Although other substances get much more attention both from the media and the public, a report just out from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) starkly reminds us that the most problematic and costly substance in our culture is without any question alcohol.
Among the many near-term dangerous problems associated with alcohol abuse, there are these obvious ones: much higher levels of being involved in homicides, suicides, accidents (in the workplace, at home, and of course, on the road), poor judgement decisions (unsafe sex, and use of other dangerous substances, for example), mood changes, and a host of others.
As for the long-term costs of alcohol abuse, the huge list includes outstanding ones such as much higher levels of cardiovascular disease, psychological changes, liver disease, sleep disorders, and cancer since alcohol use (even at low and moderate intake levels) has been linked to a higher risk of a host of cancers including esophageal cancer and breast cancer.
And those long-term consequences don’t even address the other awful long-term negative effects that alcohol abuse delivers to a drinker’s family, workplace, community, and country (the incredible cost of dealing with alcohol abuse).
Bottom line: a little bit of alcohol might lead to some positive health effects and might improve some social situations (I can’t really picture going to certain parties unless I could nurse a glass of wine throughout) but anything beyond that carries potential significant health risks.
I know, I know, I know: Like most of you, I too wake up some days thinking summer will never arrive in western Canada again.
But smarter people than me assure me that this is wrong: Summer will eventually arrive and when it does, if you’re anything like me, you will rush outside to spend some time bathing in that big, beautiful, hot sun.
So let me play my standard role of parent and warn you all ahead of time that while some time in the sun is necessary for good health – sunshine acting on our skin helps our bodies produce vitamin D which we all very much need – too much sun is clearly linked to poorer health both in the short term which leads to problems such as sunburns and sunstrokes, and especially in the long-term through much higher risks of skin cancer, especially the most serious form known as malignant melanoma.
So here’s the advice that you really need to heed in the coming months: 10-20 minutes of sun exposure several days a week is OK but
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When it comes to trying to convince people to be more active to lower their health risks, one of the most frustrating things for doctors is that the people who tend to listen to this advice most are usually those people who are already somewhat active, not those who are most sedentary.
But the studies show over and over and over again that the biggest gains from making a bit of a positive adjustment in activity level actually come to those who are the least active to start with.
For example, in a huge study which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, researchers set out to examine the effect that genes confer on heart health and whether or not living a healthy lifestyle could offset any negative contribution to life expectancy from inheriting “bad” genes.
And their happy conclusion is that yes, healthy living can indeed offset “bad” genes.
More encouragingly, perhaps, even if you inherited a higher risk of heart disease from your ungenerous parents, you don’t have to do all that much in terms of trying to live a healthy lifestyle to counter the effect of those genes.
In this study, the researchers concluded that even a small upward tick in healthy living – some exercise but not necessarily 5 times a week and not necessarily very vigorous workouts, eating some veggies and fruit but not necessarily 10 servings a day, maintaining a decent body weight even in the mild overweight category – significantly lowered the risk of dying from heart disease that “bad” genes confer.
Or to put this in the words of the study’s authors, “the biggest protective effect by far (on life expectancy in this study) came from going from a terrible lifestyle to one that was moderately good.”
In other words, the people who are likely to gain the most benefit are those who manage to finally get off the couch, even if it’s only to walk around the block to start, not those who go from jogging a half-hour a day to running faster and longer.
So the great news is that genes are not destiny.
The bad (sort of) news is that you do have to do something about it, however.
If you’re like me (‘heaven forbid”, I think I heard a few people cry out), then you often have trouble sticking to hard schedules especially ones that involve resolutions, and particularly, of course, resolutions about improving your health.
I mean, I cannot begin to count the many times I’ve vowed to eat less of some of the things I eat too much of such as salami and pickles and a list of others too long to mention in a brief blog post.
I invariably resolve to eat less of these foods just after I pigged out on them late on December 31 – I celebrate the new year by eating stuff I know I shouldn’t eat – and I can usually manage to stick to my resolve until the next time I see these items again when I re-open the fridge early on January 1.
OK, so that’s a slight exaggeration – some years I manage to hold out till January 2 – but you know what I mean: lifestyle resolutions are exceedingly hard to stick to.
For example, some studies have estimated that the average smoker makes 8 or so attempts to quit before he’s finally able to succeed at not smoking.
And the reason they call it yo-yo dieting is that the vast majority of people who want to lose weight go on and off diets regularly because diets are so very hard to stick to.
So my advice at this late point in January is this: if you resolved to do something on that artificial deadline of January 1 and like the vast majority of us, you did not succeed to hold out this long, please don’t be hard on yourself: that’s just how tough lifestyle change can be.
And even more important, don’t take any failure to be a signal to give up: remember those average smokers I mentioned earlier – even though they fail most times they try to quit, a great proportion of them, perhaps as many as half, do eventually succeed.
Bottom line: it’s never too late to make a positive health change even if you’re well into your senior years.
And there’s no reason not to pick another totally artificial deadline date – say February 1, or February 3, or whatever – to try to make that change.
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I’m a person who is always trying to find the bright side of things so most days, I try to think of something that can “up” my mood, such as the thought that there are now four years left until the next American election turmoil.
In other words, I would describe myself as an optimist and that’s a good thing because optimism has been linked in several studies to better health outcomes.
But what about the flip side?
What if you’re a pessimist, someone who feels the glass is never full enough?
Does that harm your health?
Well, according to an 11-year-long Finnish study of nearly 3,000 people, people who were judged to be pessimists based on psychological testing at the start of the study had a 2-3 times higher risk of dying from heart disease over the course of the study than did the rest of the study participants.
On the other hand, though, and frustratingly for me, optimists did not have a lower risk of dying during the study although I am optimistic that this latter finding is actually a mistake and to that end, another recent study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology did find that those study participants judged to be optimists when the study was launched did in fact live longer than those not as hopeful (the only caveat is that this was a study on only women, but hey, I’m very optimistic that the same thing holds true for men, too.
Anyway, the big question is can you change your personality and pass from the darker side to the lighter side?
This is very hard to answer from currently published studies – and if you’re a pessimist, I suppose you will say it can’t be done – but I believe you can work on your temperament and if not totally eliminate pessimistic feelings, at least temper them.
For some of us, it takes work for sure, but I am very hopeful that it can be done.
It’s cold and flu season once again and odds are that you will come down with at least one such infection this year, and if you’re unlucky or a parent – kids bring these viruses home very regularly – you might even get sick two or three times.
You can, of course, easily lower your risk of getting the flu by getting the flu shot. Although it’s still early days, it appears that the current vaccine is a decent match against this year’s flu strain.
Unhappily, though, there are still no vaccines against the many different viral strains that cause colds. An experimental “cold vaccine” developed in the US seems to be working well at preventing colds in macaque monkeys, and although it’s a huge step from other primates to humans, this is still hopeful for the future.
Keep in mind that frequent hand-washing also seems to lower the chances of coming down with colds, the flu, and some gastrointestinal viruses too, so wash your hands often.
But if you do get sick, how can you tell the difference between a cold and the flu and does it even matter to know whether you are sick with one or the other?
The second part is easy to answer: a cold doesn’t do much damage but “the flu” can kill, especially the most vulnerable such as the very young, the very old, those with immune system problems, and others.
So yes, it does matter to know the difference if only to be much more aware of trying not to pass on the flu should you get it.
However telling the difference between the two isn’t easy.
In very general terms, although both viral infections produce somewhat similar symptoms such as a sore throat and cough, colds are milder infections that may drive you crazy because of your blocked nose or sneezing but unlike the flu, colds don’t usually lead to high fevers or more generalized symptoms such as aches and pains.
As I said, though, this is a broad generalization and there is a large symptom crossover between colds and flus.
Final question: how should these viral infections be treated?
Lots of fluids (as a Jewish man, I swear in the benefits of frequent large bowls of delicious home-made chicken soup), rest (I also believe that people who are sick with what they believe to be the flu should stay home until they feel better; and if they can’t stay home, they should at least wash their hands as often as they can) and judicious use of medications for symptoms, although if you do decide to use drugs for symptoms, please do yourself a favour and consult your pharmacist about possible side effects from these drugs and especially how these drugs may interact with other drugs you may be taking.
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For reasons that are too strange for me to understand, the flu vaccine is surrounded by more myths than Donald Trump has come up for why Hilary Clinton is more popular than him.
So if you’re hesitant to get a flu vaccine this year because you’re someone who has bought into one of those myths, especially the myth that the flu vaccine can give you the flu – it simply cannot. Period – let me try to change your mind by offering you a couple of simple but I think compelling reasons to get a flu vaccine this year.
First, getting vaccinated against the flu lowers your risk of getting a nasty bout of that very common winter-time infection, an illness that not only lasts for 7-14 days but which also produces pretty unwelcome symptoms.
How effective is the flu vaccine?
Well, the effectiveness varies year-to-year depending on how accurately the experts were when they decided which strains of flu virus to include in that year’s vaccine.
Sometimes they miss badly, of course, but last year, they did quite well so that last year’s flu vaccine was about 60% effective at preventing the flu, and hey, 60% effectiveness is nothing to sneeze at, I think you’d all agree.
But just as important as its overall preventive ability is that the flu vaccine is also quite effective at reducing the potential complications that can accompany the flu, such as pneumonia, which can, of course, be a life-threatening infection.
But for me, the overall main reason to get you all to get a flu shot every year is that widespread use of flu vaccination reduces the number of people who get sick with the flu, which in turn also reduces – obviously – the number of people who can pass the flu on, especially to people who are very vulnerable to flu complications, such as seniors – me! – and infants – my new grandson, who is still too young to get a flu shot.
So hey, do everyone around you a favour and get yourself a flu shot this year.
All the little ones and the old ones you come in contact with will be grateful to you for your effort.
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