Breaking news on broken-down joints

There’s old news — joint replacements for athletes are downright commonplace, seniors in their 80s and 90s are getting new hips — and now there’s good news. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco, led by sports medicine chief C. Benjamin Ma MD, are finding that damage to the cartilage connecting the foot bone to the ankle bone to the leg bone etc might not have to be permanent.

As almost anyone with a series of sports injuries may know, cartilage damage is permanent. In the words of Dr. Benjamin Ma, chief of sports medicine at UCSF, “cartilage is just lazy” — it doesn’t like to regenerate, so when it gets damaged or worn down through use or injury, it won’t come back on its own.

But Ma and his research team have discovered that given very specific circumstances, cartilage will, in fact, regenerate. The team has been taking knee cartilage from subjects and placing it on a matrix and under some very specific conditions, it is forced to regenerate.

“Cartilage cells are very lazy. They don’t like to grow if they don’t have to,” he said. “So we fool them by doing this particular maneuver and they feel they have to grow, and they form new cartilage. Then we glue it back into the knee.”

The new method has proved to be safe and it helps improve function, and now it is undergoing Phase 3 clinical trials to see whether it in fact works better than microfracture surgeries currently used to treat cartilage injuries.

Down the road, Ma and his team hope to see if there is an application of this method that could help people suffering from arthritis, which is also a cartilage disorder.

That cheer being heard across cyberspace is coming from millions of amateur athletes and the entire population over 50, almost every one of whom could use a little newly invigorated cartilage.

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner.

Can geezer drivers get safer? How about texters & cellphoners?

Just how risky are distracted drivers? Texters, geezers, cellphone users? Recently, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has cranked up the heat on a major campaign to end distracted driving. Well, more power to him… except LaHood’s dsitracted campaign seems to equate driving while talking on a cell phone with driving while tripping on LSD. LaHood’s overkill has raised the ire of The Weekly Standard’s senior editor Andrew Ferguson, who rather eloquently protests what Ferguson (and a lot of others) see as one more good example of government’s overreaching foolishness.

Over the last several months LaHood has mobilized his vast and lavishly funded ($70 billion) department behind a high-minded goal: “to put an end to distracted driving.” Those are his words—not curtail, not discourage, not even reduce by 50 percent. No: Put an end to. In its ambition and method, LaHood’s initiative is a kind of textbook example of how government guys create work for themselves, manage to keep themselves busy, and put the rest of us on our guard.

Meanwhile, with LaHood overreaching and manufacturers of front-seat computer equipment over-promoting we will all have to remain on guard. Against cell phone talking drivers, texting drivers, Big Mac eating drivers and…. geezer drivers.

I, a certified geezer driver, am at risk for a crash. This is a daunting discovery when one is the only driver in a household that occasionally needs to be driven somewhere. My preference — being a resident of the beautiful, walkable city of San Francisco — is always either to walk or take the Muni, but let’s face it, there are times I need to be behind the wheel. And I hate to put you at risk. Or myself, or my passenger either, for that matter.

So you and I are about to get safer. With no help from Ray LaHood.

This all started with a recent post about geezer drivers, texting drivers and other hazards. Steven Aldrich, CEO of PositScience, commented on that post. PositScience makes brain-training software and I am not on their payroll. But I did take the “What’s my crash risk” test which you are also hereby invited to take. I whizzed through the tutorial with a whole bunch of “That’s right!” responses, then set about taking the Evaluation and promptly flunked. After a phone conversation with Aldrich and one of his software experts I am conceding that the problem is not with their software but with my geezer brain. (Try it yourself. Let me know if you fail, please, I would appreciate some company.) Here’s the deal with the test:

The Crash Risk Evaluation measures your “useful field of view”—how much your brain notices in your peripheral vision in a brief glance. Studies show that the size of a person’s useful field of view is closely correlated with car crash risk.

Useful field of view tends to shrink with age because the brain takes longer to process what it sees. As a result, in a single glance it only has time to take in what’s in the middle of a scene—not what’s in the periphery. A smaller useful field of view makes it less likely that you’ll notice potential dangers—like a car swerving into your lane or a dog running into the street—in time to avoid them.

Having had my performance on the Crash Risk Evaluation indicate that my useful field of view is smaller than average, I am deemed risky. I reserve the right to at least some suspicion about tricky tests — there is a product for sale here and clearly it wouldn’t sell if everyone passed with flying colors — but I do have a geezer brain.

Therefore, thanks to the generosity of PositScience, I am now in possession of the DriveSharp program which I’m starting tomorrow. It’s 10 hours, for heaven’s sake, so don’t look for safer roads in San Francisco this week.

This space will report on your improved road safety as my DriveSharpness progresses. Got any ideas about texting drivers?

Taxes & fun together — Well, almost

‘Taxes’ and ‘fun’ — those two words in one sentence? The National Women’s Law Center is floating some family helpers that make such a combination almost possible. In today’s economic hard times, discovery of a few dollars remaining at home rather than going to Washington can be downright euphoric.

As W-2s and 1099s start appearing in mailboxes once again, kicking off the agonizing annual countdown to April 15, Americans must begin gearing up to discharge that most dreaded of citizenly duties: filing their taxes. In celebration of the venerable but oft-neglected holiday, “Earned Income Tax Credit Awareness Day,” we here at the National Women’s Law Center want to let you know that this year is different. This year, filing taxes can be…well, “fun” might be taking it too far. How about “marginally less unpleasant”?

We all know that more low- and moderate-income families than ever are struggling financially. But fortunately, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, more help than ever is available to those families in the form of tax credits.

Quick tax lesson – don’t run away: in general, a tax credit simply lowers the amount a family owes in income taxes. However, for some tax credits, even if a family owes little or nothing in income taxes, it can receive the value of the credit – sometimes thousands of dollars – as a refund. This means that for the families who are in the direst of financial straits, tax credits can be essential to survival (and you thought taxes were boring).

Pointing out that billions of dollars in tax credits go unclaimed every year, simply because eligible families don’t file for them, NWLC lists a few of the potential savings:

• The Earned Income Tax Credit supplements the wages of low- and moderate-income families. It is worth up to $5,657 (depending on income and number of children) and is refundable.
• The Child Tax Credit helps families with the costs of raising children. It is worth up to $1,000 per child (for up to three children) and is refundable for some families.
• The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit covers some of the child or dependent care costs that families incur in order to work. It is worth up to $2,100 but is not refundable.
• The new Making Work Pay Credit increases families’ take-home pay. It is worth up to $400 for single tax filers or $800 for married couples and is refundable.

Some states offer similar tax credits, and because the value of many state credits is tied to the value of the federal credits, families could be eligible for more assistance than last year through their state tax returns as well.

The new law increased the maximum value of some existing federal tax credits designed to help working families and families with children, and it also established a brand-new credit. So this year, a family could be eligible for some or all of the following:

NWLC invites you to visit their site for details about these tax credits and tools to get the information for people who need it. “One final piece of good news,” they add: “families can get free help with preparing their tax returns. Call the IRS at 1-800-TAX-1040 to find your nearest Volunteer Income Tax Assistance location.”  So go for it. Save a buck, have a ball. You might be able to chuckle all the way to the filing deadline.

Job-hunting boomers, un-retiring seniors: today's employment scene

Coming un-retired is suddenly popular. Out of boredom or (more often) out of necessity, increasing numbers of seniors are reportedly re-entering the workforce. And in the words of one job-seeking 66-year-old friend, “It ain’t much fun, and it sure ain’t easy.”

There are allies in unlikely places. AARP, customarily focused on things like leisure time activities and senior fitness, now offers career transition seminars, and features a job search engine that directs its members to “age-friendly” employers or companies seeking the “skills and experience” of the over-50 population.

And about those over-50s who haven’t reached Medicare age yet?

You’re 50, recently laid off, and now forced to figure out what work you’ll do for the next 15 years or more and how you’ll ever retire.

You’d dreamed of leaving your job at 65, vacationing in Tuscany, taking a trip around the world, or perhaps spending your afternoon on the golf course. But the reality is the economic downturn has tripled the number of unemployed workers ages 55 to 64 over the past two years, compared with a doubling in the overall unemployment rate.

That means right now, for you, Job Number One is figuring out the next career you’ll embark on. This is the “new retirement” that many Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964) must now envision.

A recent CNBC action plan has both harsh facts and good suggestions for Boomers in this all-too-common bind.

The rise in job losses, grim prospects for Social Security benefits, and paltry personal savings has created a situation where many Boomers must put off retirement from the workforce because they simply cannot afford it. Even before the recession, the Congressional Budget Office predicted the Social Security Administration would be doling out more money than it took in by 2020, which would deplete the trust fund and cause a severe cut in benefits by 2043.

The action plan, one lead-up to a Tom Brokaw Reports: Boomer$ program airing on CNBC in early March, offers advice both practical (if you’re lucky enough to have a job, forget about retiring) and strictly financial (contribute the max to your 401(k)). And among the potential steps to consider: start a little side business of your own. It’s a good time for entrepreneurs, and one thing is indeed certain — you won’t have any trouble finding potential workers.

via News Headlines.

Roadkill: geezers, texters at the wheel

His father-in-law, aged 91, got a new 5-year driver’s license from the State of California, with zero proof of intact driving skills. The family was worried, but without much power. According to an op ed piece by Santa Cruz, CA writer John Moir, the community was saved from potential disaster at the hands of an age-challenged driver only when a mild heart attack prompted his physician to order him away from the wheel.

Meanwhile, a nationwide population of licensed drivers young enough to be his great-great-grandchildren are navigating our roadways with one eye on the intersection and full attention on a text message in progress. Another op ed piece not long ago, this one by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Cynthia Tucker, told of accidents caused by phoning/texting drivers that are estimated at close to a quarter of a million per year. There is a growing movement to address this truly scary problem. And it is scary: if you walk in cities much you know how often only your own wits (Can’t make eye contact? Don’t trust that driver) keep you alive. In Nebraska, for example, activist teens, largely motivated by the horrific BBC YouTube video now gone viral, are pushing for a state ban on phoning/texting while driving. A national organization, FocusDriven, was started by a group of individuals who had lost loved ones to drivers on phones; they offer support for victims and tips for advocacy. FocusDriven is patterned after MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving.)

But the issue of geezer drivers gets sticky. My own father was fond of pointing out, well into his 80s, that he had never had an accident. We bit our tongues not to comment on the disasters that probably followed in his wake. But the Commonwealth of Virginia continued to renew his license and none of his four out-of-state daughters was able to convince him that his driving was not in others’ best interest. It took a family friend, who pointed out how much money could be saved on gas, upkeep and insurance coverage, to get my father to sell his car.

The primary problem with aging drivers is the ease with which they are (in California, at least) re-issued a five-year license. Not long ago, at the ripe age of 75, I renewed my own. My eyes tested just fine — although prescription distance glasses make me way safer behind the wheel, especially at night. I studied for the written test (same test as anyone gets at any age) because it is full of trick questions, often concerning factoids that have little to do with public safety.  Presumably, if one is not mentally acute one would fail the written test — but you can retake it the next day. There was no road test of any sort, so if I were becoming prone to miss road signs, clip corners or misjudge parallel parking distances nobody would know. (I hope I’m not.)

Mandatory age limits for driving, such as commercial pilots have, probably aren’t going to happen, and probably shouldn’t. Many seniors must drive their own cars for endless reasons. Time and manpower required for road tests may put them beyond what states can afford these days. But why aren’t other answers possible?

Why couldn’t AARP put its considerable muscle and money behind a volunteer training program that would set in motion volunteer-led senior driving sessions? Why couldn’t states then require completion of such sessions before licenses were renewed after a certain age? Why couldn’t some insurance agency — AAA comes to mind — get behind a state-mandated program of this sort, offering the lower rates for graduates that are commonly offered graduates of safe-driving programs? Why couldn’t safe-driving seniors be offered a small compensation for running such programs, in return for the savings in lives and ER costs?

My license expires on my 81st birthday. I’ll happily sign up for a seniors class. Meanwhile I will remain on the alert for texting juniors.

Murtha and mortality

News of the death of Congressman John Murtha today was sad, and also a little personally poignant. Every time it was mentioned, the announcers ended with, “He was 77.” When you’re approaching birthday number 77, and listening to news reports that repeatedly conclude, “He was 77,” it’s hard not to get a small jolt.

There is a yarzheit candle, meanwhile, flickering in my kitchen window. It marks the 20th anniversary of the death of my husband’s late wife, Judith Clancy. Had she lived, she would be 77 next month. She was a gifted artist whose drawings are in some significant museums and collections. Her work has been exhibited in France and a number of American cities.

Representative Murtha, despite some questionable financial issues, also had a distinguished career. It was a long one — a few weeks ago he became the longest-serving congressman from Pennsylvania. He died of complications from gall bladder surgery, a procedure after which my husband also recently suffered some pretty horrendous complications. But my husband, who was born a few years before the rest of us, survived. In the late news being reported as I type this, an announcer is once again noting Congressman Murtha’s death. “He was 77.”

There are reasons to appreciate tomorrow’s sunrise.

Single-payer healthcare in California: Not Dead Yet

“Is there any hope for health care on the national level,” he was asked? “No.”

But Don Bechler, Chair of the California activist group Single Payer Now, was on northern California’s KZYX yesterday affirming that there is still hope for health care “if we get the insurance companies out.” California voters have twice passed single-payer health plans, both times seeing them vetoed by Governor Scwarzenegger. State Senator Mark Leno has a universal-coverage bill in the current legislature to try once more. It’s a bill anybody would love — unless you’re a body working in the insurance business.

As to the national battle, Bechler says HR 676 (sometimes known as the John Conyers bill) is the best current hope. “We haven’t really given up.” Strategies? “Talk to your congressmen, ask them to co-author HR 676. There are 87 co-sponsors so far. It’s health care for everyone, dental coverage, long-term care.” What’s not to love?

Bechler contends that Massachusetts voters who put Scott Brown did not do so out of anti-health care sentiments as has been speculated in media reports. “That’s the corporate media doing their corporate spin for their corporate buddies in the insurance industry.” Lest there be any doubt, Bechler is not much more enthusiastic about the media than about the insurance business.

As to the threat of filibuster of the current bill, which is at least more likely to pass than HR 676, Bechler suggests the Republican bluff be called. “Put it on the floor. Let the Republicans get up and talk for two months.”

Such a prospect is mind-numbing all by itself. But the national outrage might keep everyone awake.

An elder revolution? It's possible

If you are over 50, or plan to be over 50 at some future date, you have just been issued a challenge. You might call it a leadership alert.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, who does have a good head on his shoulders, yesterday published an interesting column advancing the theory that real social change will come from the geezer generation. Those at the time of life traditionally perceived as fuzzy, withdrawing and passive. Or at best, the time of life in which most are inclined to let the young folks do the heavy lifting. But those times, Brooks maintains, have changed.

Citing studies undertaken over past decades, Brooks explains that the geezer generation (in which I am a fully accredited member) is now understood to be not so dimwitted and inept as long thought. Beyond new research that shows brains can continue to thrive and develop into one’s late years, people who had been studied over a 50-year period proved to be increasingly outgoing, self-confident and compassionate.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we geezers — a population about to boom as the Boomers hit Medicare age — are eating up a way disproportionate share of the GDP. So pensions are going to keep getting money that would better be spent on education, taxes will go to fulfill earlier promises, etc.

Then, though, Brooks turns it all around a new corner:

In the private sphere, in other words, seniors provide wonderful gifts to their grandchildren, loving attention that will linger in young minds, providing support for decades to come. In the public sphere, they take it away.

I used to think that political leaders could avert fiscal suicide. But it’s now clear change will not be led from Washington. On the other hand, over the past couple of years we’ve seen the power of spontaneous social movements: first the movement that formed behind Barack Obama, and now, equally large, the Tea Party movement.

Spontaneous social movements can make the unthinkable thinkable, and they can do it quickly. It now seems clear that the only way the U.S. is going to avoid an economic crisis is if the oldsters take it upon themselves to arise and force change. The young lack the political power. Only the old can lead a generativity revolution — millions of people demanding changes in health care spending and the retirement age to make life better for their grandchildren.

It may seem unrealistic — to expect a generation to organize around the cause of nonselfishness. But in the private sphere, you see it every day. Old people now have the time, the energy and, with the Internet, the tools to organize.

The elderly. They are our future.

We could start by convincing seniors to ignore the scare tactics of their conservative friends and support health reform. Mount a movement for what is morally right: health care for all Americans. Their grandchildren will thank them.

Not being a community organizer myself, I don’t know how to start this campaign. But if you have any suggestions I’ll join the movement.

Op-Ed Columnist – The Geezers’ Crusade –

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