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Wednesday, September 5, 2007

7 Ways to Improve Your Odds of Living A Longer, Healthier Life


photo by yksin

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My name is Scott H. and I'm a total dork. For fun (*I don't get out much*), I decided to take a look at the mortality statistics from 1900 and compare them to the most recent mortality data compiled by the CDC, which happened to be 2004. The charts are at the bottom of this post for those that are interested in the actual data. Can anything interesting be gleaned from the differences between the two charts?

What's interesting about these statistics is the difference in the types of diseases that we succumb to. In 1900, communicable diseases were responsible for most deaths, while today, heart disease, cancer, and strokes are the big killers. It is also interesting to note that there is a marked increase in deaths as a result of lifestyle choices. The major risk factors for heart disease are largely the result of choices that people make, with the exception of family history. Smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and Type II diabetes are all risk factors that can be moderated by living a healthier lifestyle that includes regular exercise.

So that begs the question: what lifestyle choices can you make that will lead to a healthier, longer life? Here are my top 7 things that you can do to avoid being dispatched by something on the Top 10 list.

Stop using all forms of tobacco

Smoking is a high risk factor for cardiovascular disease and a major contributor to cancer deaths each year. Approximately 400,000 deaths in the United States each year can be directly connected to smoking. Any form of tobacco use substantially raises your risk of suffering from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and a variety of respiratory ailments. Tobacco use is a direct contributor to the top 4 killers in 2004.

  • Recommendation: Don't use any form of tobacco products and if you do...stop. If you are a smoker, the most significant change that you can make to live a healthier, longer life is to quit smoking.

Maintain ideal body weight

Oh boy, I'm going to really catch H-E-double-hockey-sticks for this one. What exactly is ideal body weight? For years, body mass index has been the measure of whether a person is underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese. Find your BMI here. Recent articles have pointed out that BMI does not take into account body composition, so some people who fall into the normal range may be at risk for cardiovascular disease because they have a higher bodyfat percentage than their weight would indicate. Conversely, some people, namely athletes, may fall into the overweight, or obese category, but actually are healthy because they have a lower than average body fat percentage and more muscle mass than the average joe or jane.

BMI is not a perfect yardstick of health in all cases, but no test is. It is an easy technique to classify people and studies have shown that there is a high correlation between being outside of the normal range and a greater likelihood of disease. If you are above, or below, the normal BMI range, consider making the changes necessary to get into the normal range. Studies have shown that it is just as bad to be below the normal BMI range as it is to be above the normal range, so I'm not just picking on people who fall into the above normal range.
  • Recommendation: In addition to getting regular exercise, modify your diet appropriately to get into the normal range. The range of what is considered normal is wide enough to accommodate all body types. If you are "big boned" that's not the problem. It's all of that big meat on those bones that have health consequences. For every person outside the normal BMI range who is healthy, there are 1000 who are not. Don't use the shortcomings of BMI to justify being unhealthy, it's just an excuse.

Exercise regularly

Regular exercise is essential to improving and maintaining your health. We are made to move, but modern conveniences have all but eliminated activity from our lives. Less than 50% of people meet the American Heart Association's basic guidelines for weekly exercise, and this was more lenient 1995 recommendation that included things like taking out the trash or grocery shopping. Interestingly, by 2015, it is estimated that 75% of Americans will be overweight or obese. Read that again. In 8 short years, 75% of Americans will be overweight or obese.

I just hate to bang the doom-and-gloom drum when talking about exercise. Routine exercise has so many benefits besides being healthier that you should be doing it to feel better, not to live longer. Regular exercise should be about quality of life, not quantity of life.
  • Recommendation: This post concerns health, not weight loss, so I'm recommending that you follow the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association's new guidelines for physical activity. These guidelines expand upon, define, and refine what types and amounts of activity are a minimum to live a healthy lifestyle.
  • All adults age 18 to 65 should accumulate 30 minutes of moderate physical activity (walking briskly) on at least 5 days per week or 20 minutes of vigorous physical activity (jogging) at least 3 days per week. Additionally, you should perform activities to increase muscular strength and endurance (strength training) at least 2 days per week.

Eat "whole" foods

By eating foods that are less processed, you are making a choice to eat healthier foods. Food that you prepare are significantly lower in sodium, fat, and calories than highly processed, prepackaged food. Additionally, whole foods are higher in fiber and nutrients than processed foods, so it is easier to maintain your weight.

Another aspect of processed foods that may contribute to health problems are food additives. Food additives that are generally regarded as safe by the FDA, such as preservatives, high fructose corn syrup, and other unpronounce-ables, were determined to be safe at much lower quantities than we now consume. As I've said before when talking about aspartame, an artificial sweetener, dosage is very important. Even though studies have concluded that these additives are safe, anecdotal, circumstantial, and hunch-based, quasi, not-even-close to evidence suggests that these chemicals that we consume daily could be an issue if you consume lots of processed foods.

Update: How appropriate! Here's an article about a guy who got "popcorn lung" from the butter flavoring used to flavor microwave popcorn. But, of course, it's perfectly safe to eat.
  • Recommendation: Try cooking one additional meal at home each week and cook enough to eat for several meals. Most people eat 21 meals a week. Make 2 or 3 of those meals at home instead of going out to a restaurant, or eating from a box. I'll be posting some great healthy recipes that are in the rotation in my household. Some are quick, easy, meals that are great to put together at the last minute after work. Some are fancier affairs that take longer. I enjoy cooking, well, actually, I enjoy eating good and I'm willing to cook to eat good.

Wear your seat belt

Motor vehicle accidents constitute a large portion of the accidental deaths in this country. Even if you drive carefully, you may not be able to altogether avoid being involved in a car accident. Increase your chances of surviving it by wearing your seat belt.
  • Recommendation: The tide has really turned since I was younger. Most people do wear seat belts, but there are still people who don't for dumb reasons, like "it messes up my clothes" (you know who you are). What do you think a trip through the windshield is going to do to that dress? Wear your seat belt every time you get in a vehicle.

Limit sun exposure and wear sunblock

Skin cancer is the most easily preventable of all cancers, and yet according to the American Cancer Society, each year over 1 million people are diagnosed with sun-related skin cancer. If something on this list is going to get ME, it's this.You got me on this one. I am THE WORST about putting on sunblock and I'm outside for many hours during the week. Do as I say, not as I do.
  • Recommendation: Limit sun exposure when you can. When you can't wear lots of sunblock. You should apply about 2 tablespoons per application and put more on often. Also you should put on sunblock 30 minutes before you go into the sun to give it a chance to work.

Get regular medical check-ups

With advances in medical technology, your chances of living a long, healthy life increase dramatically if diseases are caught early.
  • Recommendation: See your doctor annually for a checkup, more often if you have an ongoing illness. For customized, health screening guidelines, here is a great tool from the Mayo Clinic.

Cause of Death (1900) Death Rate/100,000
Pneumonia (all forms) and influenza. . . . . . . . 202.2
Tuberculosis (all forms) . . . . . . . . . . . . . 194.4
Diarrhea, enteritis, and intestinal ulceration . . 142.7
Diseases of the heart. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 137.4
Intracranial lesions of vascular origin2. . . . . . 106.9
Nephritis (all forms)3. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88.6
All accidents. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72.3
Cancer and other malignant tumors. . . . . . . . . . 64.0
Senility4 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50.2
Diptheria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 40.3


Cause of Death (2004) Death Rate/100,000
Heart Disease. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 272.1
Malignant Neoplasms1. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 231.0
Cerebrovascular2. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 62.5
Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease. . . . . . . . . . 50.9
Unintentional Injury . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46.7
Diabetes Mellitus. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30.5
Alzheimer's Disease. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27.5
Influenza & Pneumonia. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24.9
Nephritis3. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17.7
Septicemia . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13.9

(source )

1Cancer-related deaths
2Stroke-related deaths
3Kidney disease
4Alzheimer's-related deaths

Do you do these seven things? Which ones could you do better?

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