Friday, December 18, 2020

Finding Small Comforts

Whether we are old or not so old, the pandemic has probably led us to think about our mortality.  Adding to the stress of the pandemic has been the daily vitriol of the election and its aftermath. The news headlines have frayed our nerves and left us worrying about whether our democratic form of government will survive a would-be dictator and his band of sycophants. 

Much has been written about pandemic baking, and we have joined that group.  Sometimes there is comfort in making something sweet or familiar.  Certainly the focus that is required to bake from scratch is a welcome distraction from the world around us.  The holidays have given us an additional excuse to bake familiar cookies for family members.  The grandkids that we can see came over last week to bake Steve’s family recipe for poppyseed cookies for Hanukkah.  Then Steve baked two more batches to send to two of our children, one in Chicago and one in Nashville.  We’d already sent the traditional box of See’s candy custom selected for each family (the milk chocolate butter is probably the most asked for, although the chocolate covered peanut brittle comes close) .  We can’t all be together, but we can still have some familiar food memories together that we can talk about when we have our family Zoom on Saturday.

We’ve also become huge fans of Goldbelly, the website that ships restaurant and bakery goods from around the country.  We’ve enjoyed the Momofuku Bo Ssam dinner, Marcus Samuelsson’s  hot honey chicken & cornbread waffles, Xi’an Famous Foods’ hand-ripped noodles, and Hattie B’s hot fried chicken, to name a few.  The first three are from New York, and Hattie B's is from Nashville, which we tried in person last year.  The hand-ripped noodles from Xi’an were particularly enjoyable because you got to pull and tear the noodles yourself, and then whack them against the counter top.  The ingredients were incredibly fresh and delicious, too.  We’ve had so much fun with it that we gave all of the kids gift certificates to Goldbelly for their Christmas present this year.  What could be better than a restaurant meal at home in these times?  

We have found that indulging in good food is a way to assuage the feeling of deprivation from not being able to travel to see our children and grandchildren.  By sharing the good food we can at least evoke memories of meals together. 

At this point some of you must be thinking that this is not healthy.  We have all been conditioned to worry about what we eat.  There is, of course, some truth to being careful about what and how much we eat.  Obesity is a major problem in our country.  It is not healthy to overdo pastries and ice cream or anything else.  But it is healthy to thoroughly enjoy a good meal or desert without guilt.  Good tasting food is good for our mood and it is satisfying.  Not skimping on ingredients is important.  We use good quality butter and good chocolate in baking, because the final product tastes better.  Food that tastes good is really satisfying.  We end up eating less, but feeling better. Eating good foods is often equated with eating too much.  But it is easier to control how much we eat when we feel satisfied.

One of the harder things to do during the pandemic is to engage in activities that we enjoy.  Like good food, enjoyable activities are important for our daily mood.  Almost everyone is interacting less in person with other people, and it is much harder or not possible to do things we used to enjoy—going to a movie or restaurant, shopping, even walking through a park.  When we begin to feel the walls closing in on us, it has been helpful to start planning activities that we enjoy.  It can be something simple, like finding a movie on demand that we want to see, or arranging a phone or video call with a friend.  The key is having something enjoyable to look forward to on most days.

We also know how fortunate we are to be able to afford to indulge our food desires.  So we have been supporting both the Greater Pittsburgh Area Food Bank and the Free Store in Braddock during the pandemic and plan to continue for the foreseeable future. And we continue to support local restaurants.

The photo shows Steve’s Poppy Seed Cookies.  You may notice one is missing from the cookie sheet.  Someone couldn't wait to try one of the cookies.

You can find the recipe in Judy’s food and baking blog, Tasty Treats, at

There are two minor additions to the recipe: 

1.Put the butter and shortening in the freezer for about 10 minutes before cutting them into the dry ingredients. 

2.  When the cookies are on the cookie sheet and ready to go into the oven, put them in the freezer first for about 40 minutes.  

Keeping the butter and shortening as cold as possible will lead to lighter and tastier cookies.  Of course, they are even more addictive then.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Is Biden Too Old or Have Other Presidents Been Too Young?

There is a column in today’s New York Times by Jennifer Senior that makes the case that President-elect Biden’s age could really be an advantage.
  She points out the positive things that can happen as we age.  Like experience and expertise.  Many people have pointed out that Joe Biden knows how Washington works and can draw on that experience to get things done.  Of course, some critics have suggested that his knowledge of Washington is obsolete, that the Republican Party and its soulless leader in the Senate will not cooperate or compromise to pass important legislation.  But is there a better idea than trying to reach across the aisle to make things happen, or a better person than Mr. Biden to try to make that work?  


Senior notes another quality that Biden brings to the Presidency--wisdom.  We often say that older people are wise, but then we don't treat them as wise.  Of course, not all older people are wise, and age alone does not lead to wisdom.


What actually constitutes wisdom was a long-standing issue in Gerontology, but a program of research conducted by Paul Baltes and his colleagues has provided a compelling framework for understanding wisdom.  One aspect of wisdom is drawn from experience—factual and procedural knowledge.  That is, a wise person has access to a lot of facts in a domain as well as knowledge about how things work and how problems get solved in that domain.  One implication is that wisdom is not a general characteristic.  Rather, people can act wisely in domains where they have expertise, but may not give “wise” counsel in other domains.


Expertise, however, is not enough.  Another aspect of wisdom is what Baltes and colleagues called “excellence in mind and virtue.”  Here, they mean that the wise person strives toward excellence and the common good.  The wise person is not focused on themselves.  They are not saying, “I did it this way, and so that’s what you should do.”  They are instead applying knowledge about a specific situation that takes into account both the situation and the people involved.  Another way to say this is the wise person has empathy, which is another finding in the research conducted by Baltes and colleagues.  

You can see in this definition of wisdom a major difference between the 74 year old outgoing President and the 78 year old President-elect. Or as Senior wrote, the voters “decided to replace a savage clown and chaos-sowing novice with a man defined by decency and nearly half a century of public service.”


Aging, of course, has its perils.  The older we get, the more likely something bad will happen.  But Biden’s knowledge and temperament and his concern about other people, all of which have been honed over the course of his life, indicate he is up to the tasks ahead.  



Link to “Stop Worrying About Biden’s Age” by Jennifer Senior


To read more about wisdom:  Baltes, P. B., & Smith, J. (2008).  The fascination of wisdom:  Its nature, ontogeny and function,  Perspectives on Psychological Science. 3, 56-64.  doi: 10.1111/j.1745-6916.2008.00062.x

Photo:  Elephant on a stairway in Lisbon.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Silly Science Around Alzheimer’s Continues

A week hardly goes by without a new claim about causes of Alzheimer’s disease or cognitive impairment.  The New York Times Health Correspondent, Jane Brody, has never missed an opportunity to hype a potential cause or cure, no matter how suspect the evidence is.  This past week she wrote about vision and hearing loss as possible causes.

This is an idea that has been around for awhile.  And while some scientists make a plausible argument that reduced sensory input might lead to lower cognitive abilities, that is a far step from causing plaques, tangles, strokes, or other dementia-related pathologies.  We have yet to hear a plausible explanation for the biological mechanism the connects hearing loss, which occurs within the ear, or vision loss, which occurs in the eye, to dementia, which occurs in the brain.  Hearing loss and vision loss definitely limit and distort the quality of information a person is able to take in, but they do not cause brain cells to progressively deteriorate the way we know they do in dementia. 

The most plausible explanation is that the findings are an artifact. Think about how cognitive functioning is assessed.  We show someone visual images and/or present verbal information that they are to repeat or remember.  If you can’t see or hear well, you are more prone to make mistakes on tests.  That is a fundamental premise of neuropsychological testing.  Whenever Judy saw someone for testing who had hearing loss her first priority was to be sure that conditions were optimal for hearing (quiet room, speaking in a low register and projecting her voice directly to the person), and when that wasn’t sufficient, using written materials to supplement verbal instructions.

Imagine dear old Uncle Bill, who is hard of hearing, being asked a standard dementia screening question:  “What’s today’s date?”  And Bill answers, “I haven’t been on a date in years.”  How might that answer be interpreted?  Before jumping to the conclusion that he has dementia, it’s important to consider he didn’t hear the question correctly.  Or maybe he’s just a wiseass.  Either way, it may not be dementia.

Many of the studies that have reported correlations between hearing loss and cognitive function have been conducted over the phone.  It’s hardly an optimal way to assess someone with hearing loss.  But even clinical studies may confound hearing loss and cognitive problems, if the person conducting the tests is not well-trained.  The studies are also largely correlational, and don’t show decline in cognition over time.  Brody cites two large studies, one with 3,000 people, and one with 30,000 people, that present correlations of cognition and hearing loss, but a large sample is not necessarily better.  It’s easier to find statistical significance with a large sample, but what is called “effect size,” that is, the size of the association, may be quite small. 

We would all like to know that there is something that we could do that might prevent dementia.  And if we have hearing loss that affects daily life, it would be a good idea to get evaluated for hearing aids or other hearing devices, because that could make things easier at least in some situations.  But that’s a far cry from advising someone to get hearing aids in order to prevent the development of dementia.

Friday, October 30, 2020

How Are You Doing?


How are you doing?  We are getting along well.  We are not seeing our grandkids as much as we’d like or traveling or doing other things we enjoy.  But we are doing all right.


It’s the country we are worried about.  This is the most important election in our lives.  We have had presidents in the past who lied (Nixon about Watergate, Johnson about Vietnam), but we have never had a president who lies constantly and threatens to destroy our democracy.


We urge you to vote, if you have not done so already.  And get your friends and relatives to vote, too.  


If you are still undecided, or know someone who is undecided, take a look at the excellent column by Nicholas Kristof (link is below).


At the beginning of the primaries, we wrote a blog suggesting that Biden (and Trump, too) were too old to be president.  Joe has shown us to be wrong during the campaign.  Instead of trying to match Trump in vitriol, he has presented a vision of what this country could become by bringing people together.  He speaks powerfully from his experiences.  He knows that more anger and bitterness will not get us anywhere.  Our country has lots of problems.  Joe promises to get to work on them, with our support.  That’s wisdom that comes with age.


We hope to tune back in next week to celebrate the end of this long nightmare.



Link to Nicholas Kristof’s column:


Photo:  Fall colors. Frick Park, Pittsburgh

Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Vote is in!

Not that vote.  But an important vote in our family.  As a diversion from the corona virus, election and other upsetting stories in the daily news, we have been finding wonderful food that can be ordered on-line.  A few weeks ago we ordered babkas from Zabar’s in New York for ourselves and our kids.  They were wonderful.  Even our grandkids were thrilled.  We had tasted Zabar’s babka in the past, but it has been awhile, and we had forgotten how good they could be.


But then the question came up—is the chocolate babka better than the cinnamon babka?  You may remember the Seinfeld episode about babkas.  Jerry and Elaine were standing in line, waiting to buy a chocolate babka as hostess gift for the dinner party they were going to.  But the couple a head of them buy the last chocolate babka.  The baker offers to sell them a cinnamon babka, which Elaine calls “the lesser babka.”


We thought a taste test of our own was appropriate.  Jerry and Elaine went to Royale Bakery for a babka, but it has closed.  A New York friend of ours said the place to go when you are bringing a babka as a gift is Green’s Bakery in Brooklyn.  So we placed our order.


The vote is in.  The winner is (drum roll)  -- the cinnamon babka from Zabar’s.  The consensus was that Green’s chocolate babka was better than Zabar’s, but Zabar’s cinnamon babka was the best overall.  Not the lesser babka at all.


FYI.  The Seinfeld episode, “The Dinner Party,” is Season 5, Episode 13, and is available on Prime Video.


Saturday, September 5, 2020

What’s in a Name? Could COVID-19 Be too Mild a Name to Gain Compliance with Preventive Approaches?

Why has it been so hard to get people to comply with simple protective approaches that reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus?  It is a simple matter to wear a mask outdoors and in shops.  It is simple to maintain a safe distance.  Yet go almost anywhere and you see someone with the mask below the nose or hanging below the chin.  Or someone who gets far too close to you.  People complain bitterly that these restrictions are trampling on their freedom. Freedom to infect others?


Part of the problem, of course, is due to the politicians, starting at the top, who have minimized risks from the beginning and encouraged people not to take any precautions.  But maybe the problem is partly due to the name, COVID-19 Pandemic.  The word “COVID” does not sound threatening.  It doesn’t carry any meaning.  Would a different name be more motivating for people to take precautions?


Looking back in history, plagues had more evocative names.  The Great Plague, also called the Black Death or Bubonic Plague, swept across Europe and Asia several times.  In the 14th century, the Great Plague wiped out between two thirds and three quarters of the population in parts of Europe.  Those names carry some heft to them.  Likewise, other illnesses that led to widespread infection and death had names that conveyed threat:  Small pox, typhus, typhoid, cholera, malaria.  Or more recent names—Ebola and Zika.  And of course, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV/AIDS).  They sound ominous.  Even “Spanish flu” sounds more serious than just ordinary influenza or H1N1 flu.  


And why call it a pandemic?  Plague is more dramatic.  It’s something people react to.  The term “plague” calls to mind all those apocalyptic paintings of victims from the 14th century and later plague outbreaks.  New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently quoted Camus, who wrote that the plague “never goes away. It is waiting to exploit stupidity.”  That fits our response. 


What, then, should we call it that would better get attention?  President Trump started calling it the China Virus, which everyone saw as just another attempt to divert attention from his incompetence in letting the virus spread in the US, even as much of the world was implementing shutdowns and other efforts to control the virus. Such as wearing masks.


But it is not just that COVID-19 originated in China.  Viruses have regularly been making the jump from animals to humans in China.  The source is believed largely to be markets where wild animals are sold for food.  For years, the US and other countries have been talking with China about closing these markets, and there is some indication that they may be willing to do so. That would be an important step that could reduce the annual flu epidemic and prevent other novel viruses such as COVID-19.


To further that goal, we thought that COVID-19 should be re-named for one of its animal hosts, bats.  Bats are ugly.  We use their images for decorations for Halloween.  But Bat Virus is not strong enough.  Bats play an important role in eating mosquitoes in this country, and, after all, they are not responsible for the virus.  So we propose instead that COVID-19 be renamed the Bat Shit Plague.  There’s nothing nice or comfortable about that.  The bat isn’t being blamed directly.  And the name conveys how terrible the virus has been.  Maybe people unwilling to take precautions for COVID-19 will take steps to avoid the Bat Shit Plague. It’s a thought.





Wednesday, September 2, 2020

In the Midst of the Covid19 Crisis, Ageism Raises Its Ugly Head

Ageism been there all along during the COVID pandemic.  There was the quote a few months ago from Dan Patrick, the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, “Lots of grandparents would rather die than see health measures damage the US economy.”  It was only a matter of time before a national politician would raise that argument.  And there it was last week.  President Trump passed along a tweet claiming that only 6% of all deaths attributed to COVID 19 were actually due to the virus, and “the other 94% had 2-3 other serious illnesses & the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age.”  So they don’t matter.  The figures are, not surprisingly, also wrong.  But the truth is that many people are willing to write off the deaths of older people.


This is particularly the case of older people from disadvantaged groups.  Scholars who study age prejudice often talk about “double jeopardy,” that ageist beliefs and behaviors have an even greater impact on minorities.  Infections and death rates are higher among African Americans.  That’s not surprising, given long-standing disparities in income and access to health care.  African Americans are also more likely to hold jobs that could expose them to COVID 19 and less likely to be able to work remotely.


It’s not only despicable politicians and social media trolls who are saying ageist things.  Ageism has been part of the response to COVID 19 in the mainstream media, as documented in a recent article by Bronwen Lichtenstein in The Gerontologist.  Examining the media in the US, United Kingdom and Australia, she found that the vulnerability of older adults was frequently described with name-calling, blame, and “so-be-it” reactions.  There was also considerable debate in the articles she reviewed herd immunity.  Like the Lieutenant Governor of Texas, proponents argued that the herd immunity approach was the best way to support the economy, even though it would likely increase mortality substantially among older people.


The country that went full speed ahead to try to reach herd immunity was Sweden.  Their approach of minimizing restrictions had the expected effect of higher rates of illness and mortality, with older people paying a disproportionate price.  Drawing on recent data in the Washington Post, Sweden has a death rate of 575 deaths per million people in the population.  That compares to 610 deaths per million in the UK (which also took a herd immunity approach initially but has since pulled back on it), 545 deaths per million in the US, 111 deaths per million in Germany, and 9 deaths per million in Japan.  Likewise, Sweden is at the high end of countries for deaths in care homes.  Forty-seven percent of all deaths in Sweden occurred in care homes, compared to 45% in the US, 39% in Germany and 14% in Japan.  


But despite the expectation that the economy would not suffer if businesses and social interactions continued as usual during the pandemic, Sweden’s economy is not doing particularly well, and certainly not better than its Nordic neighbors, which have much lower rates of infections and mortality.  For example, Denmark has 623 total deaths (107 deaths per million), Norway has 264 deaths (48 deaths per million), and Finland has 335 deaths (60 deaths per million).  


The throw away attitude toward older people is most apparent in the death rates in care homes.  Basic procedures for containing infection were woefully inadequate in some facilities in the US and in other countries.  And then there is Japan, which stands out for its very low rate of deaths in care facilities.  It’s not because of a smaller proportion of the population in care facilities. Japan has a universal long-term care insurance program and the number of people in care facilities has grown steadily, and is now about equal to the US, according to the Washington Post article.  The article went on to speculate on what led to the low rates of deaths in care facilities.  One factor was that rates remained low in the population as a whole.  Beyond that, three other factors played a role:  implementation of stronger measures to prevent infections, higher standards of hygiene, and perhaps not surprisingly, the traditional importance of elders in Japanese culture.  


Photo:  We found the graffiti message on this old viaduct to be intriguing.  Is it a comment on our times?


Source of Statistics for the Nordic countries:  Statista:


Washington Post, Japan Has the World’s Oldest Population. Yet It Dodged a Coronavirus Crisis at Elder Care Facilities.