Staying Healthy

Maintaining good health doesn't happen by accident. It requires work, smart lifestyle choices, and the occasional checkup and test.

A healthy diet is rich in fiber, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, "good" or unsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. These dietary components turn down inflammation, which can damage tissue, joints, artery walls, and organs. Going easy on processed foods is another element of healthy eating. Sweets, foods made with highly refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages can cause spikes in blood sugar that can lead to early hunger. High blood sugar is linked to the development of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and even dementia.

The Mediterranean diet meets all of the criteria for good health, and there is convincing evidence that it is effective at warding off heart attack, stroke, and premature death. The diet is rich in olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts and fish; low in red meats or processed meats; and includes a moderate amount of cheese and wine.

Physical activity is also necessary for good health. It can greatly reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancer, depression, and falls. Physical activity improves sleep, endurance, and even sex. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week, such as brisk walking. Strength training, important for balance, bone health, controlling blood sugar, and mobility, is recommended 2-3 times per week.

Finding ways to reduce stress is another strategy that can help you stay healthy, given the connection between stress and a variety of disorders. There are many ways to bust stress. Try, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, playing on weekends, and taking vacations.

Finally, establish a good relationship with a primary care physician. If something happens to your health, a physician you know —and who knows you — is in the best position to help. He or she will also recommend tests to check for hidden cancer or other conditions.

Staying Healthy Articles

Why the FDA banned ephedra

In December 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it was banning the sale of products containing ephedra. This announcement heralded the first time the agency has banned an herbal supplement. Its decision was based on extensive research involving more than 16,000 reports of adverse health effects from products containing ephedra. These studies clearly indicate that ephedra is dangerous. And it can kill. Roughly 155 deaths have been blamed on the amphetamine-like stimulant, including the 2003 death of 23-year-old Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler. Ephedra occurs naturally in the Chinese herb ma huang and contains ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, stimulants that can constrict blood vessels. In low doses, they act as decongestants, but in higher doses, they can raise blood pressure. The stimulant effect contributes to the herb's effectiveness as an appetite suppressant, especially when combined with caffeine, aspirin, or both. Its claims for promoting weight loss as well as for increasing energy and alertness led athletes and average gym goers alike to take ephedra products. A variety of studies associate ephedra use with cardiovascular problems, including high blood pressure, palpitations, and heart attacks. Side effects of the herb include heart palpitations, nausea, and vomiting. More than 800 dangerous reactions have been reported - among them, heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and sudden death. Psychosis, insomnia, and heatstroke have also been reported. More »

Welcome Newsweek Readers

The faculty of Harvard Medical School worked with the editorial staff of Newsweek to write articles of interest about health and medicine. Harvard Medical School publishes books, newsletters, and special health reports through its Harvard Health Publishing division. Issue date: April 27, 2009 Issue date: February 23, 2009 More »

Dealing with grief and bereavement—The FamilyHealth Guide

Grief will be with many of us this holiday season. If you're over age 40, there's a 1-in-3 chance that a close relative or friend of yours died in the last year. Or you may be among the 1 million Americans who lost a spouse. Still, in an era when the media seem to tout the wisdom of "closure" within days of any tragedy, it's easy to feel abnormal when confronted with the long, painful, and messy process of adapting to a death. Healthy grieving can be a slow, difficult process that lasts for months or years. And although you may gradually be able to refocus your life, you'll probably never "get over it" or stop thinking about the person who died. Initially, a person may feel shock and numbness as the reality of the death sinks in. Yet during that time, he or she may seem to be handling things well and may be quite competent in managing the funeral and legal matters. Later, feelings of sadness, distress, anger, and guilt may become more prominent. More »

Athlete’s foot: Causes, prevention, and treatment—The FamilyHealth Guide

While it's not a life-or-death matter, athlete's foot-especially if it's persistent-can be painful and make walking difficult. The early signs of athlete's foot are patches or fissures (deep breaks or slits), especially between the toes. As the infection progresses, the skin may turn red, become itchy, and appear moist. Small blisters may spread out across the foot, breaking to expose raw fissures that are painful and may swell. The area between the toes is most often affected, but the infection may spread to the soles of the feet or to the toenails, which can become thick and colored white or cloudy yellow. In the most advanced cases, the rash will extend moccasin-style across the sole of your foot, and your feet may ooze pus and develop a foul odor. Athlete's foot breeds in locker rooms, swimming pool changing areas, or any place that combines dampness and a lot of foot traffic. I mproperly cleaned instruments used in a pedicure (either at a commercial salon or at home) can also lead to infection. The fungus can even contaminate bed sheets and spread to other body parts through rubbing and scratching. To control the spread of infection, keep bathroom surfaces clean and don't share towels The best way to prevent athlete's foot is by wearing sandals or shower shoes when walking around a locker room or pool. Keep your feet clean by washing them with soap and water at least once a day, and keep them dry the rest of the time. Put clean socks on every day, and change them more often if you sweat a lot or get them wet. More »

Drug Expiration Dates — Do They Mean Anything?

With a splitting headache, you reach into your medicine cabinet for some aspirin only to find the stamped expiration date on the medicine bottle is more than a year out of date. So, does medicine expire? Do you take it or don't you? If you decide to take the aspirin, will it be a fatal mistake or will you simply continue to suffer from the headache? This is a dilemma many people face in some way or another. A column published in Psychopharmacology Today offers some advice. It turns out that the expiration date on a drug does stand for something, but probably not what you think it does. Since a law was passed in 1979, drug manufacturers are required to stamp an expiration date on their products. This is the date at which the manufacturer can still guarantee the full potency and safety of the drug. More »

What to do in a dental emergency

Many people are hesitant to call or visit their dentist, even if they are in pain. They might be afraid, or they might not be sure if the problem is a true emergency. Both reasons are understandable, but if you are in any pain, don't delay in calling your dentist. His or her goal is to ease your pain. Know that even if the treatment hurts, it's nothing compared to what you could face down the road if you ignore the problem. Here is a guide to how soon you should call your dentist when emergencies arise, and what you should and shouldn't do in the meantime. Problem Do More »

The dangers of the herb ephedra

After the death of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler more than 10 years ago, many questions arose about the safety of ephedra and the government's role in regulating the herb. Bechler died of heat stroke while taking ephedra, which occurs naturally in the Chinese herb ma huang. The speed-like drug contains the chemical ephedrine, an amphetamine-like compound closely related to adrenaline. Athletes and average people alike started taking ephedra when word started spreading about its ability to aid weight loss and increase energy and alertness. But just because a supplement comes from natural sources doesn't make it safe. Ephedra can cause a quickened heartbeat and elevated blood pressure. Side effects include heart palpitations, nausea, and vomiting. More than 800 dangerous reactions have been reported with use of the herb. These include heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and sudden deaths. According to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine, ephedra products make up only 1% of herbal supplement sales in the U.S., but they are responsible for 62% of herb-related reports to poison-control centers. The authors of one analysis concluded that supplements containing ephedra and ephedrine trigger modest short-term weight loss (about 2 pounds per month more than placebo). But none of the 52 trials they looked at lasted more than six months, so there is no evidence to support ephedra use for long-term weight loss. And no studies were found that evaluated ephedra use for enhancing athletic performance. Data from 50 trials did show, however, that ephedra and ephedrine are associated with 2- to 3-fold increases in psychiatric symptoms (such as irritability and anxiety), autonomic symptoms (jitteriness, trouble sleeping), upset stomach, and heart palpitations. More »

Tooth-bleaching

With the advent of new treatments, a better smile is now within reach of more people. One of the most popular cosmetic procedures is bleaching. The natural light ivory color of enamel can turn to yellow, orange, brown, gray—even blue or green. Causes of discoloration include staining from coffee or tobacco, injury that has damaged the pulp, ingestion of the antibiotic tetracycline or high levels of fluoride while the teeth are developing, corrosion from silver fillings, and the natural wearing away of the enamel with age. Although many stains can be successfully removed with a bleaching technique, bleaching may be uncomfortable for people with sensitive teeth or an exposed root. Several different bleaching techniques are available. Your dentist etches your teeth with an acid solution and then applies an oxidizing agent to the enamel. Your teeth are exposed to a bright light or a laser to hasten the lightening. It usually takes three to four sessions, each lasting about 30–60 minutes, to achieve the color you want. A newer technique, called power bleaching, uses a highly concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide as the lightening agent. It can deliver results in just one session. Bleaching is temporary, however. Your teeth will darken again within one to three years, and you may need to repeat the procedure. Costs vary, with some dentists charging a fee $75 and $225 a session, and others charging a single fee of $300 or more. More »

Basic Lifesaving Techniques

As you read this, someone somewhere in the United States is collapsing from a cardiac arrest. The odds are poor that she or he will survive this sudden disruption of the heart's normal rhythm. Most of the 1,000 or so people who go into cardiac arrest each day die because they don't get the treatment they need — an electric shock to the heart — fast enough. Heart-shocking devices were once found only in hospitals and ambulances. Now they're popping up in airports, movie theaters, fitness centers, casinos, malls, office buildings, and other places. These public versions, called automated external defibrillators (dee-FIB-rih-lay-tors), are so easy to use that sixth graders who have never seen one before can master their use in a minute or so, as shown in a 2002 study. This ease of use, combined with the fact that 3 in 4 cardiac arrests happen at home, have opened a national debate over whether it's a good idea to have a defibrillator at home.The chances of surviving a cardiac arrest fall about 10% for each minute the heart stays in ventricular fibrillation. Shock the heart back into a normal rhythm within two minutes, and the victim has an 80% chance of surviving. Deliver that shock after seven minutes — the average time it takes an emergency medical team to arrive in many cities — and the odds are less than 30%. If someone near you goes into cardiac arrest, calling 911 is a must. Even if there's a defibrillator nearby, you'll need professional help as soon as possible. CPR is also important because it keeps blood flowing to the brain and other vital organs. Still, a home defibrillator could let you restore a healthy heart rhythm several crucial minutes sooner than emergency medical technicians. With a prescription from a doctor and $2,500 or so, you can buy a defibrillator for your home, office, or car at many large pharmacies or medical supply companies. The question is, should you? Experts in the areas of sudden cardiac arrest, emergency medicine, and public health don't see eye-to-eye on this issue. Some argue that people who want to buy defibrillators for their homes should be able to do so without needing a prescription from a doctor. Others argue that people won't maintain the devices so they will be ready when needed, or that most people would be better off spending some of the money on a health club membership and donating the rest to their local emergency response team. More »

Emergency Care: A to Z

As you read this, someone somewhere in the United States is collapsing from a cardiac arrest. The odds are poor that she or he will survive this sudden disruption of the heart's normal rhythm. Most of the 1,000 or so people who go into cardiac arrest each day die because they don't get the treatment they need — an electric shock to the heart — fast enough. Heart-shocking devices were once found only in hospitals and ambulances. Now they're popping up in airports, movie theaters, fitness centers, casinos, malls, office buildings, and other places. These public versions, called automated external defibrillators (dee-FIB-rih-lay-tors), are so easy to use that sixth graders who have never seen one before can master their use in a minute or so, as shown in a 2002 study. This ease of use, combined with the fact that 3 in 4 cardiac arrests happen at home, have opened a national debate over whether it's a good idea to have a defibrillator at home.The chances of surviving a cardiac arrest fall about 10% for each minute the heart stays in ventricular fibrillation. Shock the heart back into a normal rhythm within two minutes, and the victim has an 80% chance of surviving. Deliver that shock after seven minutes — the average time it takes an emergency medical team to arrive in many cities — and the odds are less than 30%. If someone near you goes into cardiac arrest, calling 911 is a must. Even if there's a defibrillator nearby, you'll need professional help as soon as possible. CPR is also important because it keeps blood flowing to the brain and other vital organs. Still, a home defibrillator could let you restore a healthy heart rhythm several crucial minutes sooner than emergency medical technicians. With a prescription from a doctor and $2,500 or so, you can buy a defibrillator for your home, office, or car at many large pharmacies or medical supply companies. The question is, should you? Experts in the areas of sudden cardiac arrest, emergency medicine, and public health don't see eye-to-eye on this issue. Some argue that people who want to buy defibrillators for their homes should be able to do so without needing a prescription from a doctor. Others argue that people won't maintain the devices so they will be ready when needed, or that most people would be better off spending some of the money on a health club membership and donating the rest to their local emergency response team. More »