1. Focus your efforts on things that matter.
It is important that we distinguish between risks that are real and can be lessened by individuals’ actions and those that are theoretical, very small, or beyond our control.
The American Council on Science and Health is dedicated to helping you set priorities for a healthy and long life. When it comes to achieving long life and good health, we largely determine our own fate. As we get ready to start a new year, we can do ourselves the most good by improving important health-related aspects of our lifestyles — such as quitting smoking (or, better, not starting in the first place) and engaging in regular exercise — and by taking advantage of technology that protects us against health and safety hazards, such as bicycle helmets and appropriate immunizations. To make the best health choices, resolve to sift carefully through the health advice that surrounds all of us and focus your efforts on the things that really matter.
The threat of terrorism, for example, demands that we rank risks intelligently: While the risk of receiving an anthrax-laden letter is real it is very small for the great majority of people. A heightened alertness to strangely addressed mail might be helpful, for example, but not a panicked hoarding of anti-anthrax antibiotics. (Unlike anthrax, smallpox, to our knowledge, has not been used as a terrorist weapon, nor is it still naturally present anywhere in the world. The risk of its being used and its effectiveness as a weapon are unknown. While a vaccine against smallpox exists, it carries its own health risks and should not be used without consideration of those risks.)
While exposure to such terrorist uses of disease agents is a real threat, exposure to trace amounts of synthetic chemicals in the environment, for example, is not. Trying to reduce such exposures will not have a significant positive impact on health.
2. Don’t smoke.
If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, resolve to quit this year. Half of all adults who once smoked cigarettes have kicked the habit. You can, too. For more information on quitting, see ACSH’s booklet Kicking Butts in the Twenty-First Century.
This is our major New Year’s resolution because cigarette smoking is the number one cause of preventable deaths in this country. Tobacco use is responsible for almost half a million deaths in the U.S. each year and more than $50 billion in medical expenditures. One in every five deaths in the United States is smoking-related, and half of all lifelong smokers die of a smoking-related disease.(1)
So don’t let another year go up in smoke. Start the New Year smoke-free.
3. Achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Eat a balanced diet and handle foods safely.
Over half of Americans are overweight, and about a third are obese (meaning that they have a BMI>=30).(2) The proportion of the population that is overweight has been increasing rapidly in the U.S. for the past twenty years in both the adult and the pediatric population.(3) Excess weight is associated with increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, arthritis, gallbladder disease, and some types of cancer.(4) Obesity is hard to treat once established: prevention is a better route to take. To help reduce excess weight and to maintain a healthy weight, experts recommend that Americans eat a balanced diet, moderate total calorie intake and portion sizes, and exercise regularly.(5)
The keys to good nutrition are variety, moderation, and balance. There are no “good” or “bad” foods — but there certainly are “good” and “bad” diets.
In addition, many people worry too much about hypothetical hazards from traces of pesticides or other chemical residues in food while paying too little attention to more important food-related risks.
One of the most important food-related risks is contamination by microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, and some parasites). Diseases caused by microorganisms in food cause an estimated 5,000 deaths, 325,000 serious illnesses, and 76 million cases of gastrointestinal illness in the U.S. each year.(6)
To keep foods safe, follow the four principles of the President’s National Food Safety Initiative: 1) Clean: Wash hands and surfaces often. 2) Separate: Don’t cross-contaminate. 3) Cook: Cook to proper temperatures. 4) Chill: Refrigerate promptly.(7)
For more information, read ACSH’s booklet on food safety Eating Safely: Avoiding Foodborne Illness.
4. Exercise regularly — with caution.
Regular exercise will help you control your weight, improve your overall health, and reduce your risk of medical problems such as heart disease and osteoporosis. To get the most benefit, you should exercise for at least thirty to forty-five minutes three to five times a week.(8)
When you exercise, make sure to take all the safety precautions that are recommended for the activities that you choose. It’s especially important always to wear a helmet while cycling or skating. Wearing a bicycle helmet can reduce your risk of head injury by up to 85%.(9) Other safety equipment, such as knee pads and wrist guards, can also reduce your risk of injury.
Although exercise is beneficial for almost everyone, some people need to consult a doctor to find out what level and types of physical activities are safe for them. This precaution is especially important for heart disease patients, people who have a medical condition that might be aggravated by exercise, and people who are taking any type of medication (especially medicines for high blood pressure or heart disease).(10)
5. Separate drinking and driving.
Never drink and drive. Equally important, never ride as a passenger in a car driven by someone who has been drinking alcohol.
Forty-one percent of all traffic fatalities in the U.S. are alcohol-related.(11) One American is injured in an alcohol-related driving incident every two minutes.(12) Rates of fatal crashes have begun to rise after a decade of decline in alcohol-related crashes. Since 1999, they have increased slightly by 4% to 10% for all age groups except for ages sixteen to seventeen years(13), so there’s plenty of room for improvement. There are more than 120 million episodes of impaired driving in the U.S. every year.(14) Every one of these episodes puts people’s lives at risk.
So if you plan to drink, make safe transportation arrangements. If no designated driver is available, use mass transit or call a taxi.
6. If you drink alcoholic beverages, keep your intake moderate.
Moderate drinking is OK for most adults. If you’re middle-aged or older, it may even benefit your health by reducing your risk of heart disease. What’s moderate? For men age sixty-five and under, the limit is two drinks per day; for men over sixty-five and women of all ages, it’s one drink per day.
Heavy drinking (that is, drinking that goes beyond the limits of moderation) is not healthful. The heavy drinking of alcohol is associated with increased risks of injury, liver disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, and several types of cancer. It’s responsible for more than 100,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.(15)
For more information on the health effects of moderate drinking, see ACSH’s booklet Moderate Alcohol Consumption and Health.
7. Take your body to the shop for preventive maintenance.
Your car comes equipped with a maintenance schedule. So does your body. Health authorities recommend that all adults and children should have certain types of preventive care — such as screening tests and immunizations — on a regular schedule. The timing of these services depends on your body’s “model” and “mileage” (that is, your gender and age).
Unfortunately, many Americans have fallen way behind on their maintenance schedules. For example, yearly mammograms and breast exams are recommended for women over the age of forty (if not younger), but over 24% of women in this age group reported not having had these exams for the previous two years.(16) Everyone over the age of sixty-five should receive a single immunization against pneumococcal pneumonia and an annual flu shot — but in 2002, for example, more than a third of all Americans in this age group didn’t get a flu shot, and more than 40% have never received the pneumococcal vaccine.(17)
If you haven’t been taking routine care of your body (or your child’s body), resolve to make an appointment with your doctor this year to find out what preventive services are recommended. And then follow up by getting the necessary tests and immunizations.
For more information on children’s immunizations see ACSH’s booklet Vaccinations: What Parents Need to Know.
8. Protect yourself against AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
The best ways to protect yourself against AIDS are to:
Never use a non-sterile needle to inject anything into your body.
Either abstain from sex or have sex only with an uninfected partner in a mutually monogamous relationship.
If you choose to have multiple sex partners (or your partner does), you can reduce your risk of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the following ways:
Ask all prospective sexual partners to be tested for sexually transmitted infections.
Use condoms properly and consistently.
Avoid sexual intercourse with people who engage in high-risk behaviors such as unprotected sex or intravenous drug use.
9. Check “alternative” practices with your doctor.
More than 40% of Americans use some kind of “alternative” therapy(18), such as herbal medicine, massage, chiropractic, or aromatherapy. Some people think that all alternative practices are harmless, but this isn’t necessarily true — especially for people with special medical concerns. For example, people with Parkinson’s disease should never take the herb kava-kava because it can worsen their disease symptoms.(19) People with osteoporosis should not receive chiropractic therapy because the manipulation could cause a fracture.(20) People who take the herb ginkgo biloba while also taking an anticoagulant drug can develop bleeding problems.(21) For more information on possible drug-supplement interactions, see ACSH’s brochure What’s the Story? Drug-Supplement Interaction.
Even if an alternative therapy isn’t dangerous in itself, it can hurt you if you use it as a substitute for proper medical care. Most alternatives have not been proven effective, and many don’t work at all. If your problem turns out to be serious, you could endanger your health — or even your life — by experimenting with unproven therapies instead of seeing a physician promptly.
If you use alternative therapies, you should let your medical doctor know. However, more than 60% of Americans who use alternative methods don’t do this.(22) To find out whether any alternative practices you would like to try are safe for you, resolve that you will always check out these methods with your doctor before you start.
10. Use automobile safety devices every time.
Seat belts saved nearly 12,000 lives in the U.S. in 2000. Research has shown that lap/shoulder belts, when used properly, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45% and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50%. A recent survey showed that 73% of all Americans now buckle up — a 12% increase since 1996.(23) That’s good, but it could be better. This year, resolve that everyone in your car will be buckled into the proper restraint every time. That means seat belts for adults, booster seats (in the rear seat) for older children, and properly installed safety seats (in the rear seat) for small children and infants.
11. Protect your dental health.
You know that you can help keep your teeth healthy by brushing and flossing, getting regular dental care, using fluoride as recommended by your doctor or dentist, eating balanced meals, and limiting snacks. While most people know this, here’s something you may not know: more than two million teeth are knocked out every year, many of them from sports-related injuries.(24) Many of these injuries could have been avoided if the person was wearing a mouth protector. So if you play sports that involve a risk of mouth injury, resolve to wear a mouthguard every time.
12. Install and maintain a working smoke detector.
Smoke detectors save lives. They’re your best protection against death or injury in a nighttime fire in your home. But they won’t protect you if they’re not working. The American Red Cross recommends that you test your smoke detectors once a month, replace the batteries at least once a year, and replace the detectors themselves every ten years. You can also protect your family from fire by planning at least two escape routes from every room in your home and making sure that all family members know how to use them.(25)
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1. From the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, April 12, 2002. “Annual Smoking-Attributable Mortality, Years of Life Lost, and Economic Costs — United States, 1995-1999.” Available at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/PDF/wk/mm5114.pdf.
2. Hedley A, Ogden CL, Johnson CL, Carroll MD, Curtin LR, Flegal KM. Prevalence of Overweight and Obesity Among U.S. Children, Adolescents, and Adults, 1999-2002. JAMA 2004; 291: 2847-2850.
4. Must A, Spadano J, Coakley EH, Field AE, Colditz G, Dietz WH. The disease burden associated with overweight and obesity. JAMA 1999;282:1523-1529.
5. From a Surgeon General page entitled “Choose a Healthy Weight for Life.” Available at http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/topics/obesity/calltoaction/fact_advice.htm.
6. From a CDC press release dated Sept. 16, 1999 and titled “CDC data provides the most complete estimate on foodborne disease in the United States.” Available at http://www.cdc.gov/od/oc/media/pressrel/r990917.htm.
7. These principles are listed in many government documents. They came from an FSIS “food safety feature” dated July 1999 and titled “Cleanliness Helps Prevent Foodborne Illness.” It’s available at http://www.fsis.usda.gov/OA/pubs/cleanliness.htm.
8. The American College of Sports Medicine, available at http://www.acsm.org/pdf/Guidelines.pdf.
9. According to a Consumer Product Safety Commission press release dated April 21, 1999 and available at http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml99/99099.html.
10. From the American Heart Association’s recommendations on physical activity, available at http://126.96.36.199/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4563.
11. From the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control’s “Quick Facts About Impaired Driving.” http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/duip/spotlite/3d.htm.
15. References for this statement can be found in ACSH’s report on moderate drinking.
16. From the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System Prevalence Data, 2002. http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/brfss/Trends/trendchart.asp?qkey=10060&state=US
17. This statistic comes from a Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey in 2002, which asked “During the past 12 months, have you had a flu shot?” In the age group 65+, 35.1% said no. When asked if they’d received the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine, 37.0% of people 65 or older said no. http://apps.nccd.cdc.gov/brfss/Trends/TrendData.asp.
18. Eisenberg DM, et al. Trends in alternative medicine use in the United States, 1990-1997. JAMA 1998;280:1569-1575.
19. See ACSH’s report on drug-supplement interaction.
20. From a National Safety Council fact sheet called “Is Alternative Medicine Going Mainstream?” http://www.nsc.org/pubs/fsh/archive/spr99/altmed.htm.
21. See ACSH’s report on drug-supplement interaction.
22. From the article by Eisenberg cited above.
23. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Occupant Protection Division. May, 2004. http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/airbags/809729.pdf.