Tag Archives: mukund acharya

Brain with symptoms of Dementia (Image by Natasha Connell from Unsplash)

Are Amma’s Memory Lapses Normal?

Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.

Amma is fiercely independent. “I’ll take care of myself as long as I can,” she insists. Living by herself, she manages all her needs. Not being a burden on others is a matter of pride for her, and we, her children, are really proud of her. A couple of months ago, however, we began to notice changes that made us uneasy. On a shopping trip one day, she couldn’t recollect why she’d come after we got to the store. Last month, after dinner at her home, she wondered aloud if she had taken her medicines, although we had seen her do so just fifteen minutes earlier. She asked me over a few days ago to help move some boxes but didn’t remember that when I got there. Were her memory lapses normal? She seemed just fine otherwise! 

We all forget things.  I thought I left the car keys right here, but I don’t see them now.  Did I lock the front door?  Did I turn off the stove?  It was really embarrassing – not remembering her name when she came up to say hello at the party last night. Memory lapses are commonplace, and we generally brush them off casually – even jokingly sometimes, saying “I had a senior moment,” implying that such behavior is associated with aging. However, it’s really important we learn to recognize when such incidents are not normal memory lapses, but signs of something more serious – signs of dementia.

Forgetfulness is often caused by normal, age-related memory loss. It can also result from lack of sleep, or be induced by stress or depression, even in younger people.  When it is part of a larger pattern, however, it could be a warning sign of dementia; an umbrella term that describes a collection of symptoms including changes in thinking, memory, or other cognitive functions. Dementia can be caused by a number of disorders that affect the brain such as Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, or Lewy Body disease – to name a few. People with dementia have significantly impaired intellectual functioning that interferes with normal activities and relationships.   

The Alzheimer’s Association provides a very useful guide to recognizing the 10 early signs or symptoms of dementia:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems.         
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks.
  4. Confusion with time or place.
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing.
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
  8. Decreased or poor judgment.
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities.
  10. Changes in mood and personality.

Here are some examples of such behavior:  Trouble balancing a checkbook. Forgetting dates and events. Repeating the same questions over again. Trouble following a recipe they’ve used for years. Difficulty concentrating or taking longer to do things than before. Remembering directions to a place they have visited often. Forgetting where they are or how they got there. Inability to keep up with a group conversation. Losing things and/or accusing others of stealing. Giving up hobbies and other regular activities. Losing interest in social activity. Experiencing sudden mood swings, or easily getting fearful or anxious. If you begin to see repeated patterns of these kinds of behavior in yourself, a family member, or a friend, do not ignore them!

A slight, but noticeable and measurable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills is called mild cognitive impairment or MCI. MCI usually does not significantly affect a person’s ability to carry out his or her daily activities, although you can usually spot its symptoms if you know what you are looking for.  An early diagnosis of MCI and identification of possible causes – such as the side effects of medication – is very important. People with MCI (this includes about 15-20% of seniors over 65) are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related diseases. Some in this population remain stable or get back to normal cognition if the underlying cause can be removed. In many cases, however, MCI is an early stage in the onset of Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related diseases. 

Alzheimer’s disease is one of several terminal, progressive brain disorders with no known cause or cure.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a few drugs for the treatment of its symptoms. However, memory, cognitive functions, and the ability to care for oneself continue to decline, until the individual has little awareness of his or her surroundings and requires round-the-clock supervision and care, including help with personal care and all other activities of daily living.

It’s therefore even more important to contact a doctor as early as possible for a thorough examination if a parent or other family member shows signs of cognitive impairment or dementia. A specialist in cognitive function can conduct a thorough examination and evaluation that includes physical exams, diagnostic imaging, and neuropsychological testing, to determine whether these are symptoms of normal aging, of MCI that is potentially reversible, or of a condition that will eventually progress to dementia.  There is no single definitive test; neurologists, geriatricians, and psychiatrists typically use a combination of tests and assessments in their diagnosis.

The statistics on dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are grim. Around 50 million people live worldwide today with dementia-related disorders. Alzheimer’s Association estimates that six million Americans currently live with Alzheimer’s, increasing to 13 million by 2050.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s related deaths increased by 16% during the current COVID pandemic.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks it the sixth leading cause of death in the United States; it kills more than breast and prostate cancers combined. Between 2000 and 2019, deaths from heart disease decreased by 7.3%, while Alzheimer’s related deaths increased by 145%. 15% of the population 70 and older has dementia. 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another dementia. Dementias will cost the US an estimated $355 billion this year, not accounting for more than 11 million people who provide unpaid care for family members or friends. 

This is a national and worldwide crisis, and we need to learn to recognize potential signs of dementia and act early if we see them.  We also need to learn how to deal with dementia.  A subsequent article will discuss what to do if Amma receives a dementia diagnosis.


Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement. Contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com


 

Melting Glacier (Image by Melissa Bradley at Unsplash)

Climate Change and…the Loss of Sukham?

Sukham Blog – A monthly column focused on South Asian health and wellbeing.

When I see or hear the words Climate Change, I conjure up mental images of global warming, rising temperatures, melting ice caps, rising ocean levels, increasing CO2 and methane emissions, more frequent extreme weather events such as flooding, drought, and wildfires, and our planet Earth rapidly becoming less habitable for present and future generations.  My mind does not turn immediately to the ongoing impact on human health, and the decreased quality of life that brings for people, something that is also happening today. Climate change is a big driver of poorer health and circumstance, resulting in hardship and loss of contentment – loss of Sukham for millions of our fellow human beings. Climate change and Sukham are intertwined.

We – the general public – need to be acutely aware of all the ways climate change can affect our health. We need to learn how we as individuals, as communities and as nations can respond.  Climate change as a current and future public-health crisis is not getting the attention it desperately needs. 

We often hear about the effects of air pollution on our respiratory system and eyes, and the need to take precautions, especially for those with asthma and other respiratory ailments. Plants produce pollen for longer periods in warmer conditions. Grass pollen and plant growth increase with increased carbon dioxide concentrations, causing longer and more intense allergy seasons. For some individuals, including this author, the allergy season now stretches from early spring into late fall.  In her 2019 Scientific American article, Emily Holden describes the associated worsening of respiratory illnesses and heart and lung disease. There are several other health impacts that we will discuss. However, climate change is not just making people sicker. Dr. Renee Salas, an Emergency Medical Physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School leads a working group of over 70 U.S. organizations, institutions, and centers working at the nexus of climate change and health. “The climate crisis is impacting not only health for our patients but the way we deliver care and our ability to do our jobs. And that’s happening today,” she says. For example, changing heat patterns affect the way in which prescription medicines work. Climate events impact the availability of critical medical supplies in hospitals. Disruption of electric power supply to homes, hospitals, and clinics puts the lives of patients at risk.  Evidence is mounting for decreased survival of cancer patients due to treatment disruption caused by extreme weather events.  These are just some of the ways the health care we receive is being impacted.

Climate Change CDC infographic
Climate Change Infographic (Image by the CDC)

The accompanying infographic from the National Center for Environmental Health at the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides an easy-to-understand overview of these health impacts of climate change.   Coupled with other natural and human-made health stressors, it influences human health and the spread of disease in a number of ways.  Physical, biological and ecological systems are impacted. The four primary manifestations of climate change are portrayed in the center of the graphic. Together, these manifestations drive eight primary responses: extreme heat, severe weather, air pollution, water quality, increasing allergens, environmental degradation, impacts on food and water supply, and changes in the ecology of vectors – agents such as mosquitoes, ticks, fleas, parasites and microbes, which carry and transmit infectious pathogens into other living organisms, thereby spreading a variety of diseases.  These eight primary responses in turn result in heat-related illnesses, asthma and respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, mental health impacts, forced migration, civil conflict, malnutrition, and a wide range of diseases ranging from diarrhea and cholera to malaria, dengue, chikungunya, and the West Nile virus. The complete list is frightening. 

The CDC points out that some of the existing health threats will intensify and new, as yet unknown health threats will emerge.  Some of these impacts are global, others are national and/or regional.  Children are disproportionately impacted by some of the health issues.  Health inequity puts parts of the population at higher risk, based on their age, economic status, geographic location, and access to resources. The U.S. Global Change Research Program published a detailed scientific assessment describing how climate change is already affecting humans, and what we may expect in the years to come. This is an excellent resource for those who want a deep dive on this subject.

What is being done about this public health crisis?  The US National Academy of Medicine (NAM) is leading the way in collaboration with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).  They are developing an initiative to comprehensively assess the health risks of climate change and develop strategies to address both drivers and impacts.  In October 2020, they announced the NAM Grand Challenge on Human Health and Climate Change.  This is a multi-year strategic initiative to develop public-private partnerships with three objectives:  develop a comprehensive and long-term roadmap for transforming systems — such as health care, transportation, infrastructure, or energy – which impact or are impacted by climate change, with a focus on human health, well-being, and equity; mobilize all actors and institutions in the health community; and launch a global competition to foster innovative interdisciplinary research and actionable solutions at the intersection of climate change and human health.  Several other private and governmental efforts are underway across the world.

What can you and I do to help?  Learn more about these impacts and the response.  Inform and educate our friends and family. Support ongoing efforts and advocate for local and national programs to combat it. We cannot afford to do nothing. The health and Sukham of our fellow humans and that of future generations are at stake!


Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death and bereavement. Contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com.


 

The Launch of Sandhya’s Touch

We are delighted to announce the launch of Sandhya’s Touch, a non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the quality of life of people dealing with chronic or serious illness. We do this by supporting projects that provide services, support and care that ease the burden of suffering for these patients and their families, and by sponsoring community education and outreach events that will result in better care and outcomes in such situations.

Dedicated to the memory of Sandhya Acharya who confronted cancer with amazing resilience and grace while bringing joy and support to her loved ones every day, Sandhya’s Touch forms partnerships with organizations and institutions in the community to meet its mission and objectives.

Two projects have been funded as of this launch date, a third is under active consideration, and four more projects are in the pipeline.

Please visit sandhyastouch.org for more details about our mission, leadership, partners and projects.  We welcome grant requests from established community organizations and institutions for projects that align with our mission. Projects must directly support people and families dealing with serious and chronic illness to improve the quality of their lives. For more details on how to apply, contact us at  info@sandhyastouch.org.

Your contributions will go a long way in helping us fulfill our mission and fund new projects. Please make a generous donation before year-end by going to the Donate page on our website!

Sandhya’s Touch is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization registered in the State of California. All donations are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Indian Led Bay Area Nonprofits Respond

The world as we knew it a few weeks ago has been turned on its head by the invasion of the alien virus we call COVID-19.  Normal activity has ceased over much of our globe; for a very large majority, being told to stay in place where they are and off the streets is tantamount to taking away their livelihood – it’s a sentence to starve. Many of our elderly need help to obtain food, medicine, and other essentials. The emotional impact has spared no one.  Mother Earth, it seems, has stopped processing, stopped spinning, and stopped orbiting; she is free-falling through space, trying to escape the bonds of gravity.

In any crisis, our humanity and community spirit take over. People jump in to help in any way they can.  Inventing new and creative solutions. Checking on each other. Making masks. Generating optimism and goodwill. Showing gratitude by banging pots and pans and cheering on the frontline medical workers as they put their own lives on the line to try and save others. Three Bay Area nonprofits exemplify this spirit. 

Sukham is an all-volunteer organization that advocates for healthy aging, living well and being prepared for life’s transitions in the Bay Area.  Under the leadership of one of its members Saroj Pathak, Sukham is pairing seniors with a younger volunteer living in the same area who could assist in shopping for groceries, picking up medicines or run other essential errands on a mutually agreed-upon schedule. They can also be that friendly voice that calls up to check in and say hello. If you or someon you know could use this service, inform Sukham or send them an email to sukhaminfo@gmail.com. Provide the name, address and phone number of the senior citizen needing assistance.

The Hindu Community Institute (HCI)  is a service-learning organization dedicated to serving the community by integrating contemporary knowledge, technologies and Hindu wisdom and traditions. Under the banner “Community for Immunity,” HCI – led by Board member Gaurav Rastogi – is now offering free daily online sessions for yoga and meditation via Zoom.  If social distancing is getting you down, or you are struggling to deal with self-isolation, do try out these sessions led by seasoned practitioners. Register at https://www.hinduci.org/online-yoga.  Special yoga sessions catering to seniors and kids are also available.

On a more somber note, HCI has prepared a Hindu last rites process checklist to assist those dealing with a death in the family to handle all the formalities in the current COVID-19 environment. They also offer families the option of talking to knowledgeable individuals who can offer guidance and counsel in their time of loss.  The checklist, as well as contact information for counselors, can be found at  https://www.hinduci.org/last-rites.

Indians for Collective Action (ICA) is a Bay Area nonprofit founded in 1968  to support sustainable development in India by partnering with dedicated non-government organizations (NGO’s) and individuals.  A core mission of ICA has been to help victims of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and drought. Now, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, ICA has organized the Forum initiative, a webinar and video-conference series that connects and enables nonprofits, partners, and interested individuals in India and the US to exchange ideas and share best practices as they bring help to India during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Forum is moderated by ICA’s Dr. Anju Sahay who can be reached at anjusahay@gmail.com. In the first webinar late last month, Snehalaya shared their approach to mobilize and distribute food and supplies to the needy slum dwellers and their plan to distribute food packages to 45000 people. Other projects being prioritized by ICA are listed on their website: https://icaonline.org/donation-for-covid-19/. The next webinar with other project leaders sharing their approach to fight COVID-19 is on April 17. 

Let’s support each other and do all we can. Together we can – and will – put these dark days behind us!

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. 

In the “Age of the Coronavirus” – A Reflection

I sipped my morning coffee and browsed through the news, social media and emails. Spain declared an emergency and locked down.  The situation was still dire in Italy. Testing was woefully inadequate in the US and published numbers were the tip of the iceberg.  Toilet paper, cleaning supplies and frozen food shelves could not be restocked fast enough in supermarkets and grocery stores across the country to keep up with the wave of panic buying.

Sigh. 

Three other items caught my eye.  

The Times had a heartwarming story about how Italians nationwide – under lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – took to singing and playing musical instruments from their balconies and rooftops, with “piano chords, trumpet blasts, violin serenades and even the clanging of pots and pans” spilling from people’s homes” to show that they would get past this together, and to thank all the medical personnel on the front lines fighting the spread of the virus.

A good friend in Switzerland sent me a WhatsApp message.  “People have been hoarding toilet paper here,” she said, “empty shelves.” She also forwarded a video (it likely took multiple forwards to get to me) showing a young man in a coffee shop paying for his coffee with single sheets of toilet paper, and the barista asking for one more sheet, as Abba’s classic song plays in the background.  Money, money, money, must be funny, in the rich man’s world.

And then I saw this post on the social networking platform for local communities, Nextdoor:

“I’d like to take a moment to reflect on our current situation by bringing up a quote from the author C.S. Lewis.  It’s from an essay titled “On Living in an Atomic Age”. I’ll let Lewis say what he says best:

‘In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation…

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.’

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays”

Lewis wrote these words 72 years ago.  We must heed his advice today. Let’s not panic. Let’s be sensible. Let’s use common sense. Let’s adopt common courtesy. Let’s pull together towards a common cause.

Carefully follow the simple, sensible advice of healthcare professionals. Wash your hands, Maintain social distance. Stay indoors and avoid contact with others as much as you can. Be prepared to sacrifice some of your needs for the common good.  It’s not just for you. It’s for everyone around you, and for everyone around them.

Together, we will eventually emerge victorious from the “Age of the Coronavirus.”

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. 


With gratitude to Joel Filipe for the use of his beautiful photograph from Unsplash.com

Love Your Body: Mitigate Chronic Inflammation

There’s a lot of news these days about the harm inflammation can do to our bodies. This article provides an overview of what you need to know about chronic inflammation, and what you can do about it. 

Let’s review some background. Inflammation is part of our immune-system’s defensive mechanism; a process in which our bodies deploy white-blood cells and other chemicals to protect us from infection or foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses. This response to tissue injury, to other trauma, or to ‘’foreign invaders’’ like pollen, chemicals, microbes or cell damage is  a force for good.  Inflammation plays an essential role in healing and controlling infection, it’s key to our very survival.

Three types of inflammation are recognized. The swelling that occurs after an insect bite, or when we sprain a joint are examples of acute inflammation. Symptoms are usually noticeable: redness, swelling, warmth, pain, and sometimes loss of function. It is generally temporary, lasting a few hours to several days as the body responds by increasing blood flow to the damaged area and releases chemicals, antibodies and proteins as part of the healing process. The usual treatment is to rest the injured area, manage pain and other symptoms, and allow natural healing. Mild painkillers could be prescribed. If substantial or complete healing does not occur in three to four days, a doctor should be consulted to determine if other medical intervention is necessary. 

A second, more serious type is chronic inflammation. It’s not as easy to notice or diagnose and can persist for months or even years. The body’s immune response is constantly and repeatedly triggered resulting in cumulative damage, as is the case in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Chronic, low-level inflammation plays a role in other diseases including type-2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and depression.  Asthma, sinusitis, lupus and Crohn’s disease are also examples. Systemic inflammation and its relation to autoimmune diseases is not fully understood and is the subject of research and investigation. Continuous inflammation due to infection or cell damage can injure blood vessels, nerves and organs like the kidney, or joints, skin and even the brain – often without you knowing in the absence of pain or other symptoms. Chronic inflammation is not well understood but some root causes are now well known. More on that shortly.

Life-threatening inflammation, also termed Sepsis, is the third kind. Defined as life-threatening organ dysfunction caused by an abnormal physiological response due to an infection, it’s an uncontrolled inflammatory response that is followed by a suppression of the body’s immune system. A severe systemic response can also be triggered by non-infectious causes, as is the case in SIRS (Systemic Inflammatory Response Syndrome), where a patient’s symptoms mimic the response to a serious bacterial infection.  Yet no bacteria are found and the cause of inflammation is unknown. Chemotherapy, some treatments for RA and many medications that suppress the immune system as a side effect can make you more susceptible to life-threatening inflammation.  Early detection and treatment of the underlying cause is the key to overcoming it. Dr. Carl Hauser, a trauma surgeon and immunologist at Harvard Medical School says that inflammatory complications of injury or illness account for about 50% of patients in intensive care units.

Back to systemic chronic inflammation and what we should do for its prevention or mitigation. It impacts our lives more than we realize. If we are overweight, have high cholesterol, hypertension or high blood-sugar levels, we very likely have some level of chronic inflammation. Left unchecked, these conditions promote diseases such as those mentioned above, and the associated disabilities decrease quality of life.  A recent article tells us that chronic inflammation is characterized by persistent increases in small proteins called cytokines throughout the body that are released by the immune system to promote recovery. This upsets the balance between antioxidants (nutrients that minimize free-radical damage) and free radicals (highly reactive compounds that can interfere with normal cell function). Free radicals in the body and environment play a role in many of the diseases mentioned earlier; they can also damage DNA, proteins, and body tissue, thereby accelerating biological aging. The referenced article quotes Professor George Slavich of UCLA:  “Chronic inflammation is involved in not just a few select disorders but a wide variety of very serious physical and mental health conditions … chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world today, with more than 50 percent of all deaths being attributable to inflammation-related diseases.” It can contribute to cognitive decline and mental-health disorders by boosting age-related immune-system deterioration. Social isolation, psychological stress, disturbed sleep, chronic infections, physical inactivity, poor diet, obesity and exposure to environmental toxins – air pollutants, hazardous waste products, industrial chemicals and tobacco smoke – all contribute to its increase.  

A blood test for the for the high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) marker  confirms the presence of systemic inflammation, but it does pinpoint the cause, which could, for example, be infection, an auto-immune disease of some kind, or cardiovascular disease. Physicians have to consider other health conditions and factors, as well as medical and environmental history to identify the source.

Experts agree that a healthy diet is one key factor to reduce our risk for chronic inflammation and improve immune health. In addition, they emphasize the importance of lifestyle changes: maintain healthy body weight, improving sleep, exercising regularly, quitting smoking, and finding ways to decrease stress and exposure to environmental pollutants. Heart-healthy diets (such as DASH and MIND) come highly recommended. Foods that fight inflammation include olive oil, tomatoes, walnuts, almonds, spinach, kale, salmon, mackerel, blueberries, oranges, ginger and turmeric.

You are now armed with the knowledge to take your next steps and create your roadmap to combat chronic inflammation. Consult your doctor, and make the lifestyle changes for a better tomorrow!

Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing. 

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community. To find out more, visit https://www.sukham.org, or contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com.  

With sincere thanks to Hal Gatewood at Unsplash for the use of his beautiful photograph.

Building Resilience

In this fast-paced society, we are increasingly stressed for longer periods of time. Dr. Sanjay Gupta – neurosurgeon and Chief Medical Correspondent for CNN – describes an epidemic of chronic stress in the HBO documentary “One Nation Under Stress, with 8 in 10 Americans experiencing stress daily. Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Robert Sapolsky explains that while stress response originally evolved as a life-saving and coping mechanism to deal with external threats or dangers, we now generate stress responses to non-life-threatening situations including interpersonal conflict, deadlines, health concerns, jobs and finances. The United States of Stress 2019 reports that chronic stress affects people of all gender and ages, particularly younger people, exacting a stunningly toxic toll on the body, brain, mind, and soul. Its ongoing assault wears us down, measurably aging — or “weathering” — our insides, for some of us much more than others. Chronic stress zaps brainpower by damaging neural pathways and skewing judgment. It compromises the immune system. It taxes the heart, kidneys, liver, and brain. Multiple studies show that high stress adversely impacts physical and mental health leading to higher levels of chronic pain, addiction and suicide. Learning to deal with stress can be a powerful addition to our personal-wellbeing arsenal.  

The American Psychological Association defines Resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress … It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences. This article explores the relationship between stress and how your brain functions, and simple techniques to “bounce back” to – to build Resilience.  

Dr. Amit Sood tells us how. As a physician and professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic he created their Resilient Mind Program. Now executive director of the Global Center for Resiliency and Well-Being, he’s an internationally recognized expert on proven resilience techniques. “Cognitive and emotional loads we carry have increased progressively over the past two decades” he says; our brains possess a finite ability to lift these loads and get overloaded, “just as our ancestors’ backs were when manual labor was predominant.” This excessive load decreases quality of life, so we have to find ways to increase our lifting capacity if we don’t have ways to reduce it. “Resilience is our capacity – the core strength – to lift the load of life,” he says. It has several components: physical, spiritual, cognitive and emotional. Cognitive resilience relates to the amount a person can remember and handle, while emotional resilience measures the amount of negative emotion one can manage before getting stressed. Research led by Dr. Sood and several others shows that higher resilience correlates with better emotional and physical health, better relationships, success at work and the ability to handle adversity and grow despite downturns.

Our body hosts resilience in the brain and heart, our two main active organs. Heart health impacts physical resilience while cognitive, emotional and spiritual resilience are centered in the brain. “We understand how exercise, diet, sleep and sometimes medications keep the heart healthy and strong,” Dr. Sood explains, “with recent advances in neuroscience we are just learning that how the brain operates is critical to cultivating resilience.”

The evolution of the human brain has given it some operational vulnerabilities which predispose us to chronic illness and premature death. These can be traced back to the instinctive suspicion about everything around them that our ancestors developed in a quest for survival. Suspicion was their means to deploy attention, and is the genesis of our negativity bias today. Their need to constantly scan their environment for external threats has led to our wandering, jumpy attention. Although we have since collectively created a completely different world where the cause of death has shifted from external injury to heart disease and cancer, these brain vulnerabilities persist. Dr. Sood points out that while our brains tire after 90 minutes of cognitive work, we work 12-14-hour days, enabling emotional and cognitive vulnerabilities to manifest and influence our actions. “Nature gives us ‘baseline’ brains and hearts, and we have to keep ‘upgrading’ them through training,” he says, “resilience boils down to becoming aware of how our brain operates – particularly its vulnerabilities – and learning how to overcome them.”  

How can you do this? Dr. Sood has developed a structured approach in the Resilient Option. At its core is an integrated three-step process to develop awareness, attention and attitude (positive mindset). First, become aware of the brain’s vulnerabilities and take charge to train its attention and attitude. Second, develop an intentional attention that is strong, focused and immersive. Third, cultivate a resilient mindset or attitude through practices that best resonate with you such as meditation, prayer, music, or working out. This approach enables you to view your world in a broad context instead of a short-term one that could frighten or stress you. The resilient mindset is built around five guiding principles: gratitude, compassion, acceptance, meaning and forgiveness that reframe your perspective, integrating teachings of several disciplines including psychology, cosmology, spirituality to develop your unique model of self, life and fulfilment. You start by assigning one day in the week to each principle, and develop short specific practices that are emotion- and relationship-centric. Short practices are key for success – Dr. Sood refers to the ‘two-minute rule.’ We all struggle to sustain lengthy practices because of inherent weak attention and the tugs and pulls of our daily lives. In time, you integrate the three steps and five practices into your daily life, pre-emptively experience more joy by the practice of gratitude and compassion, and recover quickly from negative experiences or moments of negative emotion because you are able to more easily find gratitude or compassion through that experience and have learned to accept, find meaning and forgive. You live a life of your choosing, and are not reactive but responsive and intentional. Your energy increases and you develop better relationships. Fifteen years of research and over 30 clinical trials have proven that this approach is easy and powerful, enabling positive changes with little time investment. Find out how resilient you are.  Get your resiliency score, and start building it with these tips from Dr. Sood.

With sincere thanks to Simon Matzinger at Unsplash for the use of his beautiful photograph.

Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.  

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South Asian community.  Sukham provides information, and access to resources on matters related to health and well-being, aging, life’s transitions including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death in the family and bereavement. If you feel overcome by a crisis and are overwhelmed by Google searches, Sukham can provide curated resource help. To find out more, visit https://www.sukham.org, or contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com.  

 

Choosing a Good Death

Arjan Tolani died peacefully on July 15, 2019, with his wife next to him and his son Sunil holding his hand. Shabad Gurbani, a sacred hymn of Guru Granth Sahib – the principal scripture of Sikhism – played gently in the background. Mr. Tolani lived a full, noble life and died peacefully and in comfort in hospice at home. His family was also at peace knowing this was what he wanted, and that they had provided all the care, love and comfort for him in his last days. He was 82.

Mr. Tolani never fully recovered from an infection he contracted sixteen months prior to his death. He progressively declined in spite of the excellent care he received from hospitals, doctors, nurses, and therapists. “We – his family – knew his wishes for medical treatment and end of life,” Sunil Tolani told me, “and the doctors and nurses treated us as peers, partners, confidants, and most importantly, as our Dad’s voice. Dad was at peace and in comfort knowing we were his safe haven. His being in hospice at home meant peace, love, and complete care.” Sunil paused, remembering, “a week before Father’s Day, Dad smiled weakly as I gave him a few teaspoons of tea while praying he would be with me for one more Father’s Day. We are smiling today, secure in the knowledge that we did our best for Dad, and he knew that.” I asked Sunil how the decision was made for his father to transition from curative to hospice care. “The family decided,” he responded, “we had all talked about it.”

Death touches us all. However, most people find end-of-life discussions uncomfortable. A 2012 California Health Care Foundation survey on communicating end-of-life wishes showed 56% of those polled had not discussed their preferences with the ones they would want to make decisions on their behalf. Two out of three Asians had not done so. When asked why, the four most common answers were “I have too many things to worry about right now,” “I don’t want to think about death and dying,” “my loved one does not want to talk about death,” and “it’s a long way off.” Only 38% of respondents had heard of an Advance Directive. A mere 4% of all 2010 deaths in hospice care were Asian.

Why do Indians and South Asians find end-of-life conversations especially difficult? It’s not that we don’t want “a good death.” Sunil Tolani describes us as a “prosperous, intelligent, educated but superstitious community.” Dr. Neelu Mehra, Chief of Palliative Care at Kaiser Permanente in Redwood City, says the Indian community in general believes talking about death will make it happen sooner. “It’s an ominous sign,” she says, “that’s one of the reasons they do not want to fill out Advance Directives or talk about future planning.” Consequently, Indians are often ill-prepared and traumatized when thrust into making difficult medical decisions. “I know many adult Indian Americans, who have elderly parents come to live with them and they find that they cannot raise this topic because it’s a taboo to talk about death,” she adds This can leave doctors frustrated and unable to meaningfully discuss medical options with patients and families. Many are used to being told by doctors in India what to do and unable to respond when asked to make decisions. Some suspect doctors of withholding information or not telling the whole story. “Getting Indian families to agree to end-of-life discussions can be a monumental task,” Dr. Mehra says, “we Indians are very comfortable accepting what comes our way. We accept death when it comes; that’s black and white. However, we are very uncomfortable with the shades of gray in between; we don’t know how to make difficult choices, and don’t know how to support loved ones so they do not suffer. We are hesitant to learn about and make choices that could alleviate suffering.”

Dr. VJ Periyakoil’s course on Health and Healthcare of Asian Indian American Adults – part of Stanford University School of Medicine’s Ethnogeriatrics Program – sheds further light on complexities that shape attitudes of traditional Asian Indian families: Many have a hierarchy of decision-makers, usually beginning with the oldest son as the primary contact and disseminator of information. Families may be reluctant to discuss personal and emotional issues with health-care providers, because these are considered very private and traditionally not shared with anyone other than those in the immediate household. Some families may request that the physician withhold information from their loved one who is ill, concerned that the truth about the illness may negate the will to live. Thus, “Doctor saab, please don’t tell Dada-ji that he has cancer. He will just give up and die,” may not be an uncommon request from a Hindu American family. Despite complete understanding of biological causes of illness, it is often believed that the illness is caused by Karma, the law of behavior and consequences in which actions of past life affect the circumstances in which one is born and lives in this life. Physicians may be perceived as incompetent if they sound unsure, or ask the patient or family member for their opinion. Some studies have shown an inverse relationship between the strength of religious and traditional beliefs and the presence of a completed advance care directive. Susan Thrane also points to major beliefs of Hindus, including family and community interconnectedness, Karma, and reincarnation as drivers of attitudes and behaviors.

Dr. Mehra urges us as a community to “have more upstream conversations about end of life,” and get people to understand that in some instances more treatment is not necessarily better; that choices have to be made, so that when the time comes to make decisions, “they won’t find themselves in a firefighting mode. We have a huge opportunity to build awareness and educate South Asians around this issue and overcome the attitudinal barrier that says, ‘I don’t want to talk about it; talking about it means that I’m going to die sooner.’ Having a fire extinguisher at home doesn’t mean that your house will burn down,” she says, “it just means that you are better prepared! You know what to do, and you have the tools to do it.” Ellen Goodman the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and co-founder of The Conversation Project sums up the impact of putting off advance-care planning this way: “It’s always too soon until it’s too late!”

 “The tipping point for me was when my father-in-law unexpectedly fell ill and went into a coma,” a friend of mine recently confided. “My husband and I were anguished over making very difficult decisions about his medical care because he had never told us what he wanted. The very next week, I sat down with my own parents and told them we had to have this conversation. I never want to be in this position again!” Dr. Nicholas Jauregui, the Palliative Care specialist who cared for Arjan Tolani spoke at his memorial service. ““Often families have a very difficult time making the transition from trying to fix all the medical problems that the patient has to acceptancing  that medical technology cannot fix them. This requires them to focus instead on what good can be done: allowing the patient to have a high quality of life at home in their last days.”  

Arjan Tolani’s last living act – dying – is his undying gift to the rest of us: a gentle reminder that we too need to think about and plan for the end of our lives. Decide what you want for yourself at the end of your life, share this with your family and loved ones, and fill out an Advance Directive. In the words of Lucy Kalanithi, doing this is “a really soulful thing and an act of love.”

With sincere thanks to Carlos Quintero at Unsplash for the use of his beautiful photograph.

Sukham Blog – This is a monthly column focused on health and wellbeing.  

Mukund Acharya is a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area established to advocate for healthy aging within the South-Asian community.  Sukham provides information, and access to resources on matters related to health and well-being, aging, life’s transitions including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death in the family and bereavement. If you feel overcome by a crisis and are overwhelmed by Google searches, Sukham can provide curated resource help. To find out more, visit https://www.sukham.org, or contact the author at sukhaminfo@gmail.com.