Wellness is based on the idea that relying only on medical diagnosis and treatment, while helpful, is not enough to protect and improve your health. Instead, good health depends on a variety of ways of living that can improve both physical and mental health and, in the end, add years to a person’s life.
Even though this book talks about many common illnesses that can be treated at home, chronic diseases that have a big effect on quality of life and length of life often need medical help. But more and more research shows that many of these health problems can be avoided or put off by making changes to how you live. Even though researchers don’t fully understand what causes major illnesses like heart attack, stroke, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), they have found a few key risk factors that make them more likely to happen. This knowledge shows how important it is to take steps to lower the risk of these diseases.
This section has information about the most important things you can do for your health to live a healthy life. It tells you about the benefits of each measure and gives you ideas for how to make these changes in your life gradually, which makes it easier to stay healthy overall.
The basis for prevention
Most Americans today are aware of how much health advice they get. Every week, a source that claims to be authoritative gives new advice about medications, vitamin supplements, exercise routines, foods to eat or avoid, and popular fad diets for weight loss that often show up on best-seller lists. This advice is sometimes based on new studies that have been talked about in the news or on personal stories. But the advice and study results are often confusing or even at odds with each other.
Some news stories may oversimplify or misinterpret the results of a study, which can lead to this kind of confusion. For example, a few years ago, after two studies, some news stories said, “Exercise Can Cause Heart Attacks!” But this headline was misleading because only a small number of people who didn’t do much physical activity had heart attacks. Most Americans are more likely to get sick because they don’t get enough exercise.
Studies can sometimes be wrong. Health reporters might not have time to read the whole study and instead rely on press releases, or they might read it but not fully understand it. Also, well-done studies may sometimes find things that contradict what other studies have found, but the reason for this isn’t always clear.
But this doesn’t hurt the field of epidemiology, which looks at how diseases and risk factors spread through human populations to figure out what causes them. Even though the results of a single study may not be conclusive, the results of a body of research that gathers information over time can be scientifically sound.
Research on human health has made a lot of progress. Even though there is no such thing as a perfect study, many studies have been done to find risk factors that are strong enough to show cause and effect, like the link between smoking and lung cancer. Researchers have looked at hundreds of studies and gathered a lot of evidence showing how diet, exercise, and the other things we’ll talk about in this section affect the risk of getting sick.
The suggestions on the next pages take these findings into account. The goal is not only to give information that is up-to-date, but also to give useful advice that is likely to stay useful over time. For example, scientists may still argue about how plaque forms in coronary arteries, but it is generally agreed that a diet high in saturated fats contributes to this process. Having less fat and cholesterol in your diet may make you less likely to get heart disease.
Also, it’s helpful to know what kinds of foods have a lot of fat and if all fatty foods are bad for you (they are not). Even though these guidelines could be changed in the future (as in any field of science), they are backed by a consensus of experts and a lot of research that shows their value and effectiveness.
Still, most of the time, it’s not a good idea to make big changes to your daily habits based on a single study. For scientific findings to be true, they should be checked by more than one person, and even then, there may still be some uncertainty.
Keys to longevity
Infectious diseases like typhoid, flu, diphtheria, and tuberculosis killed a lot of people before their time in the last century. This was mostly due to poor nutrition, sanitation, and transportation. But improvements in public health and new technologies, such as refrigeration, led to a big drop in the number of people dying from infectious diseases in Western societies. Still, too many calories, fat, alcohol, and cholesterol, along with bad habits like smoking, have become the main causes of diseases that kill people in these societies. Several studies have found a link between these factors and long-term health problems like heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. On the other hand, people don’t get enough exercise these days, which is a big problem. In the past century, people had to deal with physical hardships. Disease rates are also going up because of changes in the environment caused by things like population growth, technological advances, and industrial growth.
Researchers say that around 75% of all cancer cases are not caused by genes but by things like what people eat and drink, whether or not they smoke, and other environmental and work-related factors. In the United States and around the world, smoking is the main cause of cancer. It is also a major cause of heart disease, which kills millions of people every year. If everyone who smokes tobacco in the US quit and no one started smoking, the number of cancer deaths would drop by at least one-third over time. Lung cancer, which kills more American men and women than any other type of cancer, would become less common.
About a third of all cases of cancer are caused by what people eat, which is almost as many as are caused by smoking. Diet is also linked to high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure, which are two of the three biggest risk factors for heart disease (hypertension). Experts agree on what changes people should make to their diets to lower their risk of getting long-term diseases. Apart from not smoking, eating mostly fruits and vegetables is the most important thing we know about preventing cancer right now. Studies show that this is true because people who eat the most fruits and vegetables have the lowest rates of cancer.
Lack of exercise is one of the most important risk factors for disease that can be stopped. People who aren’t active can cut their risk of a heart attack by 35 to 55% if they start working out regularly. Regular physical activity can also cut the risk of stroke by a large amount, and there is direct evidence that it can help keep diabetes from starting. Several studies suggest that exercise can also prevent breast and prostate cancer, and there is good evidence that it can also prevent colon cancer.
It can be tempting to count on medical advances, especially new medicines, to keep diseases from happening or to make them take longer to show up. For example, taking cholesterol-lowering drugs to treat high cholesterol is one way to reduce the risk of coronary artery disease (CAD), which causes over one-third of all deaths in the United States, or about 460,000 deaths each year. From 1988 to 1998, the death rate from coronary artery disease (CAD) dropped by 28%. A big reason for this was the introduction and increased use of newer, more effective cholesterol-lowering drugs. This drop was a continuation of the drop in average cholesterol levels that began in 1960. This drop happened at the same time that the death rate from CAD went down.
Medication is sometimes needed to change a person’s risk factors, but it has many side effects and costs billions of dollars for both the person taking it and their insurance company. Also, drugs might not be the only or most important answer. Quitting smoking is the most important and important way to prevent CAD. Other risk factors that can be changed, like high blood pressure, obesity, and lack of physical activity, can often be fixed by making changes to diet and exercise habits.
Even though making changes to your lifestyle can be harder than just taking a pill, the benefits are much greater. These changes can lower the risk of serious health problems like diabetes, cancer, stroke, and heart disease, and they are often needed even if a doctor prescribes medicine. Also, medical interventions may not guarantee that the patient will have a good quality of life after treatment, and they can be hard on the patient’s family and the healthcare system as a whole.
In fact, keeping your health in good shape may not help you live longer, but rather give you a better quality of life. Many of the signs of aging, like weight gain, less muscle tone and flexibility, less stamina, bone loss, and slower reflexes, can often be avoided by living a healthy life. The pages that follow show that you don’t have to make big changes all at once to get healthy. In fact, trying to make big changes can sometimes backfire, like when someone starts an intense exercise routine with a lot of enthusiasm but quits after a short time because they get hurt or get bored. This section has easy-to-follow tips that can help you stay healthy.