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Longevity Project: Panelists discuss what it takes to overcome life’s challenges

Part of being human is finding courage to stay the course when life wants to go in a different direction. Paralympic snowboarder Noah Elliott knows all about overcoming those challenges after he decided to have his leg amputated so he could pursue sports again.

“No matter who you are, you experience an ‘I can’t’ moment in your life,” Elliott said. “Although it’s hard to see, those ‘I can’t’ moments are the moments that define you as a person and define your next chapter.”

Elliott, who currently serves as the outreach program director for Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports in Steamboat Springs, was one of four guest speakers who took part in a virtual panel Tuesday as part of the annual Longevity Project, which was moderated by Aspen Times editor David Krause.

Other guests included Dash Doung Wong, a cancer survivor who now lives in Aspen; Nick Isenberg, a blind and partially deaf journalist who lives in the Roaring Fork Valley; and Kailyn Forsberg, a former freeskier from Eagle whose life and career took a turn when a crash during a slopestyle warm-up left her lower body paralyzed.

The Longevity Project — a four-part editorial series that includes two virtual events — focuses on living well in the mountains. A major theme of Tuesday’s panel was learning to overcome life’s most difficult obstacles.

“Having a great support system off the bat was definitely something that encouraged me to push as hard as I could. Without that, I don’t believe I would have been able to be where I am today,” Forsberg said of her injury five years ago before reflecting on her first time getting to sit ski at Winter Park. “There were emotional boundaries there. I was so curious about the physical limitations I would have. But just sitting there when they got me all set up in the sit ski, I was just like, ‘This is what I love to do.’ And I’m not going to let an accident just stop me from doing things I love.”

Earlier this spring, Wong had to fight off a bout with COVID-19. He said he’s back to “100%” although the disease did leave his only lung scarred. His other lung was removed because of cancer and that decision was a difficult one for Wong, who knew he would be giving up his military career. He had spent more than a decade as a Navy SpecOps before being medically discharged. He now devotes much of his time to veteran causes.

As part of our annual “Longevity” series, The Aspen Times, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Steamboat Pilot and Vail Daily are hosting a panel of inspiring people who have fought through adversity and continue to thrive in the mountains. Hear how they have fought off cancer, paralysis and blindness and continue to live a full, grateful life.

Posted by The Aspen Times on Tuesday, September 29, 2020

“The only ‘I can’t do this moment’ was when I had to choose to remove my lung. It was a choice I had to make, whether I was going to fight cancer through other means or if I was going to go with the surgical route,” Wong said. “I put so much of my identity and who I was into my job or my work, where it became everything of me. And because of a certain event that happened to me, all of it was taken away. That was the most destructive thing that could have ever happened to me and I was left in a dilemma of trying to figure out, ‘Who am I?’”

When it comes to overcoming life’s most difficult challenges, each of the panelists talked about putting focus on what one can do, as opposed to what one can’t do. Despite not being able to see, Isenberg has found a way to empower the blind through his radio series, “The Tactile Traveler.” Elliott works with children who are dealing with similar physical challenges, and Forsberg continues to move forward despite barely being able to move at all.

“That just puts you in the mindset of negativity and things you are not going to be able to do. But if something happens, you just have to take it one day at a time,” Forsberg said of dealing with simple things, such as not being able to go on hikes with her friends. “There is no point in wallowing in the fact I can’t do what they are doing. I have to look forward and look at myself and do the things I can still do.”

The Longevity Project will conclude Wednesday with its second virtual event, a talk with keynote speaker Sean Swarner, the first cancer survivor to have summited Mount Everest. The free discussion begins at 6 p.m. Viewers can register ahead of time at aspentimes.com/longevity.

The Longevity Project is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Summit Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Steamboat Pilot & Today and Vail Daily.

acolbert@aspentimes.com

First cancer survivor to summit Everest will talk about experiences at annual Longevity Project event

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.

“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.

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.”

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, (Ontario) and ended up getting a reoccurrence and passing away,” Swarner said. “He was a huge Canadian hero.”

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.

The Longevity Project is being produced in partnership with The Aspen Times, Summit Daily, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Steamboat Pilot & Today and Vail Daily. Read more at aspentimes.com/longevity.

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. More at aspentimes.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 nontraditional 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.

“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.

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.’”

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 nontraditional 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 (that) 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

Specialized labs, a new heliport 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 past two decades.

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 hourslong 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.”

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.”

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 yearlong 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.

“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.”

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, Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Vail Daily, Summit Daily News and Steamboat Pilot. Read more at aspentimes.com/longevity

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.”

mvincent@aspentimes.com 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.

Staying active

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

Also, Simpson 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 often times considered 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, said 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 joint replacements, one on each hip. He said he wouldn’t be skiing without them.

“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

Total joint replacement technology has made masters ski racing more competitive than ever in the older age categories.

Eagle resident Charlie Hauser, who was 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 said 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 has happened is total joint replacements. 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, said 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.’”

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 of 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 said that 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.”

‘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,” Kim said. “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.”

Patterson said for some aging people, a big knee or hip replacement surgery might 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 multiple sclerosis.

“Do what you can do to stay active,” Patterson 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.

“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.”

Editor’s note: This is Part 1 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.

Longevity Project: Aspen panelists highlight what longevity means to them at soldout event

The noun “longevity” has two definitions: The first is “a long duration of individual life” or “length of life”; the second is “long continuance.”

But for five Aspen locals, the definition of longevity is more nuanced than what a dictionary implies.

Alex Ferreira, X Games and 2018 Winter Olympics freeskier and medalist, said longevity for him means being able to ski until he’s 100.

Christy Mahon, one of the most accomplished ski mountaineers in the state, said the word means taking care of herself and morphing her lifestyle to what gives back to her heart, soul and body. And orthopedic surgeon Dr. Tomas Pevny said it means knowing his limitations and embracing the wisdom that comes with living a long, prosperous life.

For the five panelists who talked about their life experiences in Aspen and beyond Tuesday night for The Aspen Times’ Longevity Project event, chasing longevity had its nuances for each and some universal ties.

“It’s so exciting to be in a town that’s constantly active,” Mahon said of how living in Aspen impacts her lifestyle. “We motivate each other and seeing what’s being done by others is just contagious.”

On the fifth floor of the Mountain Chalet, a sold-out crowd of roughly 125 people listened as moderator Penn Newhard, founder of the Carbondale-based Backbone Media company, asked the panelists about what motivates and challenges each of them in their everyday lives.

Most of the panelists expressed their love of the mountains and the Aspen area’s active, adventurous culture as empowering and difficult. All highlighted camaraderie and community as their keys to success.

“Connection is so vital to our longevity and when we don’t have it, we struggle,” panelist and mental health professional Christina King said. “There is a lot of individualism and competition in this valley. I think we get distracted by that sometimes and forget to wrap our arms around each other, too.”

Mountain Rescue Aspen member and avalanche educator Greg Shaffran expressed similar thoughts, noting that the backcountry rescue and mountain safety nonprofit couldn’t operate without its dedicated team.

“As individuals we’re OK,” Shaffran said, “but as a group we can combine and do some really amazing things.”

After roughly 45 minutes of discussion and an inspiring video featuring 99-year-old Klaus Obermeyer — the German native and longtime Aspen local known for his positive spirit and for helping revolutionize the ski industry — the panel concluded and National Geographic adventurer Mike Libecki took the stage. Overall, the speakers highlighted the importance of self-care and creating meaningful connections with others as key determinants of a long, prosperous life.

“We all want to be like Klaus. It’s a good way to live,” Shaffran said of chasing longevity. “I think finding diversity in your life sets you up for success down the road … but I also think longevity is about what you are able to leave and what kind of effect you can have on other people.”

mvincent@aspentimes.com

Mike Libecki shares passion for adventure at Longevity Project event

Similar to the five panelists who spoke during The Aspen Times’ Longevity Project event Tuesday night, NatGeo explorer Mike Libecki said chasing longevity for him is centered on fueling his “obsessive expedition climbing disorder,” maintaining his support network of family and friends, and keeping an optimistic outlook on life.

As the keynote speaker at the Tuesday night event, Libecki followed the local panel discussion with a presentation featuring video clips from some of his most memorable expeditions. The 2013 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year has been on over 60 expeditions and established multiple ascents on all seven continents.

Images of Libecki falling in love with polar bears in Greenland, making a muddy summit on French Polynesia’s Ua Pou island with some of his closest friends and traveling the world with his teenage daughter flashed across the screen at the Mountain Chalet as Libecki showed event attendees what longevity looks like and inspired them to live out their own dreams.

“I think that being present, being in the moment is a very important part of longevity,” Libecki said. “The time is now; why ration passion?”

mvincent@aspentimes.com

Having your ‘Klaus Obermeyer moment’ is an experience of a lifetime (VIDEO)

When you live in Aspen, eventually you get to have your Klaus moment. Mine came two years, seven months and five days after moving to this gem of a place.

Putting together our monthlong series on life and living in the mountains — Longevity Project: Elevate Your Life ­— it is a no-brainer, I said, that we have to ask Klaus Obermeyer his take.

I was fortunate in my 30-year sports journalism career (before moving to the news side and an editor role) to interview a number of all-stars, hall of famers and Olympians. I covered all the major all-star games as well as Super Bowls, World Series, Stanley Cups and NCAA tournaments of every kind.

But I have to admit the days before when I was working on my list of Klaus questions, I was a little anxious.

Wanting to be respectful of his time, and knowing he’s done just short of a gazillion interviews about “how do you stay so young,” I was really trying to keep my questions concise, on point and as fresh as possible.

As soon as we set up in his office and got the camera and questions rolling, Klaus answered each query with his trademark gusto and energy. His thoughtful responses on a range of topics kept us going for nearly an hour.

We wrapped up with Klaus showing me the focus needed in aikido, a Japanese martial arts he practices every day. Never would I have thought when I walked into his office that before I left the 99-year-old Klaus would be trying to pull down on my arm while I was putting my energy and focus into keeping it taunt.

Part of my interview with Klaus will be shown at Tuesday night’s Longevity Project event at the Mountain Chalet. After that, we’ll post the video online.

The rest of the interview, which includes Klaus’ life growing up in southern Germany near Austria before moving to the U.S. in the late 1940s and how he started Obermeyer with $10,000 he borrowed from a Basalt potato farmer, we’ll use for stories as Klaus celebrates his 100th birthday in December.

Now that we’ve meet in his office, I can only hope that we meet up on the mountain and I get to follow him down the hill. I know there’s no way I’ll be able to keep up with him, but it will be a privilege to try.

dkrause@aspentimes.com

Longevity Project: Local physicians feel health conscious culture sets Aspen area apart

On a recent evening in a Basalt backyard, three generations of family gathered for dinner.

The mother and daughter played volleyball for a few minutes while veggie burgers cooked on the grill, and the father and his parents sat on the porch discussing the news of the day as a black cat slinked around their feet.

Meet the Locke family. Over the past 20 years, the three generations have made their home in the Roaring Fork Valley, first when Kelly and Karen came to work as family physicians and to raise their four children; then when Marilyn and John retired and moved to the Basalt area full-time about 15 years later.

Reflecting on their two decades of experience as local physicians and parents, Kelly and Karen Locke see the Aspen area as an active, health conscious community, a characteristic they feel benefits all aspects of life in the valley for all ages.

“From a young age, people feel they need to be eating healthy, exercising regularly and it’s not just coming from their parents,” Karen said. “Health promotion extends into pretty much every aspect of life here.”

According to the most recent Regional Community Health Assessment — conducted to help guide public health initiatives in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties from 2018-2022 — people with higher incomes or personal wealth, more years of education, and who live in healthy and safe environments also have longer life expectancies and better overall health outcomes, as previously reported.

For Kelly and Karen, the general heightened investment in individual health across the valley they’ve observed helps contribute to locals’ longevity, too.

“I think it’s more of a nationwide trend but I also think our valley is a bit unique because people are really dialed into what their health problems are,” Kelly said. “People in the valley seem to be go-getters who are used to digging in and figuring out how to solve things and so they often come in (to the clinic) with requests like ‘Well, can I do it this way or can I do it that way?’ ”

Karen and Kelly have job-shared as family physicians in both public and private practices since they moved to the Roaring Fork Valley from Wisconsin in 1999.

The couple currently works in the Aspen Valley Primary Care clinic in Basalt and sees a little bit of everything on a day-to-day basis.

“Family medicine allows us to apply all of the different aspects of medicine out there,” Kelly said. “It’s a variety.”

That variety means the Lockes can go from seeing children to grandparents and from helping with mental health challenges to conducting skin biopsies, and gives them the opportunity to treat “the whole patient.”


The Aspen Times, in conjunction with our sister papers the Steamboat Pilot & Today and Summit Daily, is publishing a four-part series on living and thriving in the mountains. The weekly “Longevity Project: Elevate Your Life” series in September will culminate Oct. 1 with a speaker and panel discussion in Aspen.

Elevate Your Life series:

Part 1: A conversation with Mike Libecki, National Geographic explorer

Part 2: How top athlete live, train at altitude

Part 3: Examining mental wellness at altitude

Part 4: General effects of life at 8,000-plus feet


When asked if they’ve noticed any health trends, positive or negative, related to living in high altitude communities such as Basalt and Aspen, the Lockes said they haven’t really seen any major detriments or advantages to living over 8,000 feet.

Kelly and Karen said they have seen more sleep apnea than other physicians at lower elevations, and some breathing conditions among both locals and tourists related to high altitude, but not a lot.

Kelly went on to say that he and Karen may not see as many patients with breathing complications related to high altitude because the patients “self-select” out, moving to lower elevation.

“We don’t have pollution or other things up here where people are chronically getting asthma flairs or other baseline lung issues,” Kelly said. “I mean we see lung problems but we don’t see a ton.”

However, two problems not necessarily related to living at high altitude Kelly and Karen have seen include chronic substance abuse and cost barriers to health care.

According to the most recent regional health assessment, substance abuse was determined one of the top health concerns across the region. The assessment also shows cost of health care and insurance as a reason some people in the valley do not seek the health care they may need.

“We have conversations with the patients about OK, does your insurance pay for this and say it may be cheaper to do it this way,” Karen said. “We’ll steer people to the least expensive route when possible.”

Overall, the Lockes said they feel the active lifestyle and health conscious culture has contributed to making the Roaring Fork Valley a predominately healthy place to live and to raise their four children.

“Knowing that once the kids left the door that some of the things you tried to instill in them would also be instilled by the teachers of the school or by other people in the community because we all have similar values made us feel reassured,” Kelly said.

For two of the Locke kids, these key values ingrained in them by their parents and valley locals include staying active and having an appreciation for the natural world.

“I think a lot of the individuals graduating from Aspen High School have a better appreciation for the outdoors and for spending as much time outside as they can, which I think has a significant positive impact on their health,” said Liam Locke, a junior studying neuroscience and biochemistry at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

Both Liam and his younger sister, Kira, noted specifically the Aspen School District’s outdoor education program as contributing to their desire to recreate outdoors and the Aspen area culture inspiring them to lead active lives.

“This environment is really healthy for me, I like that it’s a rural area where everyone knows each other and there’s so much to do,” Kira, an eighth-grader at Aspen Middle School said. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

But this more active lifestyle hasn’t just impacted Kira, her siblings and her parents. It’s also impacted her grandparents.

About four years ago, Marilyn and John started living full time in Basalt. The retired couple said they’ve noticed the healthy, active culture of the Roaring Fork Valley and have quickly become a part of it.

“We’ve made a lot of progress with our health I think since we’ve been out here. We can hike longer and we can do hills, whereas before we only did the flat areas,” Marilyn said, referring to their previous home in Texas.

“Because of the emphasis on health out here I think I do get out and hike more than I would have back home,” John added. “I probably would be more sedentary if it weren’t for the culture.”

Outside of exercise, John and Marilyn also feel there are lots of social opportunities for them as a retired couple, and for their grandchildren as younger adults in the valley. Neither they nor Kelly and Karen said they really feel the youngest Lockes are missing out on much growing up in Basalt and Aspen, except for the experiences that come with traveling to other places, nationally or internationally.

But even then, John and Marilyn, who have made multiple trips around the world in recent years, said they can’t imagine calling anywhere else home.

“We travel quite a bit now that we’re retired and we always say at the end of our trip, let’s go home,” Marilyn said, laughing. “We can’t think of a better place, the Roaring Fork Valley is where we want to live.”

mvincent@aspentimes.com