What You Can Do Today to Erase Ravages of the Past

As we get older and presumably wiser, many of us cringe at some of our former bad health habits — whether cigarette smoking, overindulgence in food and drink, sun worship or even reckless behavior on the ski slopes that has made middle-aged knees sore and stiff. Though not all damage can be undone, according to Mark Goldstein, MD, chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and coauthor with Myrna Chandler Goldstein and Larry Credit of Your Best Medicine, it is indeed possible to revise some aspects of your bad health history by emphasizing particularly important healthful habits now. “It’s never too late to make changes that will bring about better health,” he says.

Weighing in

If you are or were obese, you’re at risk for a host of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, stroke, sleep apnea and osteoarthritis. Yet, despite the known risks, we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic. About one in three Americans is obese and, among those between ages 50 and 60, that figure may be twice as high.

Although being or having been underweight for long periods of time is less prevalent than being overweight, it’s also a potential problem. “Under-nourishment or self-starvation is common in this country, especially for people who have body image issues or exercise excessively,” says Dr. Goldstein. “Those who had an eating disorder earlier in life may pay a price with their health later on.” For instance, the heart may pump less efficiently, causing blood pressure to fall. What’s more, bones become undercalcified and too thin, creating the likelihood that osteoporosis will develop. Hormone-related issues may arise due to such a history as well, including infertility and thyroid and adrenal disorders.

Good nutrition is key

Good nutrition is important for everyone, but especially for those who know they face certain health challenges as the result of dietary changes in their past. In addition to consuming a sensible number of calories, avoiding excess sugar and salt, and eating healthful foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, Dr. Goldstein suggests the following foods for their wide-ranging benefits…

  • Garlic. Studies have shown that garlic lowers blood pressure, reduces LDL cholesterol while raising HDL cholesterol, and also may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Garlic, which contains several antioxidants, also boosts the immune system and helps fight fatigue. The recommended daily “dose” of fresh garlic is two to three cloves.
  • Pomegranate. Another superfood, pomegranate juice contains antioxidants in much higher levels than do other fruit juices. A recent study showed that drinking six ounces of pomegranate juice every day for three months reduced the risk of developing atherosclerosis. Another study found that eight ounces of pomegranate juice daily may help slow the progression of prostate cancer.
  • Tea. Both black and green tea contain powerful antioxidants that prevent narrowing of the arteries, reduce blood pressure and help keep cholesterol in the normal range. Drink three cups a day.
  • Bone-building foods, such as walnuts, oysters, leafy greens, beans (black, white and pinto) and salmon.
  • Bananas. People with a history of an eating disorder may be left with imbalanced electrolyte levels, which can lead to potassium deficiency, increasing risk for heart arrhythmia, stroke and death.
  • Dried plums (prunes) may have a health benefit for osteopenia and osteoporosis, according to studies in laboratory animals.

Other strategies

Get plenty of sleep. “Sleep deprivation can lead to problems, such as high blood pressure and mood disorders like depression, that can make you more vulnerable to illness and injury,” says Dr. Goldstein. Insufficient sleep has been linked to a variety of cardiovascular risks, including diabetes. “Lack of sleep also can disrupt the hormones that control appetite, leading to overeating.” Getting plenty of sleep, on the other hand, helps tissue repair, proper immune system function, memory and concentration. The ideal amount of sleep is seven to eight hours per night.

Exercise regularly. Everyone needs to exercise. Period. It lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate and improves arterial flow. It also may reduce plaque deposits, reversing atherosclerotic disease. Exercise is, of course, important for losing weight and managing stress. One study showed that people who exercised intensely enough to cause breathlessness for 20 to 30 minutes at least twice a week cut their risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia by 50%.

Avoid excessive caffeine. Caffeine may clear your head after a restless night, but too much of it can cause elevated heart rate and high blood pressure. Caffeine also increases the body’s production of stress hormones, placing you at greater risk for cardiovascular problems and aggravating anxiety symptoms. For some people, as few as two cups of coffee can cause rapid heartbeat, sweating and shakiness. Remember, caffeine is found not just in regular coffee, but also in tea, chocolate, cocoa, soft drinks and some over-the-counter medications.

Manage stress. When you are stressed, your body releases hormones that narrow blood vessels and increase heart rate. As a result, blood pressure rises temporarily. And, if you are frequently stressed, your blood pressure can stay high, potentially damaging (possibly permanently) the brain, kidneys, heart, eyes or arteries. There’s also a link between stress and overeating, gum disease, hair loss, fatigue, sexual dysfunction and many other problems. To combat stress, Dr. Goldstein suggests trying yoga, meditation, tai chi and/or deep breathing. These calming relaxation techniques help reduce heart rate and blood pressure.

Limit sun exposure. Besides increasing your risk for skin cancer, ongoing direct exposure of the eyes to sunlight increases risk of cataracts. To prevent cataracts, wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses that block out 100% of UVA and UVB rays and filter out at least 85% of blue-violet rays. However, try to get 15 minutes of sunlight each day to obtain an adequate amount of vitamin D.

Take care of your gums. Gum disease is extremely common and is linked to an ever-lengthening list of ills, including respiratory infection, cancer, coronary artery disease and stroke. Behaviors that can impact gums include tobacco smoking or chewing, poor oral hygiene and use of certain medications, including steroids, oral contraceptives and cancer therapy. To prevent gum disease, drink at least eight glasses of water every day so your mouth can produce enough saliva, which can be helpful in reducing inflammation. Replace your toothbrush monthly — a worn brush is less effective at removing plaque — and floss. Get an adequate amount of vitamin C in your diet. Vitamin C deficiency is linked to gum disease. And cut down on sugar, which helps plaque-producing bacteria to multiply.

As the saying goes, “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” The healthier you make yourself, the better your life will be.