Monday 5 May 2008

Six ways to live longer

If you want to enjoy optimum health and vitality well into your twilight years, you need to do a little work.

Nothing too difficult – just follow these six basic steps.

Have a health check up

A preventive health check could save your life, particularly if you’re 45 years or over. But don’t wait until then if you’re above your healthy weight range or have a family history of illness. Also, don’t assume you’re in great shape just because you’re feeling well. The unfortunate truth is, many preventable illnesses do not cause any symptoms until they are at a serious stage, says Dr Leanne Rowe, co-author of Save Your Life and live for those you love (Allen & Unwin, 2007).

Find a good GP (see Doctor feel good) and arrange a check up. Dr Rowe recommends you start with a measurement of your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol. Have your doctor check your blood glucose level and protein content in your urine. Then, ask which screening tests you should have and schedule them as soon as possible. Once you have your results, keep a detailed record of them, plus make a note of when you need to be re-tested in the future. “It’s a good idea to ask your GP for a photocopy of your pathology results and other measurements and to file them in your own personal health record at home,” says Dr Rowe.

Know your family history

Many common health problems run in families and have a genetic basis, so it’s a good idea to know your family history. If you have information on your family’s medical status, Dr Rowe advises you discuss it with your doctor. They will then have a better idea of what to focus on and when and how often to screen for specific illnesses. “Understanding your family history is really important,” says Dr Rowe. “So when you see your relatives, bring it up with them. It can be uncomfortable, but this is an area where we need to share.” Once you have explored your family’s medical history, make a list of every thing you know about the health of your immediate family members, suggests Dr Rowe. Of particular importance is your relative’s age now or when they died, whether they experienced any signs of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes or cancer, and from what age these conditions developed. Other conditions to consider are alcohol or drug dependency, psychiatric disorders, eye disorders, epilepsy, kidney or liver disease or osteoporosis. Your doctor will be able to suggest even more.

Eat a well balanced diet

According to respected health bodies such as the World Health Organisation, Cancer Council Australia and The Heart Foundation, the food you put into your mouth each day has a direct effect on your chances of developing heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and even certain cancers. Dr Rowe says this is partially due to general confusion about what eating healthily means. "We're drowning in information, but we don't know the basic facts," she says. A good diet provides you with enough energy and can be sustained in the long term; it maintains your healthy body weight; it keeps arteries unclogged to help prevent heart disease; it will also stabilise blood glucose to help prevent diabetes; and build strong bones. The best way to achieve all of that is by following a diet that is low in saturated and trans fats, and high in carbohydrates, but with a low-glycaemic index, advises Dr Rowe.

Get moving & exercise

Here's the basic truth: the majority of us need to get moving, and quick sticks! "There is absolutely no doubt that Australians need to exercise more," says Dr Rowe, who estimates 60 per cent of us are inactive. "If you engage in moderate exercise daily, you will add, on average, up to four years to your life. The benefits are greater for more vigorous exercise." Exactly how much exercise do we need and what type? Well, moderate exercise means physical activity that raises your heart rate somewhat but allows you to still carry on a conversation. Vigorous means physical exercise during which you can speak, but not talk in full sentences. Exactly what activity to choose is entirely up to you. "What really counts is that you enjoy it," says Dr Rowe. To get maximum benefits, you need to squeeze in at least 30 minutes of sweat time on most, if not all days of the week. The best option is walking, says The National Weight Control Registry in the US, which has been following more than 5000 US residents who have lost weight and kept it off.

Reduce the 'vices'

If you want to lead a long and healthy life, it's time to play it safe, says Dr Rowe. That means giving up smoking and sticking to the recommended drinking limits."People tend to be aware of the dangers of smoking, but not so much when it comes to alcohol," says Dr Rowe. Just like smoking, excessive alcohol can increase the risk of several types of cancer including breast, colon, mouth, pharynx and liver cancer, plus alcohol related dementia, says Dr Rowe. The bottom line is, if you drink alcohol, stick to the recommended national guidelines, which advise no more than four standard drinks per day for men and two a day for women with one to two alcohol-free days per week. It's also smart to avoid illicit drugs, review any prescribed medication regularly, practice safe sex, plus take care to avoid accidents if possible. Those yearning for optimal health might also like to get a handle on their stress levels, says Dr Rowe. Meditation and yoga are great options. Both have been shown to ease tension and boost mood. To learn more, visit your local gym or search the internet for meditation classes or yoga for beginners in your area.

Know the warning signs

"We tend to battle on no matter what, but when it comes to our health that's not something to be proud of, " says Dr Rowe. "Our first reactions to a new symptom are commonly, 'it'll go away' or 'I don't want to take up the doctor's time', but there are some signs and symptoms you should never ignore. Early diagnosis and treatment saves lives." Talk to your GP or health professional about the warning signs to look out for and make a note of them all. By doing so, it's quite possible you will save your own life or perhaps the life of someone close to you. And while it might be daunting, perhaps even frightening, to closely investigate your health, knowledge is power, as the saying goes."Taking charge of your health is not as scary or as difficult as it may seem," says Dr Rowe. "It's in your control and it's doable. There's no doubt that if you work with your GP or health professional you can achieve better health outcomes."

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