There seems to be a new study or list of health recommendations published every day – and they don’t always agree. Keeping track of the latest findings and discerning which are most credible can be a challenge: After all, most of us don’t have medical degrees and haven’t read the research journals backing the scientists’ findings.
LN turned to those who do – specifically, a family physician, a gastroenterologist, a medical oncologist and a cardiologist – for some practical advice based on the most current knowledge. Some of their tips and strategies are borne of decades of clinical research and anecdotal results, and others are based on more recent science that will pave the way toward even longer, healthier lives.
1) When asked for her top health tip, Dr. Kate Endicott, a family physician with SSM Health Medical Group in Rock Hill, stresses the importance of developing a relationship with a primary-care physician. “It’s proven to improve outcomes and lower health care costs,” she says. “Having a primary-care doctor is the cornerstone of your health care.”
2) When you visit your primary-care physician, he or she will probably echo Endicott’s next pieces of advice: Stop smoking and start exercising. She explains that while not new, these recommendations come up again and again as keys to ongoing health and disease prevention. “When it comes to tobacco, just quit already,” she says. “This is probably the single most important thing you can do for your health and can often mean the difference between needing medication and not. Talk to your doctor about strategies for quitting, and skip the e-cigarettes. The research is still early on their safety and efficacy.”
3) Endicott is as emphatic about exercising: “Study after study shows that regular exercise benefits cardiovascular health, pain, fatigue and mental wellbeing.” But that doesn’t mean you have to train for a marathon. “Find an activity you enjoy, and make it a regular part of your life,” she says. “Recommendations are 60 minutes most days of the week. For older individuals or people with the risk factors for cardiovascular disease – smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol or advanced age – talk with your doctor before starting, and start slowly with easy exercises like walking or tai chi. A good way to determine if you’re hitting your target heart rate is you should be able to talk but not sing while doing cardiovascular exercise.”
4) Based on research published in The Journal of Family Practice that might surprise many, Endicott also advises people “say goodbye to their nebulizer,” a device used to deliver medication in the form of a mist inhaled into the lungs. “If you suffer from asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), talk to your doctor about the best method for breathing treatments,” she says. “While nebulizers can provide moist air, which is very soothing, the traditional handheld medications deliver the medicine more effectively for better relief and control of symptoms.”
5-6) Endicott advises everyone, especially children and the elderly, to make sure they are current on all recommended vaccinations, including the flu vaccine. And when it comes to supplements, she thinks less is generally more. “Most people don’t need to take multiple vitamins and supplements,” she says. “There’s little evidence for their benefits, and you may be at risk for adverse drug interactions or side effects. A daily multivitamin is usually a good bet, but talk with your primary-care provider before adding in other supplements. As a good rule of thumb, women should get at least 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day (1,200 after menopause) from food and/or supplements, and everyone should get 800 international units of vitamin D per day.”
7) Speaking of supplements, probiotics, microorganisms believed to provide health benefits when consumed, have seen a recent boom in popularity, but they’re not for everyone, says Dr. Giao Vuong, a gastroenterologist at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital. “Although probiotics are popular right now, they have proven success mainly in helping people with digestive disorders such as infectious diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease,” he says. Vuong does not recommend their routine use for otherwise healthy people. “When taken for extended periods of time, probiotics can cause side effects such as bloating or infections in people who have a compromised immune system.”
8) Appropriate health screenings are at the top of Dr. Christos Papageorgiou’s list of tips. A medical oncologist with SSM Health Cancer Care, Papageorgiou notes that as recommendations have changed in recent years, he suggests starting with your primary-care physician to determine which screenings are appropriate based on your individual circumstances, overall risk and family health history. “The decision to perform mammography starting at the age 40 should be determined by individual patient risk and values through shared decision making with a clinician,” he says. “An acceptable standard is every two years between the ages 40 and 50 and probably annually after 50. Screening frequency for cervical, colorectal and prostate cancer vary depending on age and other considerations that can be discussed during a physical exam.” For the new year, cancer prevention should become, for all of us, not a target but a lifestyle, he adds. “Physical activity; maintaining a healthy weight; having a diet low in saturated and trans fat and rich in vegetables, whole grains and fruits; avoidance of tobacco; limiting alcohol consumption; avoiding excess sun; and protecting against sexually transmitted infections should all be what we practice routinely.”
9) Many of these recommendations double as heart-healthy guidelines. However, the first step to minimizing your risk is knowing your numbers, says Dr. Stephanie White, a cardiologist at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital. “Your physician will use your cholesterol and blood pressure along with the ASCVD (atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease) 10-year risk calculator to determine your personal risk for heart disease and need for medication,” she says. “The ASCVD is a big advancement in cardiology. It allows physicians to dig deeper and get a more complete picture of the individual’s risk.”
10) On top of it all, try not to stress, Endicott concludes. “Chronic stress can increase your risk for everything from insomnia, depression, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and heart disease,” she says. “Yoga, meditation and prayer are all good ways to reduce your stress.”