Good Health

Doctors’ Tips for a Healthier Life

By Sandra Gordon | Contributor

You’ve only got one life – you may as well make the most of it. And in fact, you do have a significant say over your health and well-being. Research shows that as much as 70 percent of longevity may be attributed to lifestyle factors – not genes. But what can you do live up to your health potential? To find out, I did research and asked experts for their recommendations on disease and stress management, memory enhancement, and maximizing your longevity. 

Put Up a Fight Against Cancer

Although your genes and the environment affect your cancer risk, the American Cancer Society estimates that your health habits, including your diet and exercise habits and whether you smoke, also play a major part in welcoming – or warding off this major killer. 

“Develop a family history depicting cancer as it has occurred throughout the family and bring that to the attention of your physician,” says preventive medicine physician, Henry T. Lynch, M.D. Your doctor will look for patterns and the types of cancer that have appeared, which will allow her to determine the best course of prevention for you. 

If you’re at high risk for certain types of cancer based on your family history, you may need to screened for these specific cancers more frequently. Although direct to consumer genetic tests, such as 23andMe are popular, “just knowing your family medical history is one of the best tests you can do,” says licensed genetic counselor Robin L. Bennett.

Limit Drinking

A review in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that women who consumed two to five drinks a day increased their risk of breast cancer by 41 percent. To play it safe, consume no more than one spirited glass daily. 

Be a Quitter

Smoking is a leading cause of lung, laryngeal, esophageal, oral, 

pancreatic, bladder and cervical cancers and heart disease. For help in quitting, ask your doctor about stop-smoking aids such as Zyban, a nonnicotine pill that affects the pleasure center in your brain to minimize withdrawal symptoms such as irritability, and nicotine replacement therapies such as nicotine gum, the nicotine patch or nicotine nasal spray. On average, studies show using these aids can double your chances of success. 

Beat Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. Women’s hearts, however, in particular, are protected until menopause, when their estrogen levels naturally decline and average cholesterol levels rise. To ward off this major killer:

-Get yearly check-ups. Even if you feel fine, you should see the doctor regularly. Check-ups can catch something early, even before symptoms show up. Health screening tests, including cholesterol testing, blood pressure monitoring and blood glucose play a major part of this appointment. They can help spot cardiovascular disease and diabetes conditions before they become life threatening. 

 To know where you stand, know your numbers: Ideally, your triglyceride level (a type of fat in your blood) should be less than 150 mg/dL; your HDL, the “good” cholesterol should be 50 mg/dL or higher. Your LDL, the “bad” cholesterol should be less than 100 mg/dL and your total cholesterol should be less than 200. If any of your cholesterol numbers aren’t within optimal levels, work your doctor to correct them. 

-Do your blood pressure homework. For years, high blood pressure (HPB), a.k.a. hypertension, was diagnosed when blood pressure—the force of blood against your artery walls when your heart beats and between beats—measured at 140/90, or higher in the doctor’s office. But a new clinical guideline lowers the bar to help you take steps to control your blood pressure earlier. Now, a reading of 130/80 signals HBP. 

HBP doesn’t usually doesn’t have signs or symptoms, but it can be dangerous and life threatening, leading to stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. To diagnose HBP, a digital home blood pressure monitor can help. According to the new American Heart Association guidelines, self-monitoring over time can be more accurate than one blood pressure reading in the doctor’s office. 

Bring your home blood pressure monitor to your doctor’s office to check its accuracy. Then, take your blood pressure at home at the same time daily. Take at least two readings one minute apart each morning before medication and each evening before dinner. Keep a record and bring it to your doctor’s appointments. Your record can indicate the need for blood pressure-lowering medication, or not. 

-Eat to Beat Heart Disease Develop eating habits that can help keep your arteries clear. Get into the habit of eating a Mediterranean-style diet, which is loaded with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein such as fish, and healthy unsaturated fats, such as olive oil. If you have elevated LDL cholesterol, try to keep your overall saturated fat to below 7 percent of your total calories (that’s 140 calories from saturated fat per day on a 2,000 calorie daily diet). If you don’t have heart disease, as much as 10 percent of your total daily calories can come from saturated fat. 

Talk to your Doctor about Prescription Fish Oil

If you have high cholesterol and take statin medication to help lower it, ask your doctor if you’re a candidate for icosapent ethyl (Vascepa), which is a new, highly purified form of EPA (fish oil) available by prescription. 

 In a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine known as REDUCE-IT, men and women with high triglycerides taking statin medication to lower LDL (“the bad”) cholesterol, who added icosapent ethyl to their regimen, reduced their risk of stroke by 28 percent and heart attack by 31 percent. “Vascepa is one of the most exciting things that has happened in preventive cardiology in the last decade,” says Lori Mosca, MD, professor of Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. 

Shake the Salt Habit

Most Americans consume about 3,400 mg of sodium daily. But the USDA Dietary Guidelines urge everyone to reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg/day. 

Sodium raises blood pressure, which can contribute to heart disease and kidney disease. A strong body of evidence in adults has shown that as sodium intake decreases, so does blood pressure. Be on the lookout for lower- and low-sodium products at the supermarket and wean yourself off the taste of salt by cooking from scratch more (you get to control the amount of added salt), and concentrating on eating more fruits and vegetables (most fruits are naturally low in sodium). 

“Mother Nature will never steer you wrong,” says registered dietitian Joan Salge Blake. Also, try to avoid or limit traditionally high-sodium items such as frozen meals, prepared mixes, commercial pasta sauce, condiments, soy sauce, canned soups, olives, and pickles.

Protect Your Bones

Get a DEXA scan, an X-ray of your hip and spine, to stest bone density. It’s recommended for women age 65 and older and men age 70 and older. But consider getting this test earlier if you’re in menopause but not taking estrogen replacement therapy, you’ve ever had a bone break after a minor injury, you’re a smoker or you’ve used steroid medication. “I recommend DEXA for women who are several years into menopause,” says Patricia Sulak, M.D., author of Should I Fire My Doctor? “A lot of women will develop osteoporosis by age 65. If you have a DEXA scan earlier, you might pick it up when it’s just osteopenia (low bone mass).” 

Know about Diabetes Dangers

Undiagnosed and untreated, diabetes can threaten your life. According to the American Diabetes Association, roughly 30.3 million Americans over age 20 have diabetes. Nine out of ten cases are type 2, the condition in which a) your pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin, the hormone that helps convert the food you eat to energy or b) your cells resist the insulin your pancreas makes. Type 2 diabetes can kill you just as swiftly and silently as heart disease can. It can also lead to blindness, nerve damage, limb amputations and kidney failure. But you can minimize, delay or possibly even prevent Type 2 diabetes and its complications if you guard against weight gain.

“Excess weight makes your pancreas work harder to produce extra insulin,” says endocrinologist Priscilla Hollander, M.D., Ph.D. Eventually, it won’t be able to keep up, and insulin levels will start to fall. Diabetes will result when glucose builds up. If you have Type 2 diabetes and you’re overweight, shedding as little as 10 to 15 pounds can improve your glucose tolerance and decrease your glucose resistance to prevent some complications.

Request a fasting blood glucose test from your doctor every three years, starting at age 45. This test gauges the amount of glucose (sugar) in your blood. “It’s a key measure of the ability of the body to maintain glucose within the normal range,” says Dr. Hollander. A reading of 126 mg/dL or higher indicates diabetes. This test is especially important if you have a family history of diabetes.

Boost Your Brain Power

Can’t remember where you placed your keys or the name of the person you met two minutes ago? Forget about taking the latest memory-boosting supplement or trying to learn mnemonics, those linguistic devices designed to jog your memory. “They have limited utility,” says neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg, Ph.D., author of Creativity: The Human Brain in the Age of Innovation. Instead:

-“Live a cognitively active life,” Dr. Goldberg says. To keep your memory healthy, diversity is key. If you work with numbers at your job, spend your spare time doing something completely different such as reading, writing or painting. By taking part in a range of activities, you’re improving connections between neurons (the nerve cells in your brain that relay messages), which may protect you from mental decline later on. 

-Tackle routine mental tasks yourself instead of delegating them to machines. Even simple exercises such as figuring an 18 percent tip in your head instead of using a calculator can improve your mental fitness over the long haul.

Supercharge Your Diet

Your immunity to disease naturally declines with age unless you take action.

-Load up on foods high in the antioxidants vitamins C, E and beta-carotene. Good sources include oranges, strawberries and cantaloupe (vitamin C), nuts, wheat germ and sunflower seeds (vitamin E) and dark leafy green vegetables, acorn squash and sweet potatoes (beta-carotene). Research suggests that these “brain foods” can help keep cells healthy throughout the body, including those in the brain by preventing the attack of free radicals–unstable oxygen molecules that are a catalyst for disease.

– Cut back on polyunsaturated fats such as corn, safflower oil and margarine, and foods made with them. Polyunsaturated fats tend to cause you to overproduce molecules that inhibit the immune system, says nutrition professor Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D.

– Feed your bones well. Getting plenty of calcium is one of the best ways to ward off bone-weakening osteoporosis and fractures since calcium is the raw material of bone. From age 19 to 50, aim for 1000 milligrams of daily calcium and 600 international units (IUs) of vitamin D3 (which helps the body absorb calcium) from food and/or a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement. If you’re 51 to 70, try to get 1200 mg of calcium and 800 to 1,000 IUs of vitamin D3. 

But keep in mind that bone health isn’t just a calcium/vitamin D issue. To rebuild themselves, bones also need protein, phosphorous and a whole host of other nutrients that only eating a variety of foods can offer. Think of eating well as making deposits in your bone bank account. “At any age, a healthy diet is important for optimizing bone strength,” says endocrinologist Joy Wu, MD, PhD.   

-Take a calcium/vitamin D3 supplement. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which analyzed 33 trials involving over 50,000 people, found that using supplements, including calcium, vitamin D, or both, compared with no placebo or no treatment, wasn’t associated with a lower risk of fractures amount older adults. Yet, calcium and vitamin D3 supplements continue to be recommended, Dr. Wu says. For now, the weight of the evidence still favors calcium and vitamin D3 for good bone health throughout your lifetime.

Downsize Stress

Psychological and social variables such as the presence of isolation, anxiety and depression can not only influence your sense of well-being, they can also affect longevity. Stress, in particular, “is a hormonal chain of events that can have concrete effects on health outcomes,” says cardiologist Marty Sullivan, M.D. To keep stress from getting the best of you:

– Don’t stay at a job you hate. “If you can, get out,” Dr. Sullivan says. Studies show that not liking your job may put you at risk for heart disease. For a health pay-off, strive for a job you’re comfortable with that’s a good match for your skills and interests. 

-Work to keep the friends you have but make new ones along the way as well. To stay healthy, you need someone with whom you can pal around, and express who you truly are. “The more social connections people have, the better off they tend to be,” says Dr. Sullivan.

-Help others. Altruism is another characteristic that seems to affect your long-term health. But don’t just donate money to your favorite charity – give of yourself. Studies show that you’ll only derive health benefits if you get personally involved. 

-Don’t do too many things at once. To minimize unnecessary stress and reduce your risk of illness, prioritize your activities into an A (important), B (important but not critical) and C list (not important), says clinical psychologist James A. Blumenthal, PhD. Do A-list things first and reprioritize daily. 

-Pace yourself. To extinguish potential burn out, allow yourself 10 minutes of down time daily. “You can’t just stay on “go” all the time,” says Dr. Blumenthal. “The body and the mind needs time to rejuvenate.”

Walk, Run, Lift, Stretch

Unless you exercise, you’ll lose 30 to 40 percent of your muscle mass between the ages of 30 and 70. To slow your physiological clock:

-Make exercise a priority. “Schedule exercise like you do your other important appointments,” says Cedric Bryant, Ph.D., chief science officerg at the American Council on Exercise. “People who exercise first thing in the morning, before all the other competing activities come into play, are much more likely to maintain good exercise habits,” he says. 

Taking a stroll every day will get your heart pumping and your muscles moving, but to add years to your life, try picking up the pace. A recent study published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology (JACC) found that running, even just 5 to 10 minutes per day (30 to 59 minutes per week) at slow speeds, reduced the risk of premature death from all causes, including heart disease. Researchers determined that short bouts of running were helpful, even for people with health conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, or high cholesterol. 

-Lift weights to maintain bone strength and muscle tone. Using a pair of 5- to 10- pound dumbbells in the privacy of your living room can be just as effective as working out in the weight room at the gym.

-S-t-r-e-t-c-h your limits. The loss of muscle with age goes hand in hand with the loss of flexibility. “As muscle fibers recede, collagen can start to encroach to make your muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage stiffer,” says Jessica Matthews, author of Stretching to Stay Young. “It’s important to stretch.” 

Stretching and strength training can derail the process and help you maintain your range of motion. That way you can continue to reach for things on a high shelf or easily get up out of a chair. When you’re more flexible, your arteries may be, too, and this will help reduce your risk of heart disease. A PLoS ONE study involving 1,150 adults ages 18 to 89 found that those with poor trunk flexibility–demonstrated when they couldn’t reach their toes very far while sitting–had stiffer arteries than those who were more limber. 

Stretching doesn’t take much time—just 10 minutes a day—to make a difference. Be sure to hold a stretch for at least 15 seconds. “If you focus on taking five slow deep breaths during a stretch, that almost guarantees that you’re holding the stretch for the minimum amount of time needed to reap the benefit,” Matthews says. 

Editor’s Note: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and does not constitute medical or other professional advice.

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