‘Super-agers’ study may reveal

secrets to staying young

MIAMI (AFP): Mary Helen Abbott, 77, paints her lips bright pink, still smokes the occasional cigarette, keeps up on all the gossip at the retirement home and wears a short skirt to fitness class. She giggles as the aerobics instructor shouts - “Swagger! Like you are going to meet someone famous!” - then she and a dozen seniors throw shoulders back, lift their knees high and strut around the exercise studio. Abbott is what scientists refer to as a “super-ager,” and she is taking part in a $3.2 million study that aims to uncover the secrets to staying sharp and healthy into old age. While some hunt for medications to treat or prevent dementia, others, like University of Miami neuropsychologist David Loewenstein, are interested in why some people are spared altogether.

“I study Alzheimer’s disease, but if we want to unlock the mysteries of the brain we also have to know why some people age successfully,” said Loewenstein. The five-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health is open to people age 63 to 100 who have not been diagnosed with dementia, and who are either in good mental shape or have early signs of memory failure, known as mild cognitive decline. Loewenstein is particularly intrigued with how some people seem to be able to fend off memory loss, whether by genetic, environmental or other means.

He cites studies involving autopsies on people 85 and above - a population in which about one in three suffers from dementia. Nearly another third of this age group have post-mortems that reveal significant hallmarks of dementia - known as plaques and tangles in the brain - but seemed just fine while alive. “How can people function at these higher levels? Science has not been able to answer that,” said Loewenstein.

“And that is what we are trying to figure out.” Of the 100 people enrolled in Loewenstein’s study so far, more than 40 live at East Ridge, a retirement village that resembles a typical suburban neighborhood in south Florida, with wild peacocks roaming beneath the palm trees, people driving around the manicured grounds on golf carts, and rows of single-story homes divided into multiple apartment units.

Such tranquility does not come cheap. Residents must pay $111,000 up front, then a monthly rent of $2,700 or more, depending on the size of their living space. Soon after arriving seven years ago, Gwen North, a retired kindergarten teacher who appears decades younger than her age of 85, took on the responsibility of running the thrift store. “I work probably six days a week,” she said, happily.

At age 86, her husband Art is known as the go-to-guy around town - perpetually ready to chat, share information, or fix electronics that have broken. Art and Gwen have already taken memory tests and are giving samples of their spinal fluid so that it can be studied for the earliest biological markers of aging. They have even arranged to donate their brains for further study after they die.

So what has kept them young? “Staying busy. And good genes,” said Gwen. “Just working. And my wife,” added Art. It turns out, there is scientific data to back up their claims. “We have known for a long time that people in the workforce are better than people out of work,” said Laura Carstensen, founding director of the Stanford University Center on Longevity, addressing a forum on aging at the National Academy of Medicine last month in Washington.

“Work - paid or unpaid - may improve cognitive functioning.” Regular exercise and a Mediterranean diet are also known to help foster healthy aging. “Geriatricians I know say that if we could put exercise in a pill form it would be the most sought-after drug on the market,” she said. Abbott confesses that prior to entering the retirement home, she was not doing so well. After her husband died, she lost weight and felt lonely. “One of the big reasons I like being here is I got tired of eating by myself,” said Abbott.

She clearly thrives on social contact. Now, she plays golf every Monday and rides the bus to church on weekends. Abbott leads the welcoming committee and knows everyone, from the gay couple who just moved in, to the woman in her 90s who nearly died but is now lifting weights again in exercise class, to the woman with the raven hair who had a tryst with a doctor 20 years her senior, then married him, and has stayed married to him for some 40 years.

She recounts these vignettes without malice, exuding pure delight at knowing the details of others’ lives. There’s some science behind this, too. “Epidemiological studies show that people with a lifetime of cognitively stimulating activities and social connections are much less at risk for cognitive decline as they age,” said Loewenstein.

Japan’s lofty ‘hydrogen society’

vision hampered by cost

TOKYO (AFP): Japan has lofty ambitions to become a “hydrogen society” where homes and fuel-cell cars are powered by the emissions-free energy source, but observers say price and convenience are keeping the plan from taking off. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has dubbed hydrogen the “energy of the future”, and hopes it will help Tokyo meet the modest emissions targets it has set ahead of a UN climate change conference this month. Tokyo wants to see cars, buses, and buildings powered by the clean energy in the coming years, and has even laid out plans for a “hydrogen highway” peppered with fuelling stations, all in time for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Japan, which is the world’s sixth largest greenhouse gas emitter, has “constructed a vision of society” based on hydrogen, said Pierre-Etienne Franc, director of advanced technologies for French industrial gas firm Air Liquide. Toyota’s hydrogen car, Mirai - which means “future” in Japanese - launched in 2014, after two decades of tireless research.

The car recently rolled out in the United States and Europe. While it has wowed some, production has lagged behind demand and high costs have turned off many consumers. A Mirai fuel-cell vehicle costs 6.7 million yen, or about $55,000, nearly double a comparable electric car. Fuel cells work by combining hydrogen and oxygen in an electrochemical reaction, which produces electricity. This can then be used to power vehicles or home generators. Environmentally-conscious motorists like the Mirai because unlike conventional cars, it does not emit CO2. It also has a longer cruising range and takes only a few minutes to refuel, compared to several hours required for an electric rival. “(Fuel-cell vehicles) appear to be the ideal green cars,” said Hisashi Nakai, who works in Toyota’s strategy planning department.

Nakai dismisses concerns that hydrogen poses a dangerous explosion risk - the gas is highly volatile and flammable - insisting the tank of the car has been rigourously tested and can “withstand any shocks”. But he admits price remains a major barrier. “The main problem is the cost - we have just started, it doesn’t happen overnight,” he adds.

Air Liquide’s Franc also bemoaned heavy regulations on building fuelling stations. “In its superb ambition, Japan has failed in its strategy with extremely restrictive regulations,” he said, referring to safety rules to prevent leakage of the flammable gas. Building hydrogen stations is two or three times more expensive than in Europe or the US, he said. With a 395-million yen ($3.2 million) price tag the stations remain scarce, although the government has vowed to build 76 of them by early 2016.

Toyota is not the only player: in late October Honda unveiled its own hydrogen car, and Nissan is also involved in the effort. The hope is that increased competition could drive prices down. Abe has laid out his vision for a hydrogen market worth one trillion yen ($8.3 billion) annually by 2030. Equipping houses with hydrogen-producing technology is another part of the plan, with the first green homes unveiled in 2009.

The aim is to equip 1.4 million residences with the technology by 2020, and a staggering 5.3 million only a decade later. It’s a slow journey though. Only 100,000 houses are hydrogen-powered so far, despite government subsidies and efforts by manufacturers, namely Panasonic and Toshiba, to bring down prices.

Heart of Romanian queen laid

to rest after 77-year journey

BUCHAREST AFP): The heart of British-born queen Marie of Romania was finally laid to rest on Tuesday after criss-crossing the nation for 77 years. Encased in a small silver casket, the heart was brought to Pelisor Castle in the Carpathian Mountains and placed in the room where, in the former royal family’s words, it “beat for the last time”. Marie’s descendants were among those watching as the casket, draped in the British and Romanian flags, was carried out of the National History Museum in Bucharest by two soldiers, accompanied by eight officers on horseback, to the tune of both nations’ anthems. A crowd of several hundred watched as the heart of Marie, a grand-daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria, was carried in a procession along the wide Calea Victoriei boulevard before being transported by car to Pelisor, 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of the capital.

The wife of King Ferdinand I, who reigned from 1914 to 1927, Marie died in 1938. Her body was interred at the monastery in the town of Curtea de Arges, but she wanted her heart to be laid to rest in a specially built chapel in the Black Sea town of Balcic, which was home to the queen’s favourite summer residence. But the region was returned to Bulgaria in 1940 and the royal family was forced to move the heart to a temporary location in Bran castle in the Carpathian Mountains.

The chapel at Bran, however, was desecrated during Romania’s communist period, forcing the heart to be moved again to the National History Museum. It has stayed there since 1971, but the former royal family had asked for it to be transferred to somewhere with a royal connection. Born in England in 1875 as Princess Marie of Edinburgh, her father was Prince Alfred, a son of Queen Victoria. Her grandson, King Michael I, was forced to abdicate by Romania’s communist regime in 1947.

Bhutanese getting more sleep,

lifting happiness index: PM

NEW DELHI (Reuters): People in Bhutan are happier now than they were five years ago according to a survey of social wellbeing released by the tiny Himalayan kingdom that, among other things, measures whether they are getting enough sleep. Mostly Buddhist Bhutan, wedged between China and India, launched the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index in 2010 to include indicators ignored by conventional GDP - the monetary value of all goods and services produced in a country. These range from quality-of-life indicators like leisure time and forest cover to whether people experience negative emotions like anger and envy. Addressing a conference on GNH in the capital Thimphu on Tuesday, Prime Minister Lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay said the index inched up to 0.756 this year from 0.743 in 2010, but that he did not know yet what was a good growth rate. The constitutional monarchy’s goal is for every citizen to be “extensively or deeply happy”, compared with the current figure of 43.4 percent.

“We saw some modest gains in areas such as living standards, health and time use,” Tobgay said, according to a copy of his speech, adding that 7 percent more Bhutanese got enough sleep in 2015 than in 2010. “But in other areas such as community vitality and psychological wellbeing indicators, we actually seem to lose ground.” The gross national income of Bhutan - which until the 1960s was an isolated rural society with no currency, telephones, schools, hospitals or public services - has been consistently higher than that of South Asia as a whole, according to World Bank data from 2006 to 2014. But Rajesh Kharat, who teaches South Asian studies at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University and advises the government of Bhutan, says GNH’s benefits have been confined to towns where communication is better.

“GNH has become internationally popular but yet to reach a single person in the villages,” Kharat said. “The main thing is education. Most of the people in rural areas have not really understood whether Bhutan is a monarchy or a democracy.” Tobgay too said he was troubled that the improvement in the GNH was strongest in towns instead of “our fields and valleys and hamlets high up in the mist”, a worrying sign for the landlocked country. More than half its 349,000 labour force still works in agriculture. “We must find ways of energizing GNH in rural areas, so young people build their careers and families in our beautiful villages as mature modern men and women, and don’t only yearn for the city lights,” he said.

‘Iron Lady’ Thatcher’s personal

effects to go on sale

LONDON (AFP): Personal items belonging to Britain’s “Iron Lady” prime minister Margaret Thatcher, including some of her famous handbags, are to be sold in London next month, Christie’s auction house said Tuesday. Around 350 lots including clothes and jewellery accrued during her 87 years - 11 of which were spent in Downing Street - are being sold after the Victoria & Albert Museum turned them down. An emerald and diamond Chaumet necklace, valued between £120,000 ($185,000, 168,000 euros) and £180,000, is expected to fetch the highest price, with proceeds to be split between Thatcher’s children Mark and Carol, and her grandchildren. “In the year that ‘The Iron Lady’ would have celebrated her 90th birthday, approximately 350 historic and personal lots will be offered across two landmark sales,” said Christie’s. “These sales are taking place 25 years after Margaret Thatcher left office, at the end of her 11-year high-profile tenure as prime minister.

“These auctions present unique opportunities, across price levels, for collectors around the world to acquire property from the longest-serving prime minister of the United Kingdom in the 20th century and the only woman to have held office to date,” it added. The items were initially offered to The Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, but they decided against showing the objects.

“The V&A politely declined the offer of Baroness Thatcher’s clothes, feeling that these records of Britain’s political history were best suited to another collection which would focus on their intrinsic social historical value,” said the museum. “The museum is responsible for chronicling fashionable dress and its collecting policy tends to focus on acquiring examples of outstanding aesthetic or technical quality.”

Thatcher’s programme of privatisations and deregulation helped turn around Britain’s ailing economy following her election in 1979, and she is also credited with playing a leading role in ending the Cold War. But she remains a divisive figure, particularly in Britain’s working-class heartlands, which suffered devastating industrial decline as a result of the economic rebalancing.

She died on April 8, 2013, and received a ceremonial funeral, including full military honours, attended by Queen Elizabeth II. The auction will take place on December 15, and an online-only sale comprising 200 lots will run for two weeks from December 3. It is expected to raise around £500,000. Thatcher’s most famous handbag, which struck fear into the hearts of British ministers during the former premier’s rule, sold at a charity auction for £25,000 in 2011.