Tag Archives: Sukham Blog

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.


 

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.