Announcing the 6th Annual Art of Dying Conference in NYC

Presented by the Open Center, the three-day event will be held October 13 through October 16, 2017

Banner advertising the Art of Dying ConferenceThe New York Open Center is presenting its 6th annual Art of Dying Conference in New York City from October 13 through October 16, 2017. Featuring well-known end-of-life experts such as David Kessler, Stephen Jenkinson and Henry Fersko-Weiss, the conference will focus on the scientific, spiritual and practical issues involved in living and dying well.

Sponsored in part by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation and the Friedman Family Foundation, the conference explores many of the most pressing issues facing our aging and death-averse society. Discussions will focus on a number of questions, including:

  • How can we work more compassionately and intelligently with the dying?
  • How can we face our own death and the death of those we love with courage?
  • How can death become less frightening both for ourselves and for our loved ones?
  • How can we develop more enlightened care for the dying even in our environment of technological medicine?

Speakers will include a diverse array of practitioners from various disciplines, including physicians, nurses, psychologists, theologians and social workers. Pre-conference seminars will begin at 10:00 a.m. on October 13 and include a presentation by Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW, the celebrated author of “Die Wise.” An alternate session will be offered by Henry Fersko-Weiss, who will provide experiential exercises and hands-on training in death doula techniques. A third concurrent session presented by Megory Anderson, Ph.D will explore ritual and meaning at the end of life.

Photo collage of art of dying conference speakers

Featured speakers at the Art of dying Conference Oct. 13-16, 2017

Plenary addresses on Friday evening will be followed by plenary sessions and workshops on Saturday and Sunday. Featured topics include grief and loss; ethical decision-making at the end of life; caring for dying animal companions; the mechanics of energy and consciousness; death midwifery; and much more. Saturday’s session will be followed by dinner and an evening performance of Rumi’s poetry by Coleman Barks and renowned concert artist Eugene Friesen.

Early ticket sales for the Art of Dying Conference are currently closed. However, you can still purchase tickets through the Open Center through October 13. Pre and post conference seating is limited and can only be purchased with main conference tickets. To learn more about current availability, call the Open Center at 212-219-2527 ext. 2.

For those who cannot attend the live event, portions of the conference, including plenaries and a selection of workshops, will be available on October 13, 14 and 15 via live video feed. To learn more about registering for the video conference visit the Institute for Better Health, the co-sponsor of the webcast.

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Frequent, Prolonged Periods of Sitting May Lead to Premature Death

New study finds that excessive bouts of sedentary behavior could cause early death

A new study has found that regularly sitting for prolonged periods of time is a risk factor for premature death. The findings were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on Oct. 3, 2017. 

Man sitting on a couch with laptop indicating sedentary behaviorThe study followed nearly 8,000 adults aged 45 and older over a four year period. Researchers found that people who sat the most had nearly twice the risk of dying over those four years than people who sat the least. The risk of an early death increases not only with total number of hours spent seated per day, but also with long periods of uninterrupted sitting. Taking a break to walk around every 30 minutes seemed to help decrease the risk of an early death.

Negative effects caused by excessive sitting were not affected by the participants’ age, sex, race or BMI. The findings also indicate that exercising daily or semi-daily does not negate the effects of sedentary behavior.

“What’s most troubling is it’s like I exercise in the morning and I think I’m good,” said lead researcher Keith Diaz, “but in addition to exercise I should also be mindful of not being sedentary for long periods throughout the day.” Diaz is an associate research scientist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

Diaz mentioned that there should be guidelines for sitting, much like the CDC’s guidelines for exercising. “We think a more specific guideline [for sitting] could read something like, ‘For every 30 consecutive minutes of sitting, stand up and move/walk for five minutes at brisk pace to reduce the health risks from sitting.'”

Study Methods and Findings

Previous studies have found links between prolonged sitting and early death. But those studies usually relied on participants’ personal testimony of their sitting habits, an iffy method to say the least. However this new study tracked participants’ sitting time with a hip-mounted accelerometer, then correlated movement time with the risk of death during the study period.

Researchers found that, on average, sedentary behavior accounted for just over 12 hours of a person’s 16-hour waking day. The average time spent sitting at a stretch, i.e. one sitting, was 11 minutes. Over an average follow-up of four years, 340 participants died.

It is interesting to note the differences between total daily sedentary time and uninterrupted sedentary time. For instance, people with uninterrupted sitting times of 30 minutes or longer had the highest risk of death if daily sitting time was longer than 12.5 hours per day. However, for those whose total daily sedentary times were low, single-sitting stretch time had no effect on mortality.

“We found that there wasn’t a threshold or cutoff where one’s risk for death dramatically increased,” said Diaz. “To give you a specific number, those who sat for more than 13 hours per day had a 2-fold (or 200 percent) greater risk of death compared to those who sat for less than about 11 hours per day.”

Stretch-time sitting and its impact on death proved to be a bit harder to pinpoint. Nevertheless, the study indicated that participants who regularly sat for less than 30 minutes at a time had a 55 percent lower chance of death than those who usually sat for longer than 30 minutes at a stretch. And those who frequently sat for more than 90 minutes at a stretch had nearly twice the risk of death than those who sat less than 90 minutes at once.

Reasons For Death Unclear

It’s not exactly known how prolonged sitting increases the risk of an early death.

Woman sitting in the forest symbolizing inactivityThere is evidence that suggests, but does not prove, that it could be about how our body handles blood sugar,” Diaz said. “We think it’s through a kind of diabetic pathway. When our muscles are inactive, they are not using blood sugar, and we know that blood sugar can wreak terrible consequences on our body.”

Dr. David Alter, associate professor at the University of Toronto, who wrote an editorial published along with the findings, said some scientists think more sitting reduces insulin activity. Others believe “net calorie expenditures” decline as sitting increases. Regardless of why, Alter reiterated the study’s findings. “If we are to sit for prolonged periods at a time — more than 30 minutes at a time, and for many hours per day — more than 12 hours per day, our risk of death is high.”

Of course, as is the case with many studies, these findings do not prove that long periods of sitting causes premature death. It only shows an association between the two. However it is safe to say that being active throughout the day certainly does not hurt.

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Book Review: “Making It Through Chemotherapy” by Jackie Schuld

A book that is a helpful token for someone beginning the scary process

book cover of Making It Through ChemotherapyJackie Schuld, author of "Making It Through Chemotherapy"“Making it Through Chemotherapy” is a thin, 33-page booklet, yet it’s worth reading for two reasons. First, it tackles the important topic of cancer chemotherapy. Second, it’s written from the perspective of a young woman who was present for her mother’s chemo. Author Jackie Schuld not only walks the reader through what to expect of chemotherapy but also answers an important question, “What can I do for someone who’s going through treatment?” She guides the reader through chemotherapy, writing about the fear and uncertainty she and her mom experienced. It’s a book full of a daughter’s heart. 

Jackie submitted “Making It Through Chemotherapy” to SevenPonds along with a generous personal note and some color sketches — just one example of  how she gives her time to everything in life. We already knew of Jackie’s work after reviewing her wonderfully illustrated book about grief and loss, “Grief is a Mess.” Jackie once again uses colorful drawings of all sorts of animals to bring a bit of levity to a difficult topic. The element of humor makes the harsh realities of chemotherapy easier to accept.

A page from "Making It Through Chemotherapy"


Each page of the book includes an illustration of an animal with some fun (and brief)  word play. Jackie begins the book by addressing the tough and confusing decision about whether to have chemotherapy at all with the words “A decision must be made.” Then she shows us the impact chemotherapy has on a person’s life, writing, “Every day is a bonus.” She also shows us how difficult it is for others to watch a loved one’s suffering when, on page 18, she depicts an ostrich with its head in the sand saying, “It’s too painful to see her go through this.” (Jackie is writing about her own experience of watching her mom go through the process.) At the end she shows a group of cheering animals tossing confetti with “congrats” celebrating the chemo is finally over. In this small book the reader experiences the tough questions and the difficult moments; learns about the process and  gathers some insight on how to help someone who is going through chemotherapy. 

Sadly, Jackie’s mother, Ruth, died of ovarian cancer in 2013. Jackie devotes two pages at the end of the book in her memory.

A page from "Making It Through Chemotherapy"


“Making It Though Chemotherapy” is a small, inexpensive book, but it would make a wonderful gift for someone who is just starting chemo, perhaps along with a gift like a scarf, a hat or a bunch of flowers. It would also be a helpful token for someone who will be at the side of a friend or family member undergoing chemo. We wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone who is navigating the cancer journey, whether as a patient or as emotional support. 

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What to Expect at Mormon Funeral Services

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints say goodbye to their dead

The Mormon Church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was founded in the 1830s by Joseph Smith Jr. Smith claimed that he had translated a third testament to the Bible. He called this book “The Book of Mormon.” Currently, there are about 15 million Mormons worldwide.

Joseph Smith, the Prophet who founded the Mormon religion

Joseph Smith Jr.

If you have a Mormon friend or acquaintance who dies, your first step should be to find out whether people outside of the Mormon church are welcome at the service. In general, Mormon funeral services that are held in a temple are private. A funeral located in a funeral home, a ward or another church welcomes visitors. If you are unsure call the facility or the family to check.

Appropriate dress at Mormon funeral services is modest and subdued. Dark colored slacks are fine for men. Women may wear dark pant suits or a dark skirt or dress. Do not wear jewelry with a crucifix or a cross as this is offensive to church members.

When the person who has died has gone through a program of temple endowment, he or she is dressed in white temple garments. Family members who are the same sex as the person who died generally handle the dressing. If family members are not available, members of the church hierarchy take care of this. Burial is the preferred method of disposition, but cremation is also allowed.

What to Expect at the Service

If Mormon funeral services have viewings, they are usually brief ones that take place before the spoken part of the ceremonies. Ceremonies usually last from 60 to 90 minutes. You may be surprised to hear the officiant read from “The Book of Mormon” and encourage others to embrace the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. This is part of the ceremony because bringing people into the church is important to a Mormon’s spiritual life.

interior of a Mormon temple

Non-Mormons may not be allowed to attend a service inside the temple

Mormons believe that when a person dies, the soul separates from the body. The spirit goes into paradise or prison. On the day of final judgment, all souls go to one of three “kingdoms.” Those who have lived exemplary lives go to the Celestial Kingdom. Those who have lived good but imperfect lives go to the Terrestrial Kingdom. Those who lived sinful lives and refuse to repent are relegated to the Telestial Kingdom.

Mormon funeral services give survivors a chance to present the gospel, both for their own comfort and as a chance to teach their beliefs to others in keeping with one of the key tenants with their faith. Proselytizing increases their chances of entering the Celestial Kingdom on judgment day.

After the Mormon funeral services are over, there is usually a post-funeral reception with a “mercy meal” provided by the women of the church. Thus, there is no need to bring food to Mormon funeral services. Families do appreciate flowers and plants unless they have requested that money be donated to the church or another cause instead.

Attending a funeral is a way to gain closure for yourself and offer your condolences to loved ones. Being familiar with different cultural customs can help enhance your participation in the final goodbye.

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Can Grief Contribute to Parkinson’s Disease?

Identical twin brothers offer scientists some clues
Jack Gernsheimer who has Parkinson's disease

Jack Gernsheimer

In a small town in Pennsylvania, two identical twin brothers live almost identical lives. Jack and Jeff Gernsheimer are 68 years old. They have lived in close proximity to each other for most of their almost seven decades on earth. And since 1971, they have worked together in the same office at a graphics design company they both own. Plus, like all identical twins, they share the same DNA.

Yet Jack Gernsheimer has Parkinson’s disease, and his brother does not. And scientists at the New York Stem Cell Foundation are trying to determine why.

Genetics Versus Environment

Parkinson’s disease is associated with a number of genetic mutations, including an abnormality in the GBA and UCHL1 genes. But Parkinson’s disease is not usually hereditary. According to a 2015 article in Nautilus magazine, it’s rare even for identical twins to both have the disease. In fact, in about 89 percent of cases where one twin has Parkinson’s disease, the other one does not.

So scientists have looked at other factors in an effort to learn what sparks the neurological changes associated with Parkinson’s disease. And, as in most diseases where genes alone are not to blame, they begin by looking at environment. Research shows, for example, that Parkinson’s disease is more common in people who were prisoners of war in World War II and those who drink well water and/or live on farms. But the exact nature of the exposures that cause this to be true is unclear.

A picture of Jack and Jeff's design studio, which is still thriving despite Jacks' Parkinson's disease

Jack and Jeff still work together every day

Yet it appears that environment was of little consequence in Jack’s case. After all, he and Jeff have lived and worked side by side for many years. In fact, their lives took slightly divergent courses only twice: once when they went to different colleges and again when Jack spent two years in the military.

But there is another significant difference between Jack and Jeff’s lives, and it’s one that the brothers believe may be the key to why Jack is ill and Jeff is not. In 1987, Jack’s 14-year-old son Gabriel inexplicably killed himself in a real-life reenactment of a game of Russian Roulette he had seen in the movie “The Deer Hunter.” Jack had rented the movie for the boy so he could learn more about the Vietnam war. He was also the owner of the gun.

Grief, Stress and Illness

The connection between stress and the immune system is well established. Among other things, cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress, suppresses the body’s natural inflammatory response. But when stress becomes chronic, excess cortisol actually promotes inflammation by increasing the production of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines. These proteins are implicated in a host of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. And scientists theorize that chronic inflammation may be a factor in the development of degenerative neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and stroke.

Grief, of course, is immensely stressful, especially grief associated with the traumatic loss of a child. Thus, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that Jack’s grief in response to his devastating loss has something to do with his poor health. (Jack also has prostate cancer, glaucoma and psoriasis.)

Cell cultures help researchers look for a cure for Parkinson's disease

Researchers grow brain cells derived from Jack and Jeff’s stem cells in the lab

Searching for Clues

Researchers at the New York Stem Cell Foundation have been studying Jeff and Jack’s genome for clues as to how the brother’s differ for years. Somewhat amazingly, early on in their research they learned that Jeff has the same genetic mutation on the GBA gene as Jack. And both brothers’ brain cells (grown in cultures in the lab) produce three times the normal amount of the enzyme alpha-synuclein, which scientists believe contributes to the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Yet Jeff is completely without symptoms of the illness, while Jack is seriously ill.

One theory about what led to Jack’s profoundly altered health is his “experiential environment”  — the emotional turmoil created by the loss of his son. According to researcher Michael  Zigmond, stressful events early in life may set up the dopamine- producing cells in brain to be more vulnerable to the effects of insults later in life. Zigmond calls this effect neuroendangerment.

Molecular Changes

Another theory is that changes at the molecular level play a role in the development of Parkinson’s disease. This idea is supported by another of NYSCF’s findings: Jack’s cells have abnormally high levels of an enzyme known as MAO-B (monoamine oxidase B), while Jeff’s do not. This is important because MAO-B, which is linked to oxidative stress, is responsible for breaking down dopamine. And a loss of dopamine is what causes most of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

The good news about this finding is that a class of drugs known as MAO-inhibitors already exists. And when researchers introduced one of these drugs, Rasagiline, into Jack’s cell culture, the amount of MAO-B in the cells went down and the amount of dopamine they produced went up.

Unfortunately, it’s too soon to say whether Rasagiline will benefit Jack since research into the risks and benefits of the drug has been inconclusive to date. Nonetheless, both brothers are determined to keep searching for answers to the mysterious origins of Jack’s disease. But, they are also realistic. As Jeff said to Nautilus, “Unfortunately, there’s a fair amount of testing still to be done.”

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“Death has this much to be said for it: You don’t have to get out of bed for it. Wherever you happen to be, they bring it to you — free.”

- Kingsley Amis

A photo of a person lying in bed, with their legs sticking out from a white sheet

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