There's something engaging about lists of 10. The number is big enough to feel comprehensive, but not so big as to overwhelm. What if it could be used to help us all stay healthy?
Morris/Essex Health & Life put the question to Carl Postighone, D.O., an internal medicine specialist at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, and he was game. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seven out of 10 American deaths each year are from chronic illnesses such as heart disease and cancer, the doctor noted, and he kept this in mind when choosing these tips, ranked in rough importance.
"They are all based on scientific evidence," he says.
1. Quit smoking. Tobacco use is still the number one preventable cause of disease, says Dr. Postighone. "Studies suggest that approximately 60 percent of hospital costs are directly or indirectly related to smoking," he continues. "And data indicate that 20 percent of teenagers still smoke. That percentage has been coming down, but in recent years the decline has slowed. We need to do a better job of helping people get into support programs. Research shows that would-be quitters double their chances of success if they are in a support system, no matter what it is."
2. Be physically active. "This is primarily a time-management issue for our busy lifestyles," says the doctor. "We somehow have to build 30 minutes of movement into our daily schedule." Many people look at exercise only as a distinct task, he says. "We need to think about being active wherever we can, especially here in New Jersey, where we drive everywhere. I joke that my kids drive down the block to Dunkin Donuts—but we need to take the stairs and walk whenever we have the chance. Exercise has many physical and mental benefits."
3. Control food portions. Most of us simply consume too much, he says, and the United Nations reports that the U.S. is second only to Mexico in the proportion of its citizens who are obese. "I tell my patients to follow two rules of thumb: A food portion on your plate should never be bigger than your fist, and your entire plateful of food should never be bigger than your open hand," says the doctor.
4. Stick to a balanced diet. "This is really a corollary to number three," he says. "By balance, I mean look for a variety of foods." Choose from all the food groups, with most of your food coming from plant sources—fruits and veggies—and lesser amounts from protein- rich meat, fish or cheese. Choose healthy fats such as those in olive oil, and avoid empty calories like the ones in sugary soda, alcohol and candy.
5. Find stress relief. "Nationally, about 25 percent of middle-aged women are on an antidepressant, and another 25 percent meet the criteria to be on one," says Dr. Postighone. "Among men, about 15 percent take such a drug. And in New Jersey, utilization is higher than the country's average. We cannot quantify the impact of stress, but we know it is enormous, both on individuals physically and on their families." To combat stress he recommends "relief of any kind: yoga, meditation, tai chi, knitting—whatever method you like to use."
6. Stay current with vaccinations. "Vaccines have probably prevented more deaths in history than everything else combined," he says. Flu shots are an obvious example, but adults also need new or booster vaccinations against pneumonia, shingles, pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria, tetanus, meningitis and other illnesses. Vaccines are not only effective; they're also totally safe. "There is a lot of false information out there about vaccines," he stresses. "The supposed link to autism was disproved. And the flu shot does not give you the flu."
7. Take advantage of preventive services. The earlier most disease is caught, the easier it is to treat and the more likely it is to be controlled or cured. "I recommend the American Cancer Society guidelines for cancer screening services, including mammography, Pap screening, colonoscopy, bone density and all the others," says the doctor. "Consult your physician to determine your screening schedule based on your gender, age and genetic risk factors."
8. Avoid gimmicks. "If it's too good to be true, it probably is," says Dr. Postighone. That applies to things like fad diets, the latest exercise gadget and other supposed shortcuts to health. He also includes dietary supplements on that list. "There is no data at all showing that vitamin and other supplements have any longstanding health benefits," he says, "yet we spend $37 billion a year on them." Not only are they unhelpful, he says; they can, in certain high-risk individuals, actually be harmful. Save your money for a gym membership instead.
9. Use sunblock. "There has been a 600 percent increase in melanoma diagnoses over the past 10 years," he says. Whether that's because of increased awareness, surveillance or climate change doesn't really matter. What matters is protection. "Use a UVA/UVB sunblock whenever you're in the sun and reapply it often, even in winter," he says. Check your body for changes in moles or lesions regularly. "I tell people to use their smartphones to take pictures of their moles every year on their birthday," he says. "If you notice changes in the size, shape or color of a mole, have a dermatologist or another doctor look at it."
10. Talk to your doctor about genome testing. We are not quite there yet, but testing your own genetic makeup is "at the forefront of preventive care," says Dr. Postighone. "Everyone should be discussing it with their physician now. If there is a family history of disease, we may be able to test for problems earlier and discuss ways to cut that risk down." Many hospitals are setting up genome centers to prepare for this next wave of preventive health care. "I think that within the next five years it will become common for people to have their own genetic maps," he says.