Healthy Aging

Are there any natural remedies for hot flashes?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm afraid to take hormone therapy for my menopausal hot flashes. Are there any natural remedies that work?

DEAR READER: Natural remedies can help for hot flashes, but hormone therapy is helpful more often. For that reason, I'll come back to the pluses and minuses of hormone therapy after answering your question.

Can growth hormone help fight the effects of aging?

DEAR DOCTOR K: A friend of mine who is in her 70s is getting growth hormone shots. She says it fights aging. I'm dubious that anything can fight aging and worry about side effects. Am I just old-fashioned?

DEAR READER: Well, you certainly are right to ask these questions. If there was a treatment that could slow aging and was risk-free, I guess we'd all take it.

What is executive function?

DEAR DOCTOR K: An aging friend was told he has problems with "executive function." So, of course, I'm wondering what that is, if I also could have that problem, and what can be done about it. Could you explain?

DEAR READER: Executive function refers to a set of mental attributes required to make choices, plan, initiate action and inhibit impulses. While "executive function" is a term used to describe attributes of business executives, it applies to everyone.

Should I change my foot care routine as I get older?

DEAR DOCTOR K: As I've entered my 60s, I've noticed that my toenails are thicker and the skin on my feet is drier. Should I change my foot care routine?

DEAR READER: Just like the rest of your body, your feet change with age. By age 50, you may have lost nearly half of the fatty padding on the soles of your feet. To compensate, you may want to add over-the-counter cushioning inserts to your shoes for additional padding.

What can we do to ease my mother’s transition to assisted living?

DEAR DOCTOR K: We've finally convinced my mother to move to an assisted living facility. After spending the past five decades in her current house, she is very nervous about the move. What can we, and she, do to make the transition easier?

DEAR READER: Assisted living facilities are designed for people who can't live on their own because they need help with the tasks of everyday living. The facilities generally provide meals, help with taking medication, housekeeping, laundry and activities. They are not meant for people who need round-the-clock nursing care.

Can brain stimulation devices help improve memory and thinking?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I saw an ad for something called a "tDCS brain-stimulating device." It supposedly helps improve memory and thinking. Is it worth a try?

DEAR READER: Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) transmits a current into the brain through electrodes (little metal plates) on the forehead or scalp. The current is weak; it comes from a 9-volt battery (the size used in a smoke detector). People who undergo tDCS may feel their scalp tingle and hear a humming noise. Doctors can control whether the current activates -- or suppresses -- the neurons in your brain that lie beneath the electrodes.

How can I stay as active as possible as I get older?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm in my 80s, and I've lost some mobility over the years. How can I continue to stay as active as possible?

DEAR READER: Most of us take for granted the stamina, strength, balance, coordination and range of motion needed to perform even simple acts such as getting out of bed, heading down the stairs and walking around the block. But when we lose these basic skills, we begin to understand how much of living well relies on being able to move.

Why is it so important we stay hydrated?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm in my 80s. At my last checkup, my doctor emphasized how important it is to stay hydrated. Can you explain why?

DEAR READER: Drinking fluids is crucial to staying healthy and maintaining the function of every system in your body. That includes your heart, brain and muscles. Among other things, fluids carry nutrients to your cells. They flush urine and bowel movements, both of which contain body wastes, out of your body. If you don't drink enough fluids, you run the risk of dehydration.

What is it about exercising that promotes good health?

DEAR DOCTOR K: You frequently write that exercising regularly may be the best thing you can do to improve your health. I don't doubt that's true. But have scientists figured out what it is about exercise that promotes health?

DEAR READER: You've asked a very interesting question. Perhaps you're thinking, as do some of my patients, that exercise leads the body to produce certain natural chemicals that promote health. And that if you could make pills out of those health-promoting chemicals, maybe you wouldn't need to exercise. Actually, research here at Harvard in the past few years may have made a step in that direction. The research is primarily in mice, but it probably applies in humans as well.

Can osteoporosis medications cause bone fractures?

DEAR DOCTOR K: I'm taking a pill for osteoporosis because my doctor says that stronger bones will reduce my risk of fractures. But a friend recently told me that some osteoporosis medicines actually cause fractures. Can you un-confuse me?

DEAR READER: I know what you're referring to, and it is confusing -- even for doctors. So let me try to make it less confusing. Osteoporosis does make your bones more susceptible to fractures, and a group of drugs called bisphosphonates do successfully treat osteoporosis. These drugs include alendronate (Fosamax), ibandronate (Boniva), risedronate (Actonel) and zoledronic acid (Reclast). People typically remain on these drugs for years.