Twelve Health Tips for Every Month of 2014

Published January 7, 2014

Welcome to the New Year! My fellow physicians and I are looking forward to another great year of sharing and discussing advances in medicine and rehabilitation. To kick off a healthy start to 2014, here are 12 tips to help you improve your health:

1) Quit smoking.  Of all the COPD cases, 95 percent are related to cigarette smoking. Cigarette smoking causes a type of lung damage that mimics the natural aging process of the lung. Therefore, if you smoke, you may experience the symptoms of COPD even if you gave up cigarettes a long time ago. That being said, the most important thing you can do when diagnosed with lung disease is to give up smoking as soon as possible. Stopping smoking is much more powerful than any treatment a doctor can offer you. When your lung is damaged, you need as much of your normal/healthy lung as possible so even just one more cigarette is detrimental. In addition, smoking is actually worse for your heart than your lung, and most patients with COPD have both heart and lung problems.

2) Engage in Physical Activity. Exercise decreases our risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and stress, just to name a few.  It decreases our bad cholesterol levels and keeps our heart working efficiently and effectively. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends exercising for 30 minutes on most or all days of the week.  But did you know exercising also helps to keep your brain healthy? Research has found strong evidence that exercise may forestall some kinds of mental decline and may even restore memory. Myriad animal studies have shown that, among other brain benefits, aerobic exercise increases capillary development in the brain, meaning more blood supply, more nutrients and more oxygen. Research has found that fit people have sharper brains, and people who are out of shape but then get into shape, sharpen up their brains.

3) Drink plenty of water. Hydration keeps your mucus membranes in top working order, enabling them to keep out germs such as cold and flu viruses. When these tissues dry out, germs can more easily penetrate to the nasopharynx, where the nasal passages and mouth meet. If you do get sick, the severity of your illness is more likely to be lower if you’ve been drinking a lot of water.

4) Engage in new activities. The biggest finding in brain research in the last ten years is that the brain at any age is highly adaptable or plastic. If you ask your brain to learn, it will learn. Challenging the brain to learn new things by reading, taking up a language, doing crossword puzzles or playing a musical instrument, for example, can help keep the brain and informational processing in top shape.

5) Stick to a diet low in salt (1500-200 mg/day) and avoid foods that are high in saturated fat and cholesterol.  Elevated blood levels of cholesterol can clog arteries, raising the risk of a heart attack. But even before damage to the heart shows up, abnormally high cholesterol levels may cause damage to brain cells. Several studies have shown higher risk of cognitive decline among people with elevated cholesterol. Preliminary evidence also suggests that efforts to lower cholesterol levels, both through a healthy diet and cholesterol-lowering medications, may protect against age-related memory loss and dementia.

6) Eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, foods that provide omega-3 fatty acids such as fish and nuts, and low-fat proteins. Diet is considered a modifiable risk factor which means it can be changed and controlled to prevent disease. Most experts agree that improving diet choices can be effective in preventing and managing chronic diseases.

7) Maintain a Healthy Weight. Being overweight requires our heart to provide more blood to our body and can increase our heart size.  This can lead to high blood pressure and put us at risk for congestive heart failure. Over time, chronic high blood pressure, or hypertension, damages blood vessels, particularly small capillaries including those that deliver nutrients and oxygen to the brain.  Along with increasing a person’s risk for heart disease, studies suggest that chronic hypertension also is associated with increased risk of age-related cognitive decline. Studies also show that older women are much more likely than older men to have high blood pressure and less likely to be under treatment to keep it under control.

8) Reduce Stress. Stress increases our blood pressure and our risk of developing heart disease. Stress also can disturb cognitive processes such as learning and memory. The hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory formation, can be seriously debilitated by chronic stress. Some de-stressors include physical exercise, yoga and meditation.

9) Get more sleep. A recent study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that regularly sleeping less than six hours a night significantly increases the risk of stroke among low risk middle-age to older adults—those who are of normal weight and at low risk for obstructive sleep apnea.

10) Wash your hands regularly. A thorough hand washing keeps the bacteria and viruses off your hands and out of your mouth and eyes. Keep a bottle of hand sanitizer close-by for those instances where you can’t get to soap and water.

11) Follow safety rules. Everyone, especially children, who ride bikes should follow safe biking habits. Biking causes more visits to the emergency room for children ages 5 to 14 than any other sport, with one child out of seven receiving head injuries as a result of a bicycle crash. Before riding bikes, make sure that all of the bike’s parts work properly; bicycle helmets fit snugly and the front of the helmet sits inch above the eyebrows and the chinstrap is buckled snugly. Bikers should also remember to wear bright colors; ride with the flow of traffic; follow all traffic signs, signals and lane markings; and stay out of blind spots and use appropriate hand signals.

12) Have the right calcium in your diet. Having the right amount of calcium and vitamin D in your diet is important for keeping bones healthy, preventing early bone loss and diminishing the risk for osteoporosis. According to the Mayo Clinic, adults ages 19 to 50 and men ages 51 to 70 should get 1,000 mg of calcium per day. For women, who are at higher risk for osteoporosis than men because they naturally have less bone tissue, the recommendation goes up to 1,200 mg per day for those 51 and older. Some good dietary sources of calcium include: dairy products like milk, cheese and yoghurt; green vegetables like kale, broccoli, turnip greens; almonds; fish like salmon and sardines; and soy products such as tofu.

If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, you should ask your doctor about calcium supplements. As for vitamin D, which is important for helping the body absorb calcium, adults ages 19 to 70 should get 600 international units (IU) per day and those age 71 and older should get 800 IUs. You may be able to get adequate amounts of vitamin D from sunlight, but you also can supplement that by adding these vitamin D rich foods to your diet:  oily fish such as tuna and sardines; egg yolks; and fortified milk. You can also take vitamin D supplements.

— Mary Beth Walsh, M.D.
Executive Medical Director and CEO

To read other blog post by Dr. Walsh and the rest of Burke's doctors, visit Burke's Rehab Insights blog.

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