1. If you smoke, quit. And if you don’t smoke, don’t start
Tobacco kills more than 700,000 people every year, mainly by increasing the risk of heart disease and cancer. Smoking is the leading preventable cause of premature death and disability in the U.S. By quitting if you do smoke, and better yet, never starting to smoke, you can dramatically reduce your risks of dying from both cancer and heart disease.
2. Eat a variety of foods, none to excess.
Diet fads have long been part of history. But the best diet for you is one you can stay on forever, simply by making healthy choices:
- Consume lots of green and yellow vegetables.
- Decrease your intake of saturated fat, like that found in red meat and full-fat dairy products.
- Avoid trans fats found in some margarines and packaged baked goods.
- For cooking and flavor, try to substitute more mono-unsaturated fats, like olive oil, or poly-unsaturated fats, like canola oil.
- Taste food before adding salt to it. Less salt will help control blood pressure.
- Choose foods with a low glycemic index, like old-fashioned oatmeal, soy, or nuts. These keep your blood sugar from spiking.
- And when it comes to food portions, do not allow yourself to be super-sized!
3. Make exercise a routine part of your day.
The most reliable way to get exercise is to incorporate it into your daily routine. For example:
- If you take public transportation to work, get out a stop or two ahead, and walk the rest of the way. Better yet, ride a bike.
- When riding an elevator, get off a floor or two below yours and walk up. (This way, you will also learn the emergency escape route!)
- You may find it handy to use a pedometer to help you set an exercise goal, keep track, and stay motivated. Walking 5,000 or, even better, 10,000 steps a day is a great goal to reach and maintain.
4. Drink alcohol in moderation, if you drink, and avoid addictive drugs.
Used in excess, alcohol is a poison. But low amounts—one or two drinks per day—have some beneficial effects on blood lipids. Never drink and drive—it is illegal, dangerous, and foolish, and it can be the source of lifelong regret.
5. Wear your seatbelt whenever you are in a moving vehicle.
Injuries are the leading cause of death for people under age 34. And motor vehicles cause the largest number of deaths from injuries across all age groups. Always place your child in a child restraint in a car. Airbags are not a substitute for seatbelts; seatbelts and airbags together provide the best protection. Drive at a moderate speed, in a safe car. It’s the surest way to arrive at your destination alive.
6. Immunize your children against preventable disease. Take recommended vaccines for yourself.
The reduction of childhood infection through immunization is a major contributor to longer life expectancies in the last 100 years. Recommended immunizations now protect children against 14 infectious diseases. For adults, recommended immunization depends on your age, health status, and travel plans, and can include vaccine to prevent influenza, pneumococcal infections, and other diseases prevalent in different parts of the world.
7. Protect your health when you travel.
Can you guess the largest cause of death among travelers? It’s automobile injury. The per-passenger-mile rate of death in Viet Nam, for example, is 10,000 times that of the United States. In addition to driving and riding safely, get recommended immunizations and take malaria prophylaxis if it is recommended. The tap water in many countries is not safe to drink, and the ice in your drink is probably made from local water, so drink only bottled or purified water in developing countries. When it comes to food and drink in developing countries, a good rule is: if it hasn’t been boiled, or you haven’t peeled it, think twice before you put it in your mouth.
8. Get screening tests for silent but treatable conditions that threaten your health.
There are a host of tests that you can take to cut your risk of life-threatening diseases, and to treat those conditions that you may already have. These include tests for:
- Blood pressure;
- Cholesterol and lipo-protein levels in your blood;
- PAP smears for cervical cancer;
- Mammograms for breast cancer;
- Intra-ocular pressure of the eye to screen for glaucoma;
- Urine and blood sugar to check for diabetes; and
- Colonoscopies for colon cancer. These should be done every 10 years starting at age 55, but earlier and more often if you have a family history of colon cancer.
9. If you are sexually active with anyone other than your spouse, always use a condom.
Think of it this way: whenever you have sex with someone, you are exposing yourself to every other sex partner that person has ever had.
10. Take prescribed medication as prescribed and do not take unnecessary medicine, whether it is prescribed or over the counter.
Unnecessary drugs are an invitation to allergy, dependency, and needless expense. Overuse of anti-microbials promotes the emergence of resistant organisms, which is bad for everyone. After you finish taking prescribed medicine throw away any pills that are left over. This will reduce the chance that you will be tempted to take an outdated or inappropriate drug in the future.
11. Devise a personal and family disaster preparedness plan.
Be prepared when and if disaster strikes. For example, fire at home is a constant danger. In the case of a major disaster, ask yourself:
- Does your home have an adequate number of smoke detectors?
- Do you have a fire extinguisher in your kitchen, garage, and workshop?
- Do you have alternative fire escapes? Has your family practiced its escape? Do you have a meeting place outside the home?
- And, do you have carbon monoxide detectors in your home and garage?
- Do you have enough food and water on hand if you should be forced to stay in your home for as long as two weeks?
- Do you have at least two alternative routes for family to leave town, if necessary?
- Do you have a place to meet out of town (or a place that can receive and transmit messages) if you must leave or cannot communicate directly with other family members?
12. Use reliable sources of health information.
In today’s internet-focused society, confusing and misleading health claims run rampant. Be sure that the information you rely on to protect your health is credible. Among my favorite sources are the consumer websites of the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health, all part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Other good sources of health information are WebMD; the Mayo Clinic Health Letter; the Harvard Health Letter; the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter; and, of course, you can rely on the Institute of Medicine’s own website.
Bonus Tip: Enjoy Life
Eubie Blake, the famous jazz pianist, was asked how he felt as he approached his 99th birthday. “If I knew I was going to live this long,” he said, “I would have taken better care of myself!”