a following in some European countries and Canada.

The Cefaly -a headband which attaches to a self-adhesive electrode onto the forehead - is designed to deliver mild electrical impulses through the skin to the trigeminal nerve, thought to be a neurological player in migraines.

It's the first device ever to be approved by the FDA to prevent migraines, and will require a prescription in that country.  In Canada no medical prescription is required, a factor prompting some Americans to order the Cefaly online from their northern neighbor.

Will it prevent migraines, or make them less intense for you?  Hard to say.  A satisfaction survey of more than 2,300 users in France, Belgium and Switzerland revealed that only 53.4% of respondents would purchase their own device for continued use.  And while a small study conducted in Belgium showed people using the Cefaly benefited from "significantly fewer" days of migraine pain (requiring less medication), the headaches which did occur were not less intense as reported by the subjects.

Still, in a world where it's tough to avoid migraine triggers, and not all remedies work all of the time, many adults battling these debilitating headaches might feel that anything is worth a try.

Read my full article

Can You Unplug?

Friday March 7, 2014


It may be harder than it sounds: from sundown today to sundown tomorrow, the organizers of the National Day of Unplugging urge you to disconnect, detach, and generally extract yourself from the electronics which rule our daily lives.

In an age of hyperconnectivity, more people are attempting to find some peace away from their tablets, laptops and smartphones.  Multi-tasking to the extreme, beleaguered employees are finding themselves anxious and stressed, rather than flush with the extra leisure time these technological devices were supposed to bring.

An antidote to this fractured attention?  Mindfulness meditation - a simple but profound practice which encourages us to simply observe our thoughts in the moment, and accept our current frame of mind.  Even brief periods of so-called mindfulness can help you calm down and be less reactive to the emotions triggered by the aggressive driver behind you, or the slow-moving clerk at the grocery checkout.

Stress is a major reason that baby boomers rank lower on the health scale than their parents' generation did, at the same age, despite our current knowledge about fitness, healthy lifestyle and anti-aging diet rules.  Mindfulness training may offer a hedge against the dangers of ongoing stress, by offering a "mini-vacation" for your psyche.

It's enough of a health concern that corporations like General Mills are adopting mindfulness programs for their employees to reduce stress, absenteeism, and improve productivity and creativity, according to a cover story in last month's Time magazine.

Unplugging is one route; why not try it for a day?  If you've only got a few minutes, here's a mini-meditation to sample.  See if it wins you over! (Hint: it may even help you live longer).

It's 3 am - Now What?

Friday February 28, 2014

One of the most frustrating side effects of getting older is the extent to which sleep can be fractured. Staying asleep - even for people who have no trouble actually falling asleep - becomes a nightly challenge for many.

How can you manage this, and still feel well-rested in the morning? Many sleep experts advise getting out of bed in order to read or listen to music, to avoid turning your bed into a stress-ridden bastion of sleep performance anxiety.

I've never found this approach to be effective for me, however. So-called "morning people" (and I am one) just wake up too thoroughly once out of bed, whether it's 3 am or 7 am. Instead, I have through trial and error developed some techniques of my own, and benefited from those recommended by sleep doctors such as practicing meditation or relaxation exercises.

Ice: A Winter Walker's Enemy

Thursday February 27, 2014

Street ice

Sharon Basaraba

For an avid walker, ice on roads and pathways can really get in the way.  I live in Calgary and this year we've seen an unprecedented number of falls within the community.  While living near the mountains always creates a freeze-thaw cycle that repeats several times over the winter, the temperature has really jumped up and down more than usual this year.  With every big melt comes a rapid freeze, creating skating rink conditions on city sidewalks and streets.

In one 48-hour period, thirty people fell and suffered injuries requiring emergency medical care, with broken limbs occurring at triple the seasonal average.  Some seniors' homes were advising their residents not to walk outdoors at all.  Indeed, falls are the top cause of injury and injury-related deaths in people over the age of 65, and the effects can be disastrous.

So, I've researched tips on how to walk safely in winter conditions! Not only should you be careful to dress for the weather to avoid getting too cold, proper footwear and technique can help keep you vertical on icy surfaces.  This is the time to wear your flat, supportive shoes rather than boots with smooth soles and spiked heels.  Think stability over fashion.

Above all, don't stay inside if at all possible.  Enlist the help of a supportive friend or family member.  Being outside is good for your morale, your health, and is likely to help you continue exercising more regularly.  Just make sure you do it safely.

Read more: Winter walking tips

Me and My Nike FuelBand

Saturday February 22, 2014

Nike FuelBand

Like many people, I recently asked myself how much daily movement I was getting, over and above the time I spent exercising at the gym.  A traditional step-counting pedometer could tell me how many steps I logged each day - and according to a 2007 study might succeed in giving me that motivational push to take more steps.  Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the research found a strong link between regular pedometer use and lower Body Mass Index, lower blood pressure and more physical activity in general.

Still, I have always found step counters to be cumbersome: they bulge out under my shirt, and inevitably they fall on the floor or worse, into the toilet.  I decided I'd rather wear something on my wrist than on my waistband, to register not only my daily steps but all movement.

Based in part on our Walking Expert's review of the Nike FuelBand SE, I decided on this model.  I knew I would like the visual readout, not to mention the fireworks display when I hit my daily goal.  Nike's "fuel" reading took some getting used to (1 point of fuel = roughly 3 steps) and I had to return it to the store once in order to get the right size.  But overall, even though there's very little independent research on these wearable trackers, I have found the Fuelband motivates me to get moving.  When else have I been on the phone at 11pm, walking around the living room to log some last movement of the day in order to hit my goal?

Research is pending on the accuracy and motivational power of digital activity monitors.  I suspect they'll find that for people who pick an achievable goal and stick with it, these little devices will prompt them to sit less and move more during the day.

Read my full articles:

Compare prices on the Nike FuelBand


Dena M. Bravata, Crystal Smith-Spangler, Vandana Sundaram, Allison L. Gienger, et al. "Using Pedometers to Increase Physical Activity and Improve Health: A Systematic Review." JAMA. 2007;298(19):2296-2304.

Falls More Dangerous Than Car Crashes for Seniors' Spines

Wednesday January 29, 2014

New research out of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine has found that spinal cord injury rates are rising among seniors.  In fact, falls appear to be a greater cause of these injuries than traffic accidents - a switch from past trends.

Injuries from falls: Falls in older adults represent a serious threat to their health and independence; a person with a hip fracture, for example, has twice the mortality risk in the first year after suffering the break.  But spinal cord injuries also pose a danger, according to the study.  It found that seniors with spinal cord injuries are four times more likely to die from those injuries than younger adults.

Published in the Journal of Neurotrauma, the research found that 41.5% of spinal cord injuries were caused by falls between 2007 and 2009, while traffic accidents caused only 35.5% of the injuries recorded in the same period.  The scientists speculate that safer driving laws may account for the drop in injuries from car crashes, but call for more programs to prevent dangerous falls among seniors.



Shalini Selvarajah, Edward R. Hammond, Adil H. Haide et al. "The Burden of Acute Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury Among Adults in the United States: An Update." Journal of Neurotrauma 31:228-238 (February 1, 2014).

104-Year-Old Sets World Swimming Records

Sunday January 26, 2014

How's this for an inspirational story: at the tender age of 104, masters athlete Jaring Timmerman of Winnipeg, Canada set two world records on January 24, 2014.  By finishing the 50-metre freestyle and 50-metre backstroke races, he swam into the world record books.

Timmerman began competitive swimming late - at the age of 79 - and holds four world records in the oldest existing category, 100-104 years.  On Friday night he clocked a personal best in backstroke, completing the race (though not winning it) with a time of 3:09:55.  Family members, friends and news media were there to cheer him on.

For the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) reporter Karen Paul's report, click here.

Stay Safe in the Bitter Cold

Monday January 6, 2014


Blend Images - Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

With wind chills down to -40 and - 50 degrees (converging on the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales) raging across central and eastern North America, weather-battered residents are trying their best to stay warm.  The challenges and dangers of bitterly cold temperatures are even greater because of power outages in many regions.

While everyone is at risk of getting too cold in frigid temperatures, seniors are especially vulnerable to dangerous hypothermia - a potentially life-threatening condition of a dropping core temperature.  Aging skin doesn't regulate internal temperature as well, and less insulating fat on your body, certain medications for many age-related diseases, along with other health problems can make it tough to stay warm or even realize you're getting too cold.  Hypothermia can even happen indoors.

How to avoid hypothermia: When possible, avoid going outdoors in extremely cold or windy days, as wind cools the skin more rapidly.  Wear several loose layers to trap heat rather than constricting clothing, and keep skin covered.  If you live alone, make sure you know the signs of hypothermia, such as slurred speech, or confusion.  Have a friend or family member check on you regularly or consider moving in with someone else for the duration of the severely cold weather - especially if there's a risk of a power outage.

Finally, take care with space heaters by keeping them away from drapery, paper and other flammable items.  Make sure your carbon monoxide monitor is working, to avoid poisoning.

For more information on why older people are at greater risk of hypothermia, see my article here.


Hypothermia: A Cold Weather Hazard. US NIH National Institute on Aging Public Information Sheet. Accessed January 6, 2014.

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