Isn’t a long, healthy life what we all want? A full life spent with family and friends until we dance a jig and blow out the candles on our 100th birthday cake? As a primary care physician, the most important health message I share with my patients is: prevention, prevention, prevention.
I realize this is nothing new, but it’s consistently proven in research studies that making good lifestyle choices helps prevent disease and has a tremendous impact on long-term health. In no particular order, here’s a list of tips to help improve our odds of staying well and living long:
- Be born to parents who live a long time. Unfortunately, we don’t have much choice here. Genetics is the biggest predictor of how long we live. However, the choices we make in our lives have a big impact, too.
- Never smoke cigarettes! If you are a smoker, throw them away now! Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death. It causes many cancers, heart attacks, strokes, lung diseases, and other nonfatal problems, like stained teeth, poor athletic performance, erectile dysfunction, and bad breath. There is help available to quit, including free counseling at 1-800-QUIT-NOW and medications to ease the cravings. Ask your doctor for help. Stopping is the biggest favor you can do for yourself.
- Reduce your odds of accidental death. Accidental death is one of the most common causes of death under age 40. Common-sense living makes an impact: wear seatbelts and bicycle helmets; don’t own a motorcycle (drivers don’t see you); don’t own a gun (statistically associated with an earlier death from gun accidents, homicide, and suicide) or if you do own one, be sure to store it safely; don’t drink excessively or use illicit drugs, which can result in fatal accidents and bad decisions like unsafe sex; and choose your leisure activities carefully. Don’t get your name in the paper for accidental death while squirrel jumping in a wing suit, extreme mountain climbing, or deep sea diving. If you choose inherently dangerous hobbies, pursue them wisely and cautiously.
- Make safety a top priority at work, especially if you’re in a career associated with accidental deaths. Lumberjacks, professional fishermen, and roofers are the top three jobs associated with accidental death, and there are many others. If you work in a dangerous field, follow the safety rules compulsively.
- Exercise every day. Plenty of evidence shows that regular exercise can add years to your life. If exercise is new to you, start slowly. Shoot for a goal of 60 minutes per day of any exercise that makes you winded and sweaty. If you cannot reach the 60-minute goal, do what you can. Any exercise increases longevity, and it makes you feel better.
- Lose excess weight. Eat a high-fiber diet with at least 5 to 8 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. Eat less red meat and saturated fats to lower your risk of heart disease and cancer. Eat fewer “white” carbs (sugar, flour, rice, potatoes) and more monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats to keep your weight down. Obesity worsens our risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and degenerative arthritis. If you are more than 15 pounds overweight, start a weight loss program. Consider using a calorie counting app like My Fitness Pal to track what you eat. Losing weight is more about diet (90%) than exercise (10%). An hour of exercise burns only 250 to 500 calories, depending on how hard you work, which is equivalent to two sodas or one apple fritter. Better just to eat the apple and skip the fritter.
- Limit alcohol to one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men. Moderate alcohol intake is associated with a longer life, but more is not better. Drinking excessively increases the risk of cancer, liver disease, dementia, mental illness, high blood pressure, and a host of other diseases (and accidents-see #3.)
- Avoid carcinogens (chemicals that cause cancer). Never smoke (see #2). Use cautions around household chemicals, like cleansers and lawn products. (Round-up was recently asked to add a cancer warning.) Wash fresh fruits and vegetables well to remove any residual pesticides or consider eating organic produce. (There is no clear evidence that eating organic produce reduces cancer risk, but reducing the intake of even low levels of carcinogens sure seems like a good idea when about 40 percent of us will develop cancer.) Eat less meat, especially preserved, processed, or smoked meats, which contain many known carcinogens and are associated with higher cancer risk—that’s hot dogs, salamis, canned meats, bacon, preserved lunch meats, etc. Say goodbye to the ball park frank and get peanuts instead at the baseball game.
- Relax more. Find ways to enjoy your work more, or work less if you can. Cultivate hobbies, sports, or other interests. Spend time with your family and friends. Do not expect more from yourself than is reasonable. Depression and anxiety can increase stress hormones that shorten your life. If you are struggling with your mood, reach out to your family, friends, counselors, or doctor. There is a lot that can be done to help. You are not alone.
- See your doctor periodically to discuss prevention,update your vaccines, discuss cancer screening; check your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose. A doctor’s input can make some impact on longevity, but what you do makes a bigger impact.
Remember, these are just general guidelines. Nobody can do what they should do all of the time. Just do your best. Who knows, following these guidelines might get you to dancing that jig at your 100th birthday party.