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Day 4 of 4 BLSA at the NIH
Last one of the special series.
If you just stumbled on Life Intelligence, this is a special edition series focusing on health and longevity as I am a part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging. Usually, Life Intelligence comes out once per week focussed on life challenges, opportunities, and skills you need to live more, love more, do more, and matter! Subscribe to Thrive :)
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I apologize for the delay. My last day was Thursday last week, half a day of testing. I didn't feel like hanging out at the hospital any longer, so instead of writing this update, I headed out to explore Baltimore before my red-eye to California. I made it to George Peabody Library in Mt. Vernon. It was indeed fabulous!!! Even though it holds much less knowledge than Google, it has a soul!!! What a building and what a history. Google it and find out 😊.
Some reflections from Baltimore:
Nice people. Lovely old architecture. Whimsical treelined streets. Delicious and variety of foods to enjoy. Picturesque waterfront areas. Amazing historical parts. Pleasant weather. And… stay away from the shady areas. One of the neighborhoods, known as The Middle East, has over 660% higher violent crime than the entire state of Baltimore. Nope, I didn't check it out.
I moved around with public transportation, which is plentiful. It cost me $2.00 to roam around all afternoon and get to the airport, an hour away from the city. That's partly because the bus drivers wouldn't take cash, just waving me in or telling me the machine was broken. I think they don't want to get robbed. The buses go through some not-so-nice areas. The contrast between them and the gentrified neighborhoods is astonishing. Boarded doors and windows. Dilapidated buildings. Trash. I even saw the burnt remains of a three-story house sandwiched between two others, still inhabited but barely standing.
The nerve conduction tech zapped my enthusiasm, sternly warning me not to go into Cherry Hill, the neighborhood just a few blocks from the hospital. He said I'd stick out like a sore thumb. White, clean, and obviously not from there. He said I'd get eaten as an afternoon snack. "It's the drug dealers," he said. They'll think someone sent me and won't listen to anything I say. That was a problem because the city built a new 35,000-square-foot gym/recreational center right on the edge of that neighborhood. I really wanted to go check it out. It had an outdoor swimming pool.
I did walk along the waterfront path by the hospital, under a bridge, and around a lovely park home of the Baltimore rowing club. I saw a homeless dude pull out a microwave from the trunk of his overpacked car and proceed to clean it. Some folks fished leisurely. Others walked their dogs while kids played in the grass. I didn't feel unsafe. I did feel ogled, though.
Interestingly, every bus stop had a prominent advertisement for info about SSI benefits "to cover daily expenses."
I also walked over 20,000 steps that afternoon.
Earlier at the hospital, I had a CT scan looking at my hips and head. I guess they didn't see anything alarming or would tell me. The NIH has its own equipment. Super fancy, extra large MRI machine and everything else. Labs, too. Millions and millions of dollars worth of stuff! But they didn't have a CT scan. They "borrow" from the hospital. The hospital radiologist did the scan. Unlike the others who work for the NIH and happily chat about what they do and show me their work, this one was NOT friendly. She literally pushed me out the door, saying they were not allowed to show me the images. BS, I say! She sent me off with my "chart" up to the NIH floor. While in transit, I took a picture of the report. However, I have no idea how to read it! I tried. It could just be something the NIH is recording that is different from a regular CT scan report. Soooo, bummer.
The good news is that I should receive a whole packet of reports in two weeks. I am looking forward to comparing everything with the results from my last visit pre-COVID. Some things will be new. I feel like they kept me way busier this time around.
I had to do a finger-tapping test and a thumb reflex thing, kind of like a video game. I had to react to certain things on the screen, and if I used the wrong thumb, a very unpleasant sound let me know. They said, "accuracy and speed." I went for "speed." "Accuracy" complained.
The eye-tracking thing was super cool. Using virtual reality technology, I had to look and track stuff in 3D, and with a game controller type of thing, I had to move objects in my view around on the VR screen. It felt like I was on a boat.
Fun fact, older adults compensate for reading difficulties by skipping words more often when reading. No wonder my grandfather always said, "Not sure about that," right after finishing a read. Eye tracking challenges can come about because of neurological issues such as stroke or concussion, but also from incorrect eye alignment and muscle weakness. I guess that's why there are eye exercises, too. It turns out older adults experience and read websites with many moving parts and multiple sections in a totally different way than younger people. The trouble is, difficulties with eye tracking will affect cognition. Interestingly, every test and exercise they had me do at the hospital had written instructions on how and what to do. Yet, the nurses and techs insisted on verbalizing them to me while pointing with their pencils at the words in the instructions. At first, I thought I must look stupid. Then I thought, that's their script. They must do this because people don't pay attention and cut corners. After the eye-tracking experiments and knowing that many of their subjects are older than 70, I appreciate what they did much better.
Afterward, I had to smell random tubes with various aromas and identify them. The lavender and lilac were easy, but there was fir, eucalyptus, smoked meat, paprika, black pepper, and cow dung. No, not cow dung. I lied. I think I aced that one.
My taste buds got colored and counted again. I hope I still have them all. I won't know until I get my reports. But if you wonder why older adults prefer large portions at restaurants and don't really care how great the food is, it's because they can take some home for another meal and are missing a few tastebuds, so the taste doesn't matter as much. It goes without saying that the rate of losing one's tastebuds is different and unique to the individual. Many retain a fantastic ability to taste complex flavors. If you are one of them people, more power to you. Ageusia is the loss of the sense of taste. The condition makes detecting tastes like sweet, sour, salty, or bitter difficult. Most frequently, it happens after the age of 60. Yes, sometimes to pregnant women and COVID patients. But for them, the sense of taste returns after a while. For the others, it gets worse.
The sense of smell starts fading after age 70, and its decrease exacerbates the loss of taste for those affected. This is no trifle. It may be why adults over 70 lose their appetite, possibly compromising their nutritional balance. Apparently, saliva production also diminishes with age, causing difficulty swallowing. In addition, if you lose your sense of smell and taste, you may fail to recognize rancid foods and poisonous gases, a health hazard.
What to do about this? Add spices, seasoning, and marinade, and make things interesting. Eat with others, so it's a social thing more than just an eating thing. Check the expiration dates on foods and track how long things live in the fridge. Despite how you feel about food, try to get fruits and veggies in your diet anyway. Make sure you have a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm in your house.
Grrr… I hope this won't happen to me…
Speaking of COVID, I never had it. The NIH wants to know why some people never got COVID. My blood is tested to see if I am HLA+, a gene that protects against COVID. It doesn't mean you can't get it. Only means that you'd be more protected and MAY NOT get it. Sadly, having this gene also puts you in a higher risk category for autoimmune disease… This is a test result I really want to see.
And speaking of COVID, loss of smell, taste, and taste buds, one of the nurses told me her story. She got COVID, lost smell and taste, and submitted to tastebud testing. They counted her tastebuds once per week, and she saw them disappearing and reappearing over three months later. So, if you were wondering why you lost your sense of taste if you had COVID, that's why. Your tastebuds left your mouth. The remaining ones, she said, were very inflamed.
Well, all that took half a day, starting at 7:00 am. Thankfully, no one poked me with a needle.
Overall, this was a great experience. I came home tired but happy. I learned a lot. I contributed. I also signed up to have my body donated to science when I die. Hopefully, they'll have to wait for that a looong time. I didn't want to take space on the planet after I die. I don't want to bother with securing a grave no one will visit. I don't have children, remember? It seemed a more productive way to go and keep giving even after I am gone. I am not as rich as George Peabody and can't build a library. I might even be in debt to my last breath! Those 30-year mortgages and medical bills, you know.
If you enjoyed my Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging adventure at the NIH, remember, they need volunteers. You get no compensation or reimbursements for your trips. You will get most of the test results. You can't choose what tests they perform on you, but you can decline to participate in any test you don't like. You'll get meal coupons for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, possibly a ride to/from the airport, a hospital bed, lukewarm showers, and that warm, fuzzy feeling of doing something awesome for humanity! Click here to learn more.
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