| VailDaily.com

In tough times, cancer survivor Sean Swarner says, ‘You have more control over life than you think’

DILLON — Sean Swarner has heard all kinds of questions as an inspirational speaker, author and adventurer. But on a September Zoom video conference — days after his latest climb of the 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania — Swarner pondered a novel question about the physiology of his lungs.

Swarner, 46, lives with one functioning lung due to scar tissue in his right lung from surviving two types of cancer as a teenager. In an homage to the Disney film “Finding Nemo,” Swarner calls his right lung his “lucky fin.”

Swarner not only survived Hodgkin’s disease at 13 years old and Askin’s sarcoma at 16, but also conquered Mount Everest and each of the planet’s other Seven Summits — the tallest peak on each continent — with one lung.

Which brings us to the question: “In order to achieve all you have, did you retrain your approach to breathing?”

Swarner said his respiratory system has reacted to his right lung’s lack of oxygen transfer by expanding the left side of his rib cage. It’s a manifestation, Swarner believes, from all of his mindful deep breaths throughout the years, one inhale and one exhale at a time. Swarner said his consistent utilization of his diaphragm to pull in oxygen is “a representation of repetition” — one of his favorite sayings.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

“Over time, that’s who you become,” he said.

Swarner said this respiratory modification is one reason he’s able to achieve things like completing the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

But the other, more important variable?

“Training myself how to use my brain to believe in myself,” Swarner said.

It’s that process of learning how to be ready to overcome that is at the heart of Swarner’s life and motivational work. Swarner will speak about his journey and the guidelines that have helped him overcome at the virtual Longevity Project event at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30.

Swarner will talk about many elements of overcoming, including his new Summit Challenge, which he cultivated during pandemic downtime. It’s a series of intentional, individual challenges guided by Swarner and designed to reprogram your mind to overcome obstacles by using your personal core values. Some of Swarner’s values, which he said came from his mother and father, are acceptance, freedom, fitness, faith, family, excellence, personal growth, trustworthiness, uniqueness, wealth, wisdom, health and happiness.

“People who are depressed are living in the past,” Swarner said. “People who are anxious are living in the future. And people who are nervous and scared — which happens to me, too — it usually happens when I let my brain go wild. And I ask myself a question that’s, literally, two words: ‘What if?’”

Catching yourself

Swarner catches himself whenever he treads into “what if” mental space — whether that’s while trekking to the north or south poles or while at home thinking through what’s safe to do during COVID-19.

The values Swarner lives by are summed up by shrewd, sensible sayings that help channel his psyche. One is to “visualize victory.” He did so as a child when he closed his eyes and pretended he was inside his body killing cancer cells.

Another is training your psyche to understand its triggers. To Swarner, you can’t blame triggers because they didn’t make you feel a certain way — how you reacted to those triggers did.

So if social media is a trigger for someone, he recommends not watching hot-button videos while waking up and before falling asleep. Rather, to bookend each of his days, Swarner Googles “inspirational videos.” It’s a conscious decision to manifest a personal sense of gratefulness.

“Nothing makes you feel a certain way except for you,” Swarner said. “And the instant you give someone else power over your own emotions, you lose who you are.”

Sean Swarner treks to the North Pole in spring 2017. Swarner, a two-time cancer survivor with one functioning lung, also has been to the South Pole and completed the Seven Summits in addition to other athletic achievements.
Photo from Sean Swarner

Taking after Terry

For a guy who once wanted to be a psychologist for cancer patients, Swarner has become more than that. He’s a mentor for the masses.

But he wasn’t always that way. At 13, he was a boy weeping on the floor of his family’s shower. Bald from head to toe due to cancer treatments, Swarner pulled chunks of hair out of the drain and asked himself, “Why would I give up and die? Why wouldn’t I fight?”

He’s channeled that courage ever since, now as a member of a Facebook group dubbed “One Lungers Unite.” It’s a digital community where people with limited respiratory function interact.

Swarner said the group brings him back to his first days as a boy recovering in the hospital. Back then, his first goal was to crawl from his bed the 8 feet to the bathroom. Eventually, the positive spirit led him to the top of the world on Everest.

Everest’s summit at 29,029 feet above sea level was about as far away as Swarner could imagine his life would take him 33 years ago when he was told he had 14 days to live. His rock bottom was opening his eyes in his hospital bed to realize he was being read his last rites only to inform his parents, “I’m not dead yet.”

Some of the first steps back from near death came in his parents’ living room, where Swarner limped, imitating his childhood hero, Terry Fox. Terry Fox wasn’t a celebrity. But he surely was a man who lived like Swarner, even if he died too early at 22.

In 1980, Fox was an athletic activist who ran across Canada with a limp due to an amputated right leg stemming from osteosarcoma. His quest was to gather $1 from every Canadian for cancer research. And he’d do it one step at a time, his prosthetic clicking in a runner’s rhythm each time his dying body propelled his right leg forward.

“He made it to Thunder Bay and ended up getting a reoccurrence and passing away,” Swarner said. “He was a huge Canadian hero.”

Sean Swarner — a motivational speaker, cancer survivor and adventurer, who has trekked to the north and south poles and completed the Seven Summits — will speak about his journey at the annual Longevity Project virtual event at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30.
Photo from Sean Swarner

Superman standard

Superman is the other childhood idol Swarner said gave him the spirit to survive.

Swarner collected Superman comics as a kid, and he continues to appreciate the superhero’s essence while admiring the life of the actor who played Superman, Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in an equestrian accident.

“I saw him living an amazing life,” Swarner said.

And Swarner has done so, as well. Each day, he reaches for Reeve’s Superman standard. To this day, Swarner’s convinced he survived because of his psyche.

So he continues to prime that logical focus and calculated confidence that calibrates a healthy psyche.

Now, it’s your turn.

“More people need to realize we have a lot more control over our physical being than we think,” Swarner said.

Plants over pills: Non-traditional medicine growing in popularity, especially in Colorado’s mountain towns

Editor’s note: This is part 4 of a four-part series on longevity in the High Country. The series is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Vail Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Summit Daily News and Steamboat Pilot. Read more at vaildaily.com/longevity.

You might shake your head at Kris Rowse’s sound vibration room, the one full of 17 gongs that play a musical note attuned to the vibration of a specific planet or asteroid, or you might even think she’s nuts. That’s OK. More than a decade ago, before Rowse took a yoga class, she’d probably agree with you. 

She was an event planner then, someone who ran, among other events, the Steamboat Soccer Tournament. But she was also turning 40, and she was feeling what many say they feel when they reach their middle age: A dissatisfaction that was hard to pinpoint. 

“I could feel that there was a shift, but I didn’t know what that meant,” said Rowse from her gong studio, Trust Love Connection, in her Steamboat Springs home. “I wanted a change, but I felt disempowered in how to achieve that.”

That change began with yoga, a well-known gateway to spirituality as well as fitness. Rowse met a life coach through the class, began using one, and the coach told her about sound vibrations. The sounds soothed Rowse, and then a woman from Boulder came down to teach it, and, well, you could say the planets aligned. 

You could say that because Rowse, at 51, now works as a sound vibration practitioner as well as a life coach and astrological reader. She uses astrology — yes, she’ll ask you “what’s your sign,” but not as a pickup line — to help you navigate the different energies headed your way, according to the constant shift of the solar system.

She believes the universe was telling her something when she was 40, and now she helps others figure out what it’s telling them. She uses the gongs as a pathway to their true feelings, as well as to help them with stress, fear, anxiety, grief or depression. She knows what to play based on what your astrological chart tells her.

“I was having a discussion with a client the other day, and then I said, ‘Hey, stop talking now. Why don’t you close your eyes, and then we will come back to it,’” Rowse said. “I played the gongs, and it gets our head out of the game. It lets us feel.”

Think about the way music affects us, Rowse said,. Think about how an upbeat song, such as “Footloose” by Kenny Loggins, may make us want to dance, or how the song “Careless Whisper” by Wham may make us want to cry. The gongs aren’t that much different. 

Despite this explanation, if you still believe Rowse seems from another planet, or even another galaxy, well, she’s not interested in convincing you otherwise. She’s doing well, with a lot of out-of-town clients as well as those from Steamboat Springs. 

“My clients are already into energy,” she said. “I’m not a converter. This is really, really popular enough that I don’t have to spend a lot of time convincing people.”

Rowse wasn’t just referring to her own practice. Non-traditional medicine, or alternative medicine, makes Rowse and many others who practice it a good living, especially in Colorado, and even more especially in the mountain towns of Colorado.

Rowse is the more extreme example of it, but there are others who practice naturopathy, a natural approach to medicine, and because it’s legal in Colorado, cannabis qualifies as well. And while traditional doctors have a healthy skepticism of it, many in Steamboat Springs also embrace it and even refer their patients to it.

Many non-traditional practitioners such as Rowse feel likewise about traditional Western medicine: She does not treat disease or cancer, for instance, and will tell folks to see a doctor if she believes there’s something serious going on. 

But she’s had clients say their anxiety evaporated after a session with the gongs, or night owls who went home and slept all night. She uses the gongs herself by trading time with another sound practitioner. 

“When I started this 11 years ago, it was way more woo woo,” said Rowse, using a term that Urban Dictionary defines as “the supernatural.” “It was definitely not mainstream. But it’s a lot bigger now, and I can say, from a personal level, I’m a completely different person.”

Searching for help when Western medicine can’t provide it

When Western medicine failed Cristen Malia, she sought help from her mother. But in Malia’s case, she was battling Lyme disease, the tick-borne illness that causes fatigue and joint pain, among other problems, and the traditional antibiotics didn’t cure her. So she used holistic medicine, the kind her mother preached to her back when she was a kid. 

“She didn’t raise an eyebrow to anything,” Malia said.

That meant acupuncture, maybe visiting a friend who was a chiropractor, and learning from a holistic doctor. She was already eating well, thanks to what she learned from the diet her mother fed her, and she kept experimenting with different methods and products. Eventually, her fatigue disappeared, as well as her migraine headaches, and she spent less time on the couch. 

“Western medicine can serve until it doesn’t,” Malia said, “and then it needs to be really examined. There are a lot of other ways to heal.”

More patients are seeking alternatives to traditional, Western medicine when they can’t find an answer but believe there’s one to be found.

Joseph Kimmerly, the general manager of Billo, a marijuana dispensary in Steamboat Springs, got into pot years ago the way others might develop an interest in wine. He was fascinated with all the ways marijuana could smell, in so many different forms, and all the different ways it could affect him. He made it a career four years ago in part for what it did for him as a patient.

Marijuana dispensaries offer a number of products that can be taken in just as many ways. These fast-acting sublinguals come in a tablet form offering different mixtures of CBD and THC that promise to help people relax, sleep and focus. Others offer relief from pain and there is even a product that promotes energy for physical activity.
John F. Russell

“You start out trusting the traditional system, and you assume they will solve the problem, and yet, traditional doctors don’t get to know you that well. They’re just copying and pasting what others have tried,” said Kimmerly, who suffered from sinus problems and headaches daily. “I went through shots and surgeries and steroids, and I felt like doctors weren’t listening to me. I found cannabis, and that’s the one thing that’s been consistent as far as working.”

Recreational users flock to Billo but perhaps as many as 25% of customers come seeking relief. Kimmerly isn’t allowed to give medical advice, but he can ask about their lifestyles and struggles and recommend a few products that could help make them functional again based on his own experiences.

Pain is the most common complaint, although Kimmerly can also recommend products that help with sleep problems, chronic gut disease and mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Kimmerly also attends conferences with doctors researching the medical benefits of cannabis. Hemp, the pot plant used to make clothing and medicine, is also used in CBD, a product used to battle the same kind of issues. Billo sells CBD, some with THC — the chemical that makes you feel loopy —and some without or in low doses. 

Products blended with CBD and THC promise to offer customrs health benefits ranging from better sleep to more focus.
John F. Russell

Western medicine’s limitations are many, but one of its biggest failings is the hardships in treating chronic conditions, or conditions that make us feel not our best but aren’t necessarily life-threatening or even debilitating. This is where alternative medicine can really shine, said Dr. Justin Pollack, a naturopathic doctor from the Mountain River clinic in Frisco. Pollack moved to naturopathy after wanting to practice in Summit County. 

“I’m in an area where we have a lot of healthy people,” Pollack said. “We don’t have the conditions of an urban city, with obesity and cardio problems. We have ski instructors and athletic mountain bikers. So my practice adapted to what people experienced when their bodies break down.”

Pollack now specializes in allergies, pain, inflammation and digestive problems. Once he’s established that a patient doesn’t have a life-threatening condition through testing by traditional doctors, he looks at how he can treat them using natural medicine and by asking lifestyle questions. He’s generally not looking to cure his patients: They want his help to learn how to thrive. 

“One of our biggest is diet,” Pollack said. “They may be eating something they are sensitive to that’s causing chronic inflammation or gut issues.”

Malia now practices with Minds in Motion in Steamboat Springs as a counselor who emphasizes mindfulness based on yoga and psychotherapy. Mindfulness, she said, is a huge part of healing. 

“It helps me feel empowered on the path of healing,” Malia said. “It makes me feel, ‘I can do this. I can be aware of what’s happening in my own body and learn how to regulate my own nervous system.’”

Billo manager Joseph Kimmerly stands behind the coiunter at Billo in Steamboat Springs.
John F. Russell

A natural approach to treatment

Out of all the alternatives to Western medicine, naturopathy probably resembles the more traditional model the most. Though they are lobbying to change this, naturopathic doctors aren’t allowed to prescribe under Colorado state law — those laws vary by state — and they can’t treat cancer or some other conditions, but they can offer herbal medicine and products that can act very much like prescriptions, and they will administer blood work and tests. Some do minor surgery, and they see patients with the idea of helping them feel better. They can even treat the side effects of chemotherapy, even if they can’t offer chemo themselves.

But there are some major differences, first among them is a natural approach to medicine. 

“If it’s a digestive issue, sometimes it’s a very different approach,” Pollack said. “An MD may be prompted to go with an acid blocker. But instead of blocking a natural process, maybe we can heal the issue with herbs and other methods.”

Naturopathic doctors believe their biggest difference comes from the time they spend with their patients to form individual ways to treat their problems instead of relying on prescriptions used to treat the masses.

Dr. Grace Charles, a naturopathic doctor with Minds in Motion who also has training in traditional medicine, works with patients struggling with fertility and women with hormonal imbalances who are tired and cranky. She will use her own knowledge of traditional medicine as well as refer her patients to others if necessary, but she believes in her approach. 

“I spend more time giving them the tools,” Charles said, “A traditional doctor may say, ‘Your weight is too high, so I want you to cut calories and go on an exercise program.’ I will say, ‘Here are three options for breakfast.’

“A natural practice can be more difficult because I’m giving you something that can help, but I’m also trying to get you to change your lifestyle as well.”

Even those who practice naturopathic medicine as well as more traditional approaches, such as Charles, refer to and receive references from traditional doctors, but they cherish that time with their patients. Pollack and Charles both said that’s one thing they loved about their practices.

At Minds in Motion, in fact, they all work as independent contractors, but they all ask each other for opinions and sometimes treat the same patient with their specialty. Charles and others call this treating “the whole patient” rather than seeing a doctor who likely has just a few minutes before prescribing a pill without offering options. 

“People feel more in control of their health,” Charles said. “They get a choice in what happens to them, and I can offer non-drug solutions. We can fertilize the soil, so to speak.”

Some traditional doctors dispute the degree to which this is true. Brian Harrington, the Routt County Public Health medical director, works as a family physician at Yampa Valley Medical Associates. Family physicians also spend time with their patients, he said, and attempt to find solutions to the problem and not just cure symptoms. He resents the idea that he’s simply there to cure symptoms. 

“They like to put themselves on a higher mantle,” Harrington said of alternative doctors, “and yet I do that too. I talk about diet. I try to treat the whole patient.”

Harrington, in fact, gets irritated when non-traditional practitioners try to degrade conventional medicine.

“That’s silliness,” Harrington said. “That’s a red flag to me. If you can’t build up your practice on your own merits, that’s a red flag.”

However, Harrington himself defends alternative medicine. He doesn’t even like the word “alternative” because it implies that conventional medicine is the “correct” medicine. 

“There’s a role for lots of kinds of approaches,” Harrington said. “I try to figure out what my patient believes in. What was alternative in the past isn’t an alternative anymore.”

One of Harrington’s partners with Yampa Valley Medical, Michelle Jimerson, calls herself “a huge fan” of alternative and what she calls “complementary” medicine. She’s researched chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncture specialists to see what they offer. 

“I think it’s great we have so many options here (in Steamboat Springs),” Jimerson said. “Western medicine doesn’t always have all the answers. I honestly wish there was more of a crossover between the two.”

It’s usually not just one issue that’s cause the complaint, Jimerson said, and sometimes a different approach can help with one issue while a more traditional treatment can help with another.

“We do try to do a lot of behavioral health,” she said. “That’s why I love family medicine, I can spend extra time with my patients.”

Malia, like some of her patients, may come to alternative medicine after they discover the more traditional Western approaches aren’t working for them. Malia, like her mother, is more of a plant-based eater, something she developed as she grew up.

“My Dad believed in eating whatever I wanted, and Mom was nothing like that,” Malia said. “I discovered on my own that I didn’t feel well when I ate what Dad let me eat. So at my Dad’s, I wouldn’t eat the cookies or drink the soda. I was an athlete, and it was important to me to feel good.”

Beware of hucksters

Doctors who do practice non-traditional medicine are used to doubters.

“Especially the husband,” Charles, who treats mostly women, said with a laugh.

But Charles understands the doubt. She may even expect it when a patient is referred to her by a conventional doctor. 

“Some feel as if they’ve been shoved in the door, and sometimes they are really skeptical as a result,” Charles said. “Sometimes their mind gets changed.”

Sometimes those doubts are warranted, Harrington said. Sometimes non-traditional medicine resembles the “doctors” selling cures in expensive bottles next to saloons on dirt roads. It can be expensive as well, as insurance rarely covers non-traditional treatments. 

“There’s a lot of hucksterism out there,” he said. “I have some heartburn over people who try to huck something and tell you you need it and are making money off it and promoting it without evidence.”

There’s a danger beyond just getting conned, Harrington said.

“If it’s too good to be true, it probably is, and I resent claims made without any substantial evidence,” he said. “It can harm then because a patient may choose something other than what is helpful to treat a condition.”

Then again, all medicine is at fault for selling cures that may or may not be valid, Harrington said.

“If you’re willing to spend the money, and it doesn’t hurt you in any way, and you walk away feeling better, and you’ve avoided surgery, well, great,” Harrington said. 

As much as a fan as Jimerson is of non-traditional medicine, she also believes conventional medicine has an important place. She would worry, she said, if someone refused traditional medicine in favor of an herbal cure, especially if something seemed seriously wrong.

“I’m biased, but I do think everyone should have a medical home, with a primary care doctor,” she said. “We try to be open to all sorts of different ways to treat someone, but I still do think traditional medicine has a role in that. At the end of the day, you probably do need something from us.”

In Steamboat, however, doctors are willing to work with other methods to make sure their patients feel as good as they can. 

“There isn’t a lot of head-to-head competition,” Jimerson said. “Everyone works together. It would be unfortunate if a naturopathic doctor said you didn’t need to see a doctor, but we are very lucky in that sense. Especially when you are talking about longevity, there should be a blending of the two.”

Investing in access: High Country hospitals spend millions to increase residents’ access to care

Editor’s note: This is part 3 of a four-part series on longevity in the High Country. The series is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Vail Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Summit Daily News and Steamboat Pilot. Read more at vaildaily.com/longevity.

Specialized labs, heliports and cancer treatment options are just a few of the access-to-health care improvements made both in the High Country and on the Western Slope in the last two decades.

In Vail, extensive renovations and additions to Vail Health Hospital have improved the kind of care needed for an aging population.

By investing in staff, facilities and transportation, Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs reduced its patients’ need to travel for specialized care, said Dr. Frank Laws, an electrophysiologist and interventional cardiologist at Valley View.

On the other end of the Roaring Fork Valley, Aspen Valley Hospital consolidated several health care services into one campus, providing a single destination for its patients’ care needs, Aspen Valley CEO Dave Ressler said.

Many of Colorado’s recent leaps and strides toward better, more accessible health care were facilitated in part by the state’s expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act in 2013, said Cara Welch, the Colorado Hospital Association director of communications. 

Rural hospitals provide the foundation of health care throughout the state, but on the Western Slope, those hospitals can play an even larger role when requiring special services could mean an hours-long trip to Denver or Salt Lake City, Utah.

In the rare life-or-death situation, time spent on the road can play a deciding role in the outcome. On the flip side, people with special care needs, such as oncology, cardiology and chronic pain management, often choose where to live based on the services available within the area.

These factors combined with the rising cost of health care have contributed to a growing demand outside the metropolitan centers.

“Access to care is a major issue right now,” Laws explained. “A lot is economics, a lot of it is distance, but across the board the need is the same.”

Vail

Founded in 1962, Vail is far younger than Glenwood Springs and Aspen.

“This community is new to being old, and we are having to adapt quickly,” said Michael Holton, Vail Health’s chief marketing and experience officer.

But in the last several years, Vail Health has opened a number of new facilities. There’s the Shaw Regional Cancer Center in Edwards, a full-service facility that’s rare outside a city. The center also features Jack’s Place, a caring house available at low or no cost to those who need to travel for care.

The cardiac catheterization lab at Vail Health hospital allows quick diagnosis and treatment without going to a city.

The hospital in Vail also opened a heart catheterization lab in the past few years. That lab allows immediate diagnosis, and treatment is available from the hospital’s staff of cardiologists.

The hospital has also added a neurosurgeon, Dr. Ernest Braxton of Vail-Summit Orthopaedics and Neurosurgery. Vail-Summit is one of two orthopedic practices for the valley, and the Steadman Philippon Research Institute conducts leading-edge work.

Holton noted that the hospital has also added endocrinology doctors, something he said is “unique” in rural communities.

In addition to the existing services, Vail Health’s ongoing expansion to the hospital will add an on-site helipad, which will make patient transfer more efficient. The new facility is also expanding its covered parking, so older patients don’t have to walk through slush or snow to get to treatment. The emergency department is being expanded, and there will be more space available for physical and occupational therapy at Howard Head Sports Medicine.

Vail Health is also providing medical oversight at the Castle Peak Senior Care Community in Eagle, and a new heart health program will launch in December.

Glenwood Springs

When Laws hired on with Valley View in 2006, many of the hospital’s patients were traveling to Denver or out-of-state for some of their cardiology needs, he said. 

“I was recruited to enhance Valley View’s cardiovascular services and start a cardiac catheterization laboratory (cath lab),” Laws explained. “Learning how far people had to travel for certain services and procedures was a big eye-opener when I came here.”

Dr. Frank Laws joined Valley View Hospital in 2006 and helped found the organization’s heart and vascular cath lab.
Courtesy | Valley View Hospital

A cath lab is a facility with diagnostic imaging equipment used to visualize the heart’s arteries and chambers as well as treat any abnormalities found. 

As an interventional cardiologist, Laws provided the expertise needed to run the lab. Additionally, the facility drew more specialists to the hospital. Valley View’s cath lab was up and running by February 2007, just a few short months after Laws arrived. 

The hospital also built a heliport in 2006, creating the ability to ensure patients with needs beyond the services provided could receive timely care.

“Prior to the heliport construction,” Laws said, “if you needed to be transported anywhere by air, we had to take you by ambulance to the airport in Rifle and catch a flight from there.”

During a year-long sabbatical in 2014, Laws studied cardiac arrhythmia at the Tufts University School of Medicine. 

Upon returning to the Glenwood community with his newly earned expertise, Valley View was able to start treating atrial fibrillations, a chaotic arrhythmia that arises in the heart’s top left atrial cavity, Laws said.

“Atrial fibrillation is very common in the mountains because of the prevalence of sleep apnea,” he explained. 

The combination of services, specialists and equipment added since Laws’ arrival in Glenwood served to reduce travel times for patients, but also attracted new patients from around the globe.

Valley View Hospital’s heart and vascular cath lab brings patients from around the region as well as internationally.
Courtesy | Valley View Hospital

“The fact that we have created a destination program also provides an economic impetus for the area,” Laws said. “Having these services nearby reduces stress on the patients and the family’s that often have to care for them throughout treatment.”

Aspen 

Three phases into a four-phase master facility plan, Aspen Valley has endeavored to consolidate Pitkin County’s health care services into one convenient location, Ressler said. 

“Our hospital’s vision is to foster our community as the healthiest in the nation,” he said. “We are looking at our social responsibility as a community-owned organization very differently than hospitals traditionally have in the past.”

As part of a special tax district, the hospital receives a portion of property taxes collected around Pitkin County to fund its operations. 

One of Aspen Valley’s tenets is increased access to primary care, which was a focus during its recent expansions.

“Nowadays, data and evidence better illustrate the amount of total health care costs that can be contributed to chronic conditions,” Ressler said. “By taking a more holistic approach, a primary care practice can have greater impacts on the individuals willing to manage their lifestyles.” 

Constructed in 1977, the hospital has undergone a number of expansions in recent years providing space for in-house ear, nose and throat services, expanded cardiology services, ophthalmology and primary practices.

The campus also leases space for general surgery, orthopedics, obstetrician/gynecologists, a pain clinic, rheumatology, pulmonology and endocrinology, Ressler said. 

“By locating practices here on the campus, a patient can have adequate parking, and get all of their services done in one location,” he said. “Breast health is another example of where we have expanded. Our patients used to have to travel to Denver for breast biopsies and ultrasounds.”

While the pandemic reinforced the need for quality tele-health services, Aspen Valley was investing in its long-distance health care options prior to COVID-19.

Using an electronic platform, eClinicalWorks, the hospital enhanced its abilities to track medical records digitally.

“The improvements we made to our services in the last 10 years removes barriers to care,” Ressler said.

Statewide 

Keeping Colorado’s rural hospitals open is one of the best ways to ensure residents maintain a high level of access to care, Welch said.

“We’ve seen a lot of rural hospital closures around the country, but that’s not happening here,” she said. “That is in large part because the state was quick to step up and expand Medicaid.”

A rural hospital has not closed in Colorado since the ’80s, according to the hospital association’s data.

Welch said community support and strong hospital leadership also played major roles in keeping Colorado’s hospitals open.

“Collaboration of our hospitals as a system is another factor,” Welch explained. “At times, they may compete for some business, but they collaborate in a number of ways that benefits all the hospitals throughout the state.”

Those efforts have paid off in a number of ways, particularly with reducing the need for patients to travel, Welch said.

“A lot of the higher acuity specialty care do still tend to come to the Denver Metro area,” she said. “But, all our hospitals have really focused on what services they need to provide their communities, so people don’t have to travel as far.”

An unclear correlation: Colorado clinicians and researchers talk Alzheimer’s and other dementias risk, care in mountain communities

It isn’t noticeable at first, starting with changes to the brain that the brain can compensate for, meaning no real impact on day-to-day functions or cognition.

But as time passes the brain can no longer compensate for these changes and the damage it’s experiencing. Subtle problems with memory and thinking begin to pop up. Subtle turns to noticeable. Noticeable turns to inhibiting the ability to carry out everyday activities and eventually to requiring around-the-clock care.

This is the broad view progression from pre-clinical to severe Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disease that becomes worse with time and age, and is the most common cause of dementia, as explained by the Alzheimer’s Association.

In Colorado, an estimated 76,000 people are living with Alzheimer’s dementia, and that number is expected to increase 21% to 92,000 by 2025, a 2020 Alzheimer’s Association report states. As of July 2019, 14.6% of Coloradans or roughly 840,000 people were 65 or older, U.S. Census data show.

But while generally speaking it’s been shown that living in higher altitude communities in places like Colorado can lead to a more active, healthier lifestyle and even prolonged life, how does living at altitude impact and correlate with degenerative brain diseases that cause dementia, like Alzheimer’s?

In short, the answer is complicated and not well researched by scientists and clinicians, as explained by Dr. Huntington Potter, director of the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

“As far as I know, there isn’t a lot of evidence one way or another about high altitudes versus low altitudes for Alzheimer’s disease risk,” Potter said. “We can’t say one way or another whether high altitude is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s.”

DEMENTIA AT ALTITUDE

Alzheimer’s disease is namely the result of the accumulation of the protein fragment beta-amyloid outside of neurons in the brain and of an abnormal form of the protein tau inside neurons, as described by the Alzheimer’s Association.

These accumulations over time can contribute to the damage and death of neurons by interfering with neuron-to-neuron communication at synapses, an Alzheimer’s Association report says, and can block the essential transport of nutrients and other essential molecules inside neurons — resulting in early symptoms of memory loss, apathy and depression; later symptoms of impaired communication, disorientation, confusion, poor judgment, behavioral changes; and ultimately difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking as neuron damage gets worse.

At the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center, which is part of both the CU Anschutz Medical Campus and School of Medicine, clinicians and researchers are dedicated to discovering effective early diagnostics, preventions, treatments and ultimately cures for Alzheimer’s disease and related neurodegenerative disorders, according to its website.

For Potter, that means looking at biomarkers or diagnostic proteins in the blood that can help clinicians predict the disease earlier; conducting projects that look at the longitudinal sort of lifespan of people with Alzheimer’s disease; and other research that can quickly be translated to better care, treatment and hopefully a cure.

Right now, the center is studying a drug called Leukine, which preliminary data shows may actually improve Alzheimer’s disease in the short term, Potter explained. The center also is studying other drugs that attack the disease, which so far are looking very promising as well.

“Leukine may be the first one we found that looks promising but we have several coming up that look promising as well,” Potter said.

“It’s been a tremendous privilege to work with all of the clinicians and scientists and scientist clinicians at the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center, and we’re absolutely determined to make Colorado one of the places that discovers the cure for Alzheimer’s disease.”

When it comes to looking at the potential correlation between living at high altitude and the risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementia-inducing diseases, Potter and Dr. Peter Pressman of the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center said it would take great effort, time and funding to research.

Pressman, who is a behavioral neurologist and researcher with the center, said on top of securing and carefully selecting a large group of people living at altitude to participate in a study, researchers would also have to follow that group for around a decade to get meaningful results — which is not impossible, but not easy.

“It’s easy to fund a study for a few years. People give you money to do something for two to three years, but two to three years is not enough time for a process as slow as Alzheimer’s and dementia to really even pick up,” Pressman said. “I’m not saying that’s not possible, it’s doable, but it would take some effort.”

Dr. Brooke Allen, neurologist, founder of Roaring Fork Neurology in Basalt and medical director at Renew Roaring Fork, an assisted living and memory care center in Glenwood Springs, expressed similar thoughts.

Allen said as a part of any mild cognitive impairment or dementia evaluation, her team checks the oxygen level a patient has and considers the altitude at which that person spends most of their time.

Lower oxygen levels can certainly contribute to people experiencing confusion, dizziness and mild short-term memory issues. But outside of looking at oxygen levels and how they could be contributing to symptoms, Allen said she doesn’t consider altitude a higher risk situation.

“I’ve never really personally looked and it … but I think doing a retrospective sort of epidemiology review would probably make sense at first to even see if there’s a need to research it,” Allen said.

At Roaring Fork Neurology, where Allen and her team diagnose and treat headaches, migraines, concussions, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and other disorders of the nervous system, about 25% of the practice is treating patients with some sort of dementia or mild cognitive impairment, Allen said — a percentage that’s stayed fairly stable over the past 10 years she’s been working in the Basalt area.

This mild cognitive impairment means patients haven’t lost the ability to carry out the activities of daily living, but are having some trouble with things like using new equipment, not being able to work a remote control or having more trouble with finance calculations, Allen said.

To treat patients experiencing this mild cognitive impairment, Allen’s team first looks at risk factors like age, gender and DNA, which are not modifiable but are contributors; high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, obesity, and exercise levels, which are modifiable; and B12 levels, signs of infection, a potential brain tumor or structural abnormality and oxygen levels, factors which can “reverse” the symptoms being experienced if they exist and are addressed.

But overall, Allen said she feels Roaring Fork Valley residents 65 and older tend to be much younger than their age in terms of their lifestyle, which is a positive in terms of dementia prevention.

About four years ago, Allen and her team conducted a long-term pre-clinical Alzheimer’s trial as part of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative’s Generation Program, a study that looked at the effectiveness of preventative treatments for individuals between 65 and 75 who had no symptoms of dementia.

Allen said over 250 people came in to participate in the study and all generally led healthy, active lifestyles.

“I think in our valley, I’ve experienced meeting those kinds of people and not thinking of altitude as a risk factor but as a lifestyle opportunity in a rural area like ours,” Allen said of the people who participated in the recent study.

Looking at this potential correlation between living at high altitude and risk of Alzheimer’s dementia and others is not just a difficult feat for Colorado researchers — little research with concrete findings exists nationally and globally as well.

One study published in 2015 by Dr. Stephen Thielke in JAMA Psychiatry looked at deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s dementia reported in 58 counties in California to try to determine whether rates of dementia were associated with average altitude of residence. The study found that the counties at higher elevation generally had lower rates of dementia mortality.

“Oxidative abnormalities have been long proposed to be central to the pathogenesis of dementia,” the study research letter states. “One group of researchers previously found that hypoxia prevents neurodegeneration in rats in experimental Alzheimer disease and hypothesized that adaptation to induced hypoxia may prevent dementia. To our knowledge, our work is the first to find epidemiological evidence for such effects. Additional work is needed to determine whether this relationship holds in other populations.”

But beyond this study, there isn’t much conclusive evidence for or against a correlation, as emphasized by Dr. Brent Kious, a psychiatrist, assistant professor and researcher with both University of Utah Health and the school’s Department of Psychiatry.

Kious has studied the link between living at high altitude and major depressive disorder, anxiety and suicide, and said he and his research team have been interested in the impact of altitude on the incidence and median age of onset of Parkinson’s disease, but has not studied this impact or the effects of altitude on dementia risk.

However, Kious said decrements in cognitive performance due to chronic exposure to moderately high elevation might not necessarily translate into an increased risk of dementia, since the symptoms of dementia depend both on baseline cognitive performance and on pathological neurodegenerative processes.

“It is not clear whether altitude would affect those neurodegenerative processes or not, though there is some reason to think that they involve oxidative damage … so relative hypoxia might slow them,” Kious said via email. However, he went on to note that relative and prolonged hypoxia has also been associated with dementia risk, too. “In any case, a good epidemiological study of the association between altitude and dementia should control for things that might be associated with both.”

BETTER UNDERSTANDING AND ACCESS TO CARE

While there may not be good data for or against high altitude as an Alzheimer’s and dementia risk factor, there is evidence that people living in more rural communities do not have the same access to dementia care and treatment as those living in urban areas.

According to the 2020 Snapshot of Rural Health in Colorado, produced by the Colorado Rural Health Center, 721,500 people are living in rural Colorado and 19% of the rural population is age 65 or older. Rural is defined as a non-metropolitan county is no cities over 50,000 residents, the snapshot report says.

In Pitkin County, which is considered rural, 20.3% of the population is 65 or older, according to 2019 census data. And while Chad Federwitz, a gerontologist — specialist in the field of gerontology, or study of aging — and manager of Pitkin County Senior Services, says Alzheimer’s dementia and other dementias aren’t really prevalent locally and that he hasn’t seen any correlation or link between living at high altitude and dementia risk, he does know anecdotally that people may move downvalley, to Grand Junction or the Front Range if they have onset or early dementia because of lack of care resources in the upper Roaring Fork Valley area.

“Given the nature of our rural-ish community, we don’t have the same resources,” Federwitz said, referring to things like long-term assisted living and memory care options, professionals trained in Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and gerontology, and at-home caregiving service providers. “You can go to Grand Junction or the Front Range and have pages and pages of resources, as a opposed to (a handful or so) here.”

Before Federwitz started as the manager of Pitkin County Senior Services, he spent about seven years working in dementia care in the Boulder area, and is an Alzheimer’s Association community educator.

He said he feels education and access to informed and professional dementia and memory care is extremely important for Alzheimer’s and other dementia patients especially because there are still a lot of misconceptions surrounding what Alzheimer’s and dementia are, and unique challenges that come with caring for someone who has a degenerative brain disease.

Allen expressed similar thoughts, noting that a big part of dementia care and treatment is caregiver access and preventing caregiver burnout, especially with more severe states of dementia.

She said she feels a lot of times where people with dementia live in relation to their support system “matters in terms of their outcomes.” And while Allen feels there are an unusually large number of people that live in the Roaring Fork Valley that don’t have family in the valley, many people do tend to have good support networks through friends, which is important if that person is experiencing dementia.

“It really does take a village to help individuals cope with the changes happening in the brain and a lot of times that’s really picked up by a friend,” Allen said. “Oftentimes adult children of these individuals don’t live here, but we try to identify someone to support them, and there certainly are resources in the valley for homecare and private caregivers.”

But while there are some dementia care resources in the Roaring Fork Valley and other more rural Colorado communities, the Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center is working to do more to develop meaningful relationships with health care providers and dementia patients in the state’s mountain communities as part of its mission.

According to Pressman, who is heading this charge on behalf of the CU center, a lot of projects are in the planning stages and process of acquiring funding, but include virtually educating medical providers, nurse practitioners and primary care doctors on Alzheimer’s and general healthy brain aging, and mutual, participatory research with rural Colorado communities and communities of color.

Pressman explained that a lot of research related to Alzheimer’s overwhelmingly is based on middle class, well-educated, white participants. And so while researchers think they know a lot about the disease in general, they really only know about the disease related to this demographic group.

Through the center’s outreach and efforts to better connect with underrepresented communities, Pressman hopes to conduct better science and better serve the larger Colorado community.

“What motivates me is trying to do good work, trying to do good science and to makes sure our results actually represent real life,” Pressman said. “We want to make sure we’re helping everybody, not just a niche group, and that our services are available equitably to as many people as possible.”

Although there’s no clear correlation between living in higher altitude, mountain communities and dementia and Alzheimer’s risk, it is clear that as America’s aging population reaches 65 and older, these medical conditions will remain a relevant risk for seniors.

And with this continued risk and prevalence comes a need for more education, more research, more awareness and more connections surrounding the conditions, according to Federwitz.

“We all agree dementia is a horrible thing that can be overly daunting for everyone connected … but you as a person with a family member who has dementia or as a person with dementia, you’re not alone,” Federwitz said. “In my opinion and experience, there are hidden blessings. Joy can still happen. Happiness can still happen, laughter can still happen, genuine connection can still happen, even if all of those things happen in a moment.”

LIVING WITH ALZHEIMER’S

Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease that becomes worse with time and age, and is the most common cause of dementia, as explained by the Alzheimer’s Association. Dementia is not a single disease, but the general term for cognitive changes that limit independence, like loss of memory, language, problem solving and other thinking abilities.

Other diseases like Alzheimer’s that cause dementia are cerebrovascular disease, Lewy Body disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

An estimated 5.8 million Americans age 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s dementia, the third and most developed phase of the disease, says the Alzheimer’s Association, the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support and research according to its website.

Alzheimer’s disease is namely the result of the accumulation of the protein fragment beta-amyloid outside of neurons in the brain and of an abnormal form of the protein tau inside neurons, as described by the Alzheimer’s Association.

These accumulations over time can contribute to the damage and death of neurons by interfering with neuron-to-neuron communication at synapses, an Alzheimer’s Association report says, and can block the essential transport of nutrients and other essential molecules inside neurons—resulting in early symptoms of memory loss, apathy and depression; later symptoms of impaired communication, disorientation, confusion, poor judgment, behavioral changes; and ultimately difficulty speaking, swallowing and walking as neuron damage gets worse.

Editor’s note: This is part 2 of a four-part series on longevity in the High Country. The series is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Vail Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Summit Daily News and Steamboat Pilot. Read more at aspentimes.com/longevity.

New procedures for old bones: ‘Keeping people active’ and its effects on longevity

Vail resident Harvey Simpson skied roughly 30 days this last season. It was a fraction of the 100-day seasons he enjoyed a few years ago, but it was, of course, an abbreviated season.

Also, Harvey is now 94 years old.

“I’m looking forward to next season,” he said. “Getting back up to 75 days again.”

For Simpson, skiing is the activity that keeps him young. And skiing is indeed, oftentimes, a young person’s sport, which no doubt helps Simpson feel young while he’s doing it. But the fact that he has some kind of activity keeping him going is the more important part, says Gini Patterson with Timberline Adult Day Services in Frisco.

“Whether you have a history of a physical impairment — we’ll call that a total joint replacement — or a mental issue — like memory loss — it’s so important to stay active, mentally and physically,” she said.

Simpson has had two total joint replacements, one on each hip. He said without them, he wouldn’t be skiing.

“The pain was just too great,” he said.

Following his second hip replacement, Simpson took a hard look at his technique. Now that he was skiing pain free, would it be possible to be a better skier at 90 than he was a 80? It was, indeed, possible, said his coach, Gunnar Moberg. With a renewed focus on technique, Simpson hit the slopes with a new passion. His advice to aging skiers: “Improve your technique, and don’t fall.”

Ski racing at 85

A combination of improved technique and total joint replacement technology has made masters ski racing more competitive than ever, especially in the older age categories.

Eagle resident Charlie Hauser, bored with traditional skiing, took up the competitive side of the sport in his 70s.

Now, 85, he is preparing to enter a new age category as a downhill ski racer, after competing in his last race in the 80-84 division in February. He says there’s more ski racers competing into their 80s than you might think.

“We’ve got all sorts of people with a couple of (replaced) knees or a couple of hips, or all four of them,” Hauser said. “These people just keep going.

“One of the greatest things that have happened is total joint replacements,” Hauser added. “It has taken people who would have been absolute cripples, and restored them to functionality. These people that have had total joints would not be competing otherwise, none of them.”

Hauser, himself a former surgeon, says the culture in the High Country of Colorado is different when it comes to being active.

“The orthopedists here are replacing joints because they want their patients to go back to skiing, and go back to their other activities,” Hauser said. “In other parts of the country, which aren’t as familiar with this, they’ll say ‘we’re replacing this, but you can’t ski anymore.’”

A patient with The Steadman Clinic enjoys some powdery turns on Vail Mountain during the clinic’s ski day for patients in January of 2020.
The Steadman Clinic | Special to the Daily

Recreation expectations

Dr. Ray Kim, an orthopedic surgeon who replaces hips and knees at The Steadman Clinic in Vail, said the expectations placed on orthopedists across Colorado’s High Country are more than you’ll find in other areas of the country or even the state.

Kim worked in Denver before moving to Vail.

“The patients that I took care of in Denver were different compared to our patients up here in the mountains,” Kim said. “Not that the folks in Denver are not active, I think in general people from Colorado enjoy recreation and are active, but I do think the activity expectations and demands of our community up here in the mountains is at a higher level. We just have a very high percentage people who are aggressive skiers, aggressive hikers, aggressive cyclists, it’s just part of the thread of our community here. People just really worship recreation.”

Kim says when patients visit him from outside of the community, often times it is because they are aware of that culture.

“We have folks that have flown in from other parts of the country and even from outside the country that understand the recreational culture here in Vail, and seek out having a knee or hip replaced because of our understanding of that philosophy,” Kim said.

Kim said that was also what attracted him to The Steadman Clinic.

“Richard Steadman’s vision of keeping people active … his whole goal was to get them back on the ski mountain,” Kim said. “And we’ve kept that tradition going over the years, in multiple different disciplines. His specialty was obviously knee preservation, but the clinic has expanded that to include everything from spines to hands to foot and ankle.”

The Steadman Clinic’s philosophy, “keeping people active,” has been the company’s goal since Dr. Richard Steadman first started performing microfracture surgery in Vail in the early 1990s.
The Steadman Clinic | Special to the Daily

Keeping people active

The Steadman Clinic still uses the slogan “keeping people active,” which was based on Steadman’s philosophy.

“We know there’s huge advantages to keeping people active, there’s a lot of benefits from a cardiac standpoint, from a bone density standpoint, from a fitness and weight loss standpoint, and now there’s recent studies looking at behavioral health advantages to staying active,” Kim said.

Patterson says for some aging people, a big knee or hip replacement surgery may not be possible. That’s why she embraces a philosophy based on Olympic silver medalist skier Jimmy Heuga’s “can do” effort to stay active following his diagnosis with MS.

“Do what you can do to stay active,” she said. “That philosophy applies whether you’re in your 20s and diagnosed with MS, or you’re in your 90s and your mind is not working as sharply as it used to. What can you do?”

Patterson is currently caring for a 97-year-old woman at Timberline.

“She is still physically active, and still walks,” Patterson said.

Kim said he believes that the longevity people enjoy in the mountains is directly linked to the dedication people in the high country of Colorado have to staying active.

“The higher activity level drives better health and longevity,” he said. “I just can’t find any other explanation.”

Tips for adjusting sleeping patterns while at home more

The phrase “you can sleep when you’re dead” is mortally unwise advice.

The importance of sleep is a misunderstood science. Many people believe that they can “will” their way out of lack of sleep. Lack of sleep has been shown in a number of studies to affect cognition, our ability to think, motor function and coordination as well as our moods by increasing anger and depression.

If you’ve always wanted to tend to your sleep patterns, now’s your chance. With the majority of the public staying at home due to the coronavirus spread, we’ve all got a little more time on our hands. Calculate how long it takes to shower, get ready and commute back and forth to work, shuttle the kids around to their school sports or extracurricular activities — you’ve got that extra time to sleep. Your schedule isn’t packed with committee meetings, dinners or happy hours right now either, so free time is abundant. Take this opportunity to learn the importance of sleep and practice it.

Dr. Jonathan Feeney, who specializes in family medicine at Vail Health, shares his expertise and some tips on the topic of sleep.

“There is a fair degree of variation between how much sleep people need. As a general principle, adults should get a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night,” Feeney said. 

When we sleep, we allow our brain and body to rest. Lack of sleep promotes inflammatory markers, which can affect heart diseases such as heart attacks, atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure. It can also lead to increased risk for cancers, affect our immune system’s ability to fight off infections such as the common cold as well as affect hormones that are involved in obesity and diabetes. It also affects the speed at which our brains function.

Many people think they will be more productive if they are awake longer so they can do more during the day.

“People who feel that they are too busy to sleep actually have a well-documented decrease in performance in their jobs,” Feeney said.

“Studies have shown that in fatal truck driver accidents, 50% of the drivers were sleep-deprived. Studies on medical interns showed sleep-deprived doctors made more mistakes. Issues are generally associated with less than six hours of sleep,” Feeney said.

Can we ever “catch up” on sleep?

“An individual never recovers the sleep lost but the adverse effects resolve when an individual becomes rested and returns to a normal sleep pattern,” Feeney said. 

Good sleep patterns don’t just happen overnight.

“Proper sleep hygiene involves going to bed and waking up at a set time, sleeping in a cool, dark room, avoiding alcohol and using the bedroom for sleep, not as an entertainment center. A TV should not be in the bedroom,” Feeney said.

Feeney states that there are a number of medical conditions that do affect sleep that should be addressed. These conditions include snoring, obstructive sleep apnea, bladder issues, reflux, obesity and musculoskeletal issues.

“You can do a simple at-home test where you wear a probe on your finger to see where your oxygen level is at overnight. Then you can follow that up with a formal sleep study that helps you figure out what you need to be at an appropriate oxygen level, whatever altitude you’re sleeping at,” Feeney said.

Go ahead, turn the alarm clock off, let yourself sleep longer than you normally would and discover how it feels to be well-rested during this unusual time at home.  

Eagle County Commissioners: Bending the curve on behavioral health

Just over a month ago, during our annual State of the County presentation, we challenged ourselves and our community to find ways to influence negative trends we want to disrupt, or in other words, to “bend the curve” toward positive outcomes. We shared our belief that when we see the trajectory of an issue going in a direction that is not optimal, we can choose to wring our hands or roll up our sleeves and make a difference. We said we have the right people in the right place at the right time to empower action. Wow, was that an understatement.

Vail Health’s pledge of $60 million over 10 years toward addressing critical behavioral health needs in the Eagle Valley is a game changer. In partnership with other community groups, a new nonprofit will be created to build facilities and improve access to care. The commitment is jaw-droppingly huge.

There is no doubt we are in the middle of a mental health crisis. More than one million Coloradans struggle with a behavioral health condition. Eagle County averages nearly a suicide attempt per day — 324 in 2018 — and nearly one in four local 7th and 8th graders seriously considered suicide in 2017. County voters in 2017 approved a tax on marijuana to be used for mental health services. Since then, community groups, schools and individuals have stepped up to fill the gap and provide care for our residents.

Now, we have the opportunity to build a state-of-the-art behavioral health system, encompassing both mental health services and substance abuse and addiction services, that will provide care for people no matter their circumstances. The hope is that this model can be replicated in other communities experiencing the same challenges we are.

With credit to Vail Health for being a leader and champion for the cause, the creation of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health is truly the culmination of a tremendous effort by dozens of community members and organizations. It is a testament to the power and potential of everyone in this county. The right people in the right place at the right time, taking action and bending the curve.

Haims: Living with Parkinson’s and turning challenges into success

Life has a way of presenting us with many challenges. Those that face the challenges and have the fortitude and perseverance are the ones who experience success.

Over the years, I have had to take more than a couple profile tests. Perhaps my first was with a college advisor who explained to me that such a test would help him, and me, better understand my personality traits and therefore be helpful in directing me to a college best suited to me and my goals. I took another when applying to the Air Force and another when purchasing Visiting Angels.

I have found a recurring question often found in these test — “tell me about your heroes.” Steadfastly, I have always responded that I do not have heroes. Rather, I have people I respect and admire. Consistently, all such people are those who have experienced adversity and turned challenges into success.

Life is a challenge

Challenges are a part of life. Without them, life would be meaningless as we’d have little understanding of achievement and failure. Life would be complacent and boring.

Facing and living through life’s challenges and adversities provides us with experience that define our lives. The secret to our successes is rooted in our challenges, failures, and adversities.

As with any ailment, people have the choice of letting the disease take over or fighting back. Fighting back against Parkinson’s is taking many people to places they may have never thought of. Some are attending yoga, Tai Chi, pool exercise programs, and even the boxing ring.

Recently, I assisted a few locals to a Parkinson’s therapy session at a somewhat unlikely place — a martial arts and boxing studio. If the paradox is not clear, let me illuminate. Parkinson’s inhibits movement and boxing is all about movement.

Research is showing that non-contact boxing is therapeutically beneficial for Parkinson’s patients — physically and mentally. Physically, boxing is proving to help balance, agility, and hand-eye coordination. Mentally, boxing provides a stress release and is empowering. The sport teaches people to be mentally strong and overcome adversity. If nothing else, a right hook to a punching bag or strike mitt can curb anger and can be quite cathartic.

One gentleman in the group is just shy of his 90th birthday. I was informed that prior to his joining the boxing program, his family was distraught that they could not motivate him to get out of the chair. As I sat and watched him work out, I was quite impressed every time I heard the loud crack from his hands as he hit the hand pads of the instructor. Should I make it to be close to 90 years of age, I hope I move as deftly as he. He is inspirational and has turned formidable adversity into success.  

Others in the group were in their 70s and 80s. Each had donned their red boxing gloves except for one who danced around the floor mats in bright pink gloves. Yes, women too participate. 

Watching the comradery of this group and their united front to work through the difficulties this movement disorder presents them with is encouraging to me and should be encouraging to anyone who may be fighting a health ailment.

I admire each and every one of these people. They have not given up, nor do they whine and ask “why me?” While I am sure each has had their down moments, they have not thrown in the towel and given up. They have chosen to fight adversity.

My mother has Parkinson’s, as did my grandmother. It sucks. But does Parkinson’s suck more or less than cancer, multiple sclerosis (MS), cardiovascular diseases, ALS, vision or hearing loss?  

While many people living in our valley are pretty fit and try to be healthy, it won’t last forever. If we want to remain in the valley we love when life’s challenges present themselves, we must take action NOW to promote and develop resources that can help us stay here.

Within the past three months, I know of four longtime locals who have had to leave the valley they love because we do not have the resources needed to assist them. (I’m sure there’s many more.)

There are organizations that are being proactive. Howard Head Sports Medicine has developed a program called Brain & Balance. The program helps treat stroke patients, Parkinson’s patients and those with impaired balance and proprioception concerns. Additionally, the Parkinson’s Association of the Rockies has brought Power Punch to both our community and Colorado.

We are all going to get old and experience challenges with our health. Get involved, donate, better utilize resources we already have, and think out of the box. These are things we can do to help build a community that will assist us in ensuring we can remain in the valley we love.

Judson Haims is the owner of Visiting Angels Home Care in Eagle County.  He is an advocate for our elderly and is available to answer questions. His contact information is, www.visitingangels.com/comtns, 970-328-5526.

The key to longevity is lifestyle habits

Sponsored Content

While there’s no foolproof way to ensure a long life, our choices along the way have a lot to do with it

Written By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Kaiser Permanente

Colorado mountain resort communities have some of the highest life expectancies in the nation, but it’s likely not the beautiful mountains that keep people living longer.

The lifestyles of those who live here have more to do with longevity than geography, according to research on what’s known as Blue Zones — regions in the world with the most centenarians. Their lifestyle choices are what they all have in common.

“Being able to consistently eat healthy and exercise regularly has been shown to maintain health as we age,” said Dr. Jeannine Benson, Internal Medicine Physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Edwards Medical Offices. “These lifestyle changes can prevent diabetes, heart diseases, strokes, cancer and many other health issues. Maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle can also keep joints and muscles healthy, which improves mobility as we age.”

The elders in Blue Zones have nine common lifestyle habits, including moving their bodies regularly, eating plenty of vegetables, winding down from stress and never overeating. They value family, feel a sense of purpose and belonging, and surround themselves with friends who also practice these habits. They also enjoy a glass of wine or two a day, according to the research.

These lifestyle choices can have major impacts on overall health, but Venable said there’s no surefire way to ensure longevity.

“Prevention is one of the key aspects of medical care,” said Dr. Carol Venable, Internal Medicine Physician with Kaiser Permanente’s Frisco Medical Offices. “Certainly not everything is preventable, but it is important to prevent the diseases we can. Vaccinations, healthy lifestyle choices, avoidance of substances that are deleterious to health, screening for those cancers for which we have good data for screening, testing for treatable diseases — like diabetes, hypertension, hepatitis C, HIV, etc. — and control of chronic medical conditions are all important.”

Preventative care for the body, mind

Younger, healthier people might not need to see a doctor annually, but annual checkups do become more important with age, Benson said.

“It is important to have regular checkups with your doctor and make sure that you are up to date on age and gender appropriate cancer screenings.  It is also important to find activities that can help keep your brain active.  This is just as important as keeping your body active,” Benson said. “Mental Health is also important as we age. With aging, issues like depression and anxiety can come up. These things are important to address with your doctor as well.”

This proactive approach to personal medical care goes hand in hand with healthy lifestyle habits. Benson said brain exercises include social interaction, reading books or doing puzzles, continued learning such as taking a class or watching an educational program, and volunteering or working in order to feel a sense of purpose.

“Having a purpose and something to contribute to the community is very enriching,” she said.

The amount of physical exercise that’s right for a person varies. Venable said exercise plans are not “one size fits all.” She said patients should create an exercise plan with their primary care physician.

For those who may hate a gym environment, Venable said to look to outdoor exercises that are popular in the mountains such as skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, biking, kayaking, paddleboarding, yoga and other activities. Even activities such as gardening can be a good way to move the body without going to a gym, Benson added.

“Find something that you like to do, but also involves exercise,” she said. “It is also helpful to have a friend or a group of friends join you. This can help keep you motivated and you can cheer each other on.”

As people age, spending time indoors tends to become more common, but research shows that could be detrimental to the various aspects of overall physical and mental health.

“I think it is important for folks to attempt to get out of the home, interact with people and be active in the community,” Benson said. “Isolation tends to lead to a sedentary life. We know that keeping the body active helps the mind stay healthy, as well.”

In orthopaedic care, a focus on activity preservation

Sponsored Content

Keeping people doing the activities they love is an essential contributor to overall health and longevity

Written By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Vail-Summit Orthopaedics

Following orthopedic surgery, the majority of patients are interested in one specific outcome: returning to the activities they love doing.

People often think of overall health as boiling down to eating right and exercising, but there’s more to it.

“It means doing things that give you joy. These types of activities are invaluable to physical and mental health. And this can, in turn, lead to longer life expectancy,” said Dr. Bill Sterett, an orthopaedic surgeon at Vail-Summit Orthopaedics and the Head Team Physician for the U.S. Women’s Ski Team since 1997. “Too often people let activity slide for too long. Then they never get back to them, leading to a degradation of health.”

Too often, Sterett and his colleagues at Vail-Summit Orthopaedics hear patients say things like, “I gave up jogging five years ago,” or “Three years ago, I quit walking after dinner.” When the activities that were once part of a routine become long forgotten, it becomes harder to get the body back to where it used to be, Sterett said.

That’s why Vail-Summit Orthopaedics is focusing its overall and post-surgical care on activity preservation rather than simply returning patients to a baseline level of comfort.

“This is a new era. We’re starting to zero in on the fact that people don’t only want to be pain free,” Sterett said. “They want to be back doing the things they love. This fact can and should inform our approach when considering treatment options. … The art in this practice is to figure out the least amount of intervention needed to keep doing the activities we want to do.”

‘Not trying is failure’

In orthopaedic medicine, when people talk about preserving our joints as we age, what they’re really referring to is preserving and maintaining a person’s chosen activities. Injuries vary, as do the recovery processes for all patients, but Sterett said patience is key.

Patients must believe in their ability to work through the difficult recovery period, which is why Sterett said having a goal activity to return to is beneficial.

“The finish line goes from ‘when I’m pain free’ to ‘when I’m doing the things I love again.’ That can be very motivating,” Sterett said. “Of course, there will be instances when people are unable to perform at preinjury

levels. Based upon our initial evaluation, we can often predict this. In that case, we can be up front with the patient before surgery. Then we can help them understand what they can do to stay active post-surgery. But failing to get to our goal isn’t failure. Not trying is failure.”

Aging is a natural process that takes a toll on various parts of the body, but Vail-Summit Orthopaedics reminds patients that aging should never mean abandoning an active lifestyle. The physicians are helping patients who might not be able to push themselves as hard as they once could realize they can still do things they love and different levels. The main prescription, though, is to always keep moving.

“Health doesn’t happen to us, it needs a coordinated plan,” Sterett said. “After surgery, we lose muscle mass, energy and we hurt. It isn’t easy.”

Weight-bearing and load-bearing exercises have a huge beneficial effect on the heart and mind, as well as muscles. Sterett advises patients to exercise the heart by increasing their heart rate into their particular safe zone for 20 minutes, four times per week.

“Identifying the right exercises for your particular level of activity can be crucial. This is another factor that will vary from person to person,” he said. “My advice in this department is to focus on the quality of the exercise rather than the quantity. Find the balance that is right for your body.”