V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Aging gracefully

Published in The Toronto Star, November, 2010.

The secret to longevity is simple.

According to a growing number of believers, the key to tacking on an extra 20 years to your lifespan is to live on the edge of hunger — constantly.

The concept is called calorie restriction and recently got valuable air time from the grand dame of diets herself, Oprah Winfrey.

It’s a plan taken directly out of the play book of Okinawa, Japan, home to what used to be the greatest number of centenarians per capita in the world until it ceded the title to the Shimane Prefecture on Japan’s southern shoreline.

While genetics plays an important role in longevity researchers also found that centenarians in Okinawa follow a lifestyle regime that is uncommonly austere, active and above all, based on moderation.

Fibromyalgia's sister illnesses

Published in The Toronto Star, May, 2010.

The instructions are explicit.

Before agreeing to be interviewed, Ellen Pickett asks that the reporter refrain from using any perfumed products and wash her clothes in special, unscented laundry detergent. Dryer sheets are out of the question, and hair is to be tied back or held under a scarf or kerchief.

Pickett, 54, suffers from fibromyalgia, myalgic encephalomyelitis — better known as chronic fatigue syndrome — and multiple chemical sensitivities or MCS.

Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, fatigue and tender points.

Depression often blamed for fibromyalgia

Published in The Toronto Star, May, 2010.

When Joanne Saraiva went to her doctor for her chronic pain and fatigue and debilitating mental fog, the physician chalked it up to depression and sent her to a psychiatrist.

She was just depressed, her doctor said, and had taken on too much. After all, Saraiva, now 50, had changed jobs, was raising two boys and had suffered a loss in the family.

But after a year of visits, the psychiatrist looked at her and confirmed what, deep down, Saraiva always knew.

She wasn’t depressed. There was something else more insidious at play.

His wife was stigmatized, then she died

Published in The Toronto Star, April, 2010.

David Lord bears no malice toward the doctor who casually dismissed his bipolar wife’s ovarian tumour as intestinal flu and sent the couple home.

He harbours no anger toward the nurse who turned to him with contempt and asked, “Is she always like this?” when Leslie couldn’t contain her agony and cried out in pain in the hospital emergency room.

There is no fury, even though, one week, after the emergency visit, the woman he had been married to for only three months, died in his arms from an undiagnosed tumour that had twisted into itself, cutting off her blood flow and killing her at 42.

But Lord does have a message he’d like to convey to all health-care professionals when it comes to helping the mentally ill.

Inside the salt cave: Asthma sufferers seek relief

Published in The Toronto Star, May, 2010.

It’s a balmy 24C inside the artificial, man-made salt cave.

Half a dozen asthma sufferers ranging in age from 2 to 59, are either reclining comfortably on patio lounge chairs engaging in small chit chat, watching the BBC DVD Planet Earth, or happily shovelling piles of rock salt into a plastic pail.

The walls of the Speleocenter Harmony are covered in a thick, crystalline coat of salt and the floor is likewise carpeted in crunchy rock salt. A fine saline mist is circulating throughout the room which is meant to clear mucus accumulation in airways.

Your workplace could be killing you

Published in The Toronto Star, April, 2010.

Rick and Maureen Ampleford are recounting how events unfolded on the day they learned their 27-year-old son had died from an asthma attack.

Maureen remembers Mark’s exact last words during a brief phone conversation at 3 a.m.

Rick can recall every word of his phone conversation with the hospital staff in Ottawa, before the doctor broke the news.

Dementia Rates Poised to Skyrocket

Published olnine at The Toronto Star, March, 2010.

For eight years, Ann Marie Wilson sought marriage counselling for what she believed to be her poor communication skills.

“It was driving me nuts,” Ann Marie, 68, says from her New Hamburg home. “I couldn’t understand where he was coming from and he couldn’t seem to understand where I was coming from. Often I’d have to stop him and ask, ‘Where are we in this conversation?’ ”

She blamed herself for being a “witch” and being impatient, and her adult children scolded her for being unreasonable.

It wasn’t until they discovered that Carl, 72, had Alzheimer’s disease that the pieces started to fit together.

How denial feeds the obesity beast

Published in The Toronto Star, March, 2010.

Take a look at your child. Now go back and take another long, hard look.

There’s a serious culture of denial among today’s parents, experts warn, and it’s sabotaging the future of our kids.

A slew of studies have found that parents are failing to recognize when their children are overweight or obese, often underestimating their weight.

It’s a huge disconnect, pediatric experts say, and one that could be contributing to the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.

The sunshine vitamin and cancer

Published in The Toronto Star, March, 2010.

Rhonda Abrams sees the sun in a new light. For years she was afraid of it. Skin cancer had killed her mother at the age of 49.

The sun became her foe and Abrams protected herself by wearing hats and long sleeves, seeking shade whenever possible.

But when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 45, Abrams started to reconsider her ideals and decided she had been misguided in her fears.

By hiding from the sun, she deprived herself of an important vitamin she now credits as being pivotal in her recovery from cancer: The sunshine vitamin, D.

Asians disproportionately affected by diabetes

Published online in The Toronto Star, February, 2010.

When Veronica Chan learned she would have to lose weight to manage her diabetes, her immediate reaction was one of dismay.

She was proud of her soft hips, full cheeks and round belly. It was a weight she maintained deliberately in accordance with Chinese beliefs — that obesity is a positive sign of affluence and good health.

Despite their lower body weight, Asians are more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than Caucasians. Rates of diabetes are skyrocketing among Asians in North America and East Asia.

Why Alzheimer's is being called type 3 diabetes

Published in The Toronto Star, January, 2010.

Katherine's father is battling dual enemies in the twilight of his life.

One has been slowly stripping him of his energy and eyesight; the other has been robbing him of his memories.

The two work insidiously in tag-team fashion: With dementia, her father forgets the last time he's eaten; because of Type 2 diabetes, his body is unable to properly convert glucose into energy.

While both can be age-related diseases, a growing body of research is showing an even stronger link that connect the two: Insulin.

Bone health issues get cloudy online

Published in The Toronto Star, September, 2009, as a four-part series.

When Salima Ladak-Kachra slipped and fell, striking the ceramic floor in her home, a searing pain shot up through her back, paralyzing her body and forcing uncontrollable sobs from her throat.

Somewhere between the fall and the impact with the floor, she heard a crunching noise. Ladak-Kachra almost wet herself from the blinding pain, and for a few terrifying moments lost feeling in her body. She was 25.

Can depression lead to osteoporosis?

Published in The Toronto Star, September, 2009.

When Debbie Howe suffered a spinal fracture after bending over to pick up her baby, she was housebound for six months, and told she had the bones of 75-year-old woman. Six weeks later, she broke another vertebra from raising her arms over her head to shampoo her hair. She was 36 at the time.

"Those were some pretty grey days," Howe, now 57, said in her King City home.

Over the last decade or so, the relationship between depression, the use of antidepressants and osteoporosis has been the subject of a growing body of research.

When exercising becomes a hazard

Published in The Toronto Star, 2009.

Osteoporosis sufferers who bend over backwards trying to improve their bone mass with exercise could be doing more harm than good to their bodies – literally.

It's the classic prescription: Eat well and exercise, doctors tell patients diagnosed with osteoporosis or low bone-mineral density.

But that's where the message stops, prompting misguided patients to enrol in classes like yoga or Pilates or dropping to the floor to do sit-ups – some of the most hazardous exercises possible for increasing the risk of fracture, experts say.

Prevention happens early
Published in The Toronto Star, October, 2009.

Every week, for an hour, Ginny Cowan, 66, undergoes a strenuous exercise regime that challenges her strength and balance muscles at Osteosolution, an osteoporosis clinic downtown.

The thing is, Cowan is not completely osteoporotic. She has osteopenia – a milder form of bone loss – in her hips. But after watching her mother fracture her wrist and hip because of the debilitating bone disease, Cowan is bent on avoiding the same fate.

"I'm doing my best not to let my condition go any further," she said.

But Cowan knows that, at best, all her hard work will only be able to maintain her bone mineral density – not create new bone mass.

That's because peak bone mass is achieved by the age of 16 for women and 20 in men. And the most rapid period of bone acquisition occurs during puberty.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Published in The Toronto Star, October, 2009.

It's a daily routine. Office workers saddle up to their desks and become lassoed to their chairs and their phones, oblivious to the aches and pains that come with sitting too long until their bodies cry out in protest at the end of the day.

"Most people don't know how to adjust their chair," said ergonomics specialist Alexandra Stinson of ERGO Inc., in Barrie. "And it's important because it's the first time ever in history where we're spending 90 per cent of our waking hours seated at home or at the office."

Sun worshipper's cautionary tale

Published in The Toronto Star, July, 2009.

Nicole McSweeney always knew she was at a high risk of developing cancer.

It was a latent threat that plagued her quietly but persistently: She's pale, freckled, a natural redhead, and suffered blistering sunburns during her teens.

When she reached her 20s, McSweeney, now 40, became vigilant about checking her moles. When she noticed a small, pink one on her right cheek, she sought the advice of her family doctor.

But it wasn't the facial mole that caught her doctor's attention.

Instead, the physician zeroed in on a dark brown mole below her left knee and referred McSweeney to a dermatologist.

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