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How to stay strong and coordinated as you age

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So many physical abilities decline with normal aging, including strength, swiftness, and stamina. In addition to these muscle-related declines, there are also changes that occur in coordinating the movements of the body. Together, these changes mean that as you age, you may not be able to perform activities such as running to catch a bus, walking around the garden, carrying groceries into the house, keeping your balance on a slippery surface, or playing catch with your grandchildren as well as you used to. But do these activities have to deteriorate? Let’s look at why these declines happen — and what you can do to actually improve your strength and coordination.

Changes in strength

Changes in strength, swiftness, and stamina with age are all associated with decreasing muscle mass. Although there is not much decline in your muscles between ages 20 and 40, after age 40 there can be a decline of 1% to 2% per year in lean body mass and 1.5% to 5% per year in strength.

The loss of muscle mass is related to both a reduced number of muscle fibers and a reduction in fiber size. If the fibers become too small, they die. Fast-twitch muscle fibers shrink and die more rapidly than others, leading to a loss of muscle speed. In addition, the capacity for muscles to undergo repair also diminishes with age. One cause of these changes is decline in muscle-building hormones and growth factors including testosterone, estrogen, dehydroepiandrosterone (better known as DHEA), growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor.

Changes in coordination

Changes in coordination are less related to muscles and more related to the brain and nervous system. Multiple brain centers need to be, well, coordinated to allow you to do everything from hitting a golf ball to keeping a coffee cup steady as you walk across a room. This means that the wiring of the brain, the so-called white matter that connects the different brain regions, is crucial.

Unfortunately, most people in our society over age 60 who eat a western diet and don’t get enough exercise have some tiny "ministrokes" (also called microvascular or small vessel disease) in their white matter. Although the strokes are so small that they are not noticeable when they occur, they can disrupt the connections between important brain coordination centers such as the frontal lobe (which directs movements) and the cerebellum (which provides on-the-fly corrections to those movements as needed).

In addition, losing dopamine-producing cells is common as you get older, which can slow down your movements and reduce your coordination, so even if you don’t develop Parkinson’s disease, many people develop some of the abnormalities in movement seen in Parkinson's.

Lastly, changes in vision — the "eye" side of hand-eye coordination — are also important. Eye diseases are much more common in older adults, including cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration. In addition, mild difficulty seeing can be the first sign of cognitive disorders of aging, including Lewy body disease and Alzheimer’s.

How to improve your strength and coordination

It turns out that one of the most important causes of reduced strength and coordination with aging is simply reduced levels of physical activity. There is a myth in our society that it is fine to do progressively less exercise the older you get. The truth is just the opposite! As you age, it becomes more important to exercise regularly — perhaps even increasing the amount of time you spend exercising to compensate for bodily changes in hormones and other factors that you cannot control. The good news is that participating in exercises to improve strength and coordination can help people of any age. (Note, however, that you may need to be more careful with your exercise activities as you age to prevent injuries. If you’re not sure what the best types of exercises are for you, ask your doctor or a physical therapist.)

Here are some things you can do to improve your strength and coordination, whether you are 18 or 88 years old:

  • Participate in aerobic exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, biking, swimming, or aerobic classes at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week.
  • Participate in exercise that helps with strength, balance, and flexibility at least two hours per week, such as yoga, tai chi, Pilates, and isometric weightlifting.
  • Practice sports that you want to improve at, such as golf, tennis, and basketball.
  • Take advantage of lessons from teachers and advice from coaches and trainers to improve your exercise skills.
  • Work with your doctor to treat diseases that can interfere with your ability to exercise, including orthopedic injuries, cataracts and other eye problems, and Parkinson’s and other movement disorders.
  • Fuel your brain and muscles with a Mediterranean menu of foods including fish, olive oil, avocados, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, whole grains, and poultry. Eat other foods sparingly.
  • Sleep well — you can actually improve your skills overnight while you are sleeping.

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Harvard Health Ad Watch: An upbeat ad for a psoriasis treatment

Psoriasis is a chronic disease in which skin cells rapidly divide, causing the skin to develop rough, red, scaly patches. Plaque psoriasis is the most common form: affected skin has sharply defined, inflamed patches (plaques) with silvery or white scales, often near an elbow or on the shins and trunk.

The cause of psoriasis isn’t known, but there are a number of treatment options. Possibly you’ve seen a glossy, happy ad for one of these treatments, a drug called Skyrizi. It’s been in heavy rotation and in 2020, hit number four on a top 10 list for ad spending by a drug company.

Splashing in blue water

A woman in a bathing suit sprints down a dock and jumps into the water with several friends. There’s lots of smiling and splashing. A voiceover says “I have moderate to severe plaque psoriasis. Now, there’s Skyrizi. Three out of four people achieved 90% clearer skin at four months after just two doses.”

Then, the voiceover moves to warning mode: “Skyrizi may increase your risk of infections and lower your ability to fight them. Before treatment your doctor should check you for infections and tuberculosis. Tell your doctor if you have an infection or symptoms such as fever, sweats, chills, muscle aches, or cough, or if you plan to or recently received a vaccine.”

As these warnings are delivered, we’re treated to uplifting pop music — “nothing is everything,” a woman sings — while attractive young people flail about in the water.

“Ask your doctor about Skyrizi,” a voice instructs. Did I mention a plane is skywriting the drug’s logo? I guess it’s putting the “sky” in Skyrizi.

What is Skyrizi?

Skyrizi (risankizumab) is an injectable medication that counteracts interleukin-23, a chemical messenger closely involved in the development of psoriasis. The standard dosing is two injections to start, followed a month later by two injections once a month, and then two injections once every three months.

Did you catch that “injectable” part? This is not a pill. If you missed that point while watching the commercial, it’s not your fault. The word “injection” appears once, written in faint letters at the very end of the commercial.

By the way, the FDA has only approved this drug for moderate to severe — not mild — plaque psoriasis. The studies earning approval enrolled people with psoriasis on at least 10% of their skin and two separate measures of severity.

What the ad gets right

  • The ad states that 75% of people with moderate to severe psoriasis experienced 90% clearance of their rash within four months after only two doses of Skyrizi. This reflects the findings of research studies (such as this one) that led to the drug’s approval.
  • The recommendations regarding screening for infections (including tuberculosis) and telling your doctor if you’ve gotten a recent vaccine are appropriate and should be standard practice. By lowering the ability to fight infection, this drug can make current infections worse. It may reduce the benefit of certain vaccines, or increase the risk of infection when a person gets a certain type of vaccine called a live-attenuated vaccine.

And the theme song? People with visible psoriasis often cover up their skin due to embarrassment or stigma. The rash isn’t a contagious infection or a reflection of poor health, but other people may react as if it is. So, an effective treatment could potentially allow some to forego covering up and show more skin: it means “everything” to someone suffering with psoriasis to cover “nothing.” Thus, a theme song is born.

What else do you need to know?

A few things about this ad may be confusing or incomplete, including:

  • Currently, each dose of Skyrizi is actually two injections. So, a more accurate way to summarize its effectiveness would be to say that improvement occurred within four months after four injections (rather than “just two doses”).
  • Like most newer injectable medications, this one is quite expensive: a year's supply could cost nearly $70,000. The drug maker offers a patient assistance program for people with low income or limited health insurance, but not everyone qualifies. Health insurance plans generally require justification from your doctor for medications like Skyrizi, and your insurer may decide not to cover it. Even if covered, this prior approval process can delay starting the medication, which may still be expensive due to copays and/or deductibles.
  • There is no mention of the many other options to treat psoriasis, some of which are far less costly. These include medications that do not have to be injected (such as oral methotrexate or apremilast), and UV light therapy (phototherapy). And there are other injectable medications. So, ask your doctor about the best options for you.

The bottom line

Some people appreciate the information provided by medication ads. Others favor a ban on such advertising, as is the case in most other countries. And recently, two advocacy groups asked the FDA not to allow drug ads to play music when the risks of drug side effects are presented, arguing that it distracts consumers from focusing on this important information.

Since these ads probably are not going away anytime soon, keep in mind that they may spin information in a positive light and leave out other important information altogether. So, be skeptical and ask questions. Get your medication information from your doctor or another unbiased, authoritative source, not a company selling a product.

Regardless of how you feel about medical advertising, it’s hard to hate the Skyrizi theme song. Feel free to sing along.