The Healthy Geezer
Q: I heard a comedian make a reference to “shingles” as if there was something funny about it. I had shingles and I didn’t find any humor in the experience. Am I missing something?
A: Shingles is a painful skin disease caused by the chickenpox virus awakening from a dormant state to attack your body again. Some people report fever and weakness when the disease starts. Within two to three days, a red, blotchy rash develops. The rash erupts into small blisters that look like chickenpox. And it’s very painful.
Does this sound funny? I don’t think so…
Anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles. Half of all Americans will get shingles by the time they are eighty. Shingles occurs in people of all ages, but it is most common in people between sixty and eighty. Each year, about 600,000 Americans are diagnosed with shingles.
The virus that causes chickenpox and shingles remains in your body for life. It stays inactive until a period when your immunity is down. And, when you’re older, your defenses ain’t what they used to be.
The inactive virus rests in nerve cells near the spine. When it reactivates, it follows a single nerve path to the skin. The shingles rash helps with its diagnosis; the rash erupts in a belt-like pattern on only one side of the body, or it appears on one side of the face. It usually begins as a patch of red dots which become blisters.
Physicians treat shingles with antiviral and pain medications. The antivirals don’t cure shingles, but they weaken the virus, reduce the pain, and accelerate healing. The antiviral medications work faster if they are started early—within seventy-two hours from the appearance of the rash.
The disease’s name comes from the Latin word cingulum, which means belt. The virus that causes shingles is varicella-zoster, which combines the Latin word for little pox with the Greek word for girdle. In Italy, shingles is often called “St. Anthony’s fire.“
If you have had chickenpox, shingles is not contagious. If you have never had chickenpox, you can catch the virus from contacting the fluid in shingles blisters. However, you will not get shingles, but you could get chickenpox.
The pain of shingles can be severe. If it is strong and lasts for months or years, it is called post-herpetic neuralgia. Persistent pain is a common symptom in people over sixty. However, most victims of shingles overcome their symptoms in about a month. And the odds are against them getting shingles again.
Outbreaks that start on the face or eyes can cause vision or hearing problems. Even permanent blindness can result if the cornea of the eye is affected. In patients with immune deficiency, the rash can be much more extensive than usual and the illness can be complicated by pneumonia. These cases, while more serious, are rarely fatal.
There is a vaccine for shingles. It is Zostavax, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in people sixty years old and older to prevent shingles. Zostavax does not treat shingles or post-herpetic neuralgia once it develops.
In a clinical trial involving thousands of adults sixty years old or older, Zostavax prevented shingles in about half of the people and post-herpetic neuralgia in sixty-seven percent of the study participants. While the vaccine was most effective in people sixty to sixty-nine years old, it also provided some protection for older groups.
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Social networking is essential for women
When we think of social networking, we often picture teenage kids gabbing in online chat rooms, young singles seeking other young singles, or first-time mothers sharing advice with other moms. But the fastest-growing group of folks turning to the Internet to connect, share information, and support each other is baby boomer women.
The talk taking place online for this forty-four- to sixty-two-year-old age group goes beyond, “Hey, are you feeling those hot flashes?” Baby boomer women are talking finance, retirement, ways to reinvent themselves, and how to stay healthy for their children and grandchildren.
Several years ago, I found myself in a rut. My mother had just died. And I was facing an empty nest at home, as my kids had all gone off to college. I needed guidance for what to do next with my life. I soon realized that there were more than forty million other baby boomer women in America, many of whom were feeling the exact same sense of aimlessness.
Like me, this community was digitally savvy, and hungry to connect. I decided to start my own site dedicated to boomer women called National Association of Baby Boomer Women (www.NABBW.com).
Since launching the site, I’ve learned so much simply by connecting baby boomer women to one another and giving them a place to share their stories and support each other. We live longer, are wealthier, and are better educated than our predecessors. We’ve become a key demographic segment for online marketing. According to data reported on Brandweek.com, forty-one percent of boomers visit social networking sites. Sixty-one percent of boomer Internet users visit sites that offer streaming and downloadable video. Baby boomers make up the web’s largest constituency, accounting for one-third of the 195.3 million web users in the United States.
Whether connecting to other women with similar interests and traveling together, exploring elder law, playing brain games to avoid dementia, or using a web cam to check in with the grandkids, it’s no longer a miracle when parents and grandparents use computers in their professional and private lives.
Social networking isn’t just a good idea, it’s scientifically proven. In fact, a UCLA study on friendship among women showed that when a woman is stressed, her body releases the hormone oxytocin, which encourages her to tend children and gather with other women. When she actually engages in this behavior, more oxytocin is released, which further counters stress and produces a calming effect.
Boomer women may need this calming effect as they weigh retirement against prolonged careers due to the economy or the desire to keep working. An AARP survey recently found that one in five boomer workers has stopped contributing to his or her 401(k) account. This year, the oldest boomer women are turning sixty-two and starting to receive Social Security.
Luckily, the closeness found among women online isn’t simply a superficial female emotion. It’s good business. According to Jennifer Kalita, our entrepreneurship expert on NABBW.com, “The beauty of boomer women in business is their collective spirit of collaboration. Rather than being intimidated by a potential business competitor, boomer women will often seek out ways to cross-promote, pool resources, and support one another.”
“A coffee break with a friend at work, a quick chat with a neighbor, a phone call to your sister, even a visit to church are all ways to reduce stress while fostering lasting relationships with the people close to you,” reports Mayo Clinic research on Revolutionhealth.com.
Well, we always knew that. But the researchers at Mayo also found that connecting through a website provides added support to those who live in small towns, are living abroad, facing chronic illness, loss of a loved one, divorce, or other life changes.
Keep active during cold weather months
—Douglas H. Kirkpatrick, President of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG)
Get more exercise. It’s one of the most common healthy lifestyle recommendations that physicians give their patients—and for good reason. Regular physical activity can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, some cancers, Type II diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. It can improve your ability to perform daily tasks, keep you mentally sharp, and help you avoid injuries.
Unfortunately, fewer than half of Americans get enough exercise. ACOG recommends at least thirty minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days of the week to lower the risk of chronic disease, sixty minutes on most days of the week to maintain weight, and at least sixty to ninety minutes a day to maintain weight loss. Even if you can’t get a full workout in every day, any physical activity will make a difference. Try raking leaves, walking, bicycling, vacuuming, or taking the stairs.
Fight the urge to be a couch potato during the fall and winter months and get active. Remember that exercise can help you:
Boost your immunity. During cold and flu season, exercise can help you dodge the seasonal sniffles. Regular activity appears to boost the immune system, making it easier for your body to handle wintertime bugs. Flu vaccination and frequent hand- washing can also help keep you healthy.
Stave off holiday spread. The average American gains up to two pounds over the holidays—an amount that may seem insignificant on its own. But over the years, those pounds add up and can contribute to the twenty to thirty pounds that most Americans gain during adulthood. Exercise can help you balance the number of calories that you eat with the number of calories that you burn, so you can enjoy some treats without the negative consequences.
Have more energy. Late nights, gift shopping, additional social commitments—all of these factors can be a drain on your energy stores. Physical activity can reduce muscle tension and lead to better sleep and more energy.
Reduce stress and improve your mood. The shorter days of fall and winter cause some women to experience seasonal affective disorder, a condition marked by symptoms such as tiredness, irritability, cravings for complex carbohydrates (such as bread and pasta), and depression. For others, a hard day at work or holiday visits with family and friends cause stress and anxiety.
Exercise is one of the best natural antidepressants around and can help relieve stress and anxiety and improve your mood. It can induce a calming effect by raising body temperature and increasing blood flow to the brain. Exercise can also help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boost levels of the feel-good hormones, endorphins.
For more information, the ACOG patient education pamphlet “Exercise and Fitness” is available at www.acog.org/publications/patient_education.