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

Making the switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet

Several million Americans have abandoned red meat and poultry in favor of a predominantly plant-based diet. One reason some are making the switch is evidence of the health perks from going vegetarian or vegan, reports the May 2014 Harvard Women's Health Watch. "There's certainly some research on the benefits of the vegetarian diet," says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. It can help lower or control weight, reduce the chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, and possibly lead to a longer, healthier life. There are a variety of plant-based diets, named largely for what they include or exclude: More »

Healthy Diet Eradicates Need for Trendy Supplements in Elderly

Health experts, however, stress that a well-balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables is just as effective and probably safer. But many older adults skip meals and eat small amounts of fruits and vegetables, citing reasons ranging from rotten teeth to unhappiness with eating alone. While doctors acknowledge that nutritional shakes and energy bars are helpful for seniors who need to gain weight or have trouble chewing or swallowing, those who eat a balanced diet or stay active do not need them. In spite of what the experts have said, the savvy advertisements are convincing millions of seniors that they need these expensive supplements, some of which have not even been proven safe. More »

Caution Always Key in Using Herbal Medicines

In the mid-1990s, doctors at a clinic in Belgium treated 43 patients with end-stage kidney failure, requiring dialysis or transplant. Not surprisingly, these individuals had something in common in their medical histories. Between 1990 and 1992, each had used a Chinese herbal remedy in combination with two other drugs for weight loss. The herbal preparation supposedly contained Stephania tetrandra and Magnolia officinalis. But the sudden appearance of kidney failure in these patients, caused their doctors to suspect that the herb Aristolochia fangchi, which is poisonous to the kidneys, had unintentionally been substituted for S. tetrandra. The Chinese names for A. fangchi and S. tetrandra sound similar and the two are often confused. Analysis showed that the herbal remedy did, in fact, contain aristolochic acids, which are derived from A. fangchi. Aristolochic acids cause cancer in rats and mutations in bacteria and mammals.Reports of patients who had developed urothelial carcinoma (cancer of the tissues lining the bladder, ureter, and part of the kidney), as well as kidney failure related to the Chinese herbs, drew concern among the Belgian doctors. When one of their patients also developed this cancer, the doctors decided that all patients with end-stage kidney failure related to the use of Chinese herbs should be checked for cancer of these organs. By removing these organs, the doctors hoped to prevent cancer from developing in their patients. Thirty-nine of the 43 patients agreed to undergo the preventive surgery. Of these patients, 46% of them already had cancerous growths in the removed tissues. In addition, 19 of the remaining 21 patients had abnormal growths in the urinary system. The investigators also analyzed DNA samples taken from the kidneys and ureters of each patient. The DNA samples for every patient showed changes typically found after exposure to aristolochic acid. The researchers compared these results to analysis of DNA samples taken from eight patients with end-stage kidney failure unrelated to Chinese herbs. None of these control samples showed DNA changes formed by aristolochic acid.The doctors calculated the cumulative dose of the implicated herb and other treatments for each patient. They found that the risk of cancer was related to the cumulative dose of A. fangchi. Because many of the patients had also taken appetite suppressants as well as a diuretic, the doctors noted that these drugs might enhance the toxicity of aristolochic acid.This case study provides strong evidence suggesting a relationship between the Chinese herb A. fangchi and urothelial carcinoma. While a manufacturing mistake led to the introduction of this herb into an herbal preparation for weight loss, this study highlights the risks involved in taking herbal remedies. There is little control over the quality of herbal medicines. This means that the label on an herbal medicine may not accurately represent what is actually in the container, as was the case with S. tetrandra. Several countries have banned the use of herbs that contain aristolochic acid, yet Aristolochia is readily available in the United States in capsule form.In the United States, the FDA does not have the authority to assess the safety and efficacy of a dietary supplement before it reaches the shelves of stores. The agency is allowed to restrict a supplement only after it proves the substance is harmful as commonly consumed, but there is no adequate system for reporting serious side effects associated with these products. Furthermore, the FDA does not have any way of knowing which herbal remedies contain harmful substances such as aristolochic acid. The case of the Chinese herbal diet pill and its association with urothelial cancer is just one of a number of cases that demonstrate the need for greater oversight of dietary supplements and caution in the use of supplements on the part of consumers. More »

Metabolic Disorders

  Two recent studies are adding to the data concerning fen-phen and heart-valve problems. These studies should offer some reassurance to patients who took this combination of weight-loss drugs. Researchers from Harvard Medical School evaluated echocardiograms performed on 226 people who took fen-phen as part of a long-term study from September 1994 to September 1997. Shortly after the manufacturer’s voluntary withdrawal of fen-phen, the medications were stopped and the patients underwent testing to determine if any heart-valve problems had developed. The echocardiograms showed that not one patient had severe valvular disease. Mild leaking of the aortic valve was detected in 12 patients, and three patients exhibited moderate aortic-valve leaking — a total of 15 (6.6%) patients. Three subjects (1.3%) had moderate leaking of the mitral valve. To compare the rate of heart-valve problems in these patients to the rate one might expect to see in the general population, investigators turned to data collected as part of the Framingham Heart Study (the long-term epidemiological study being conducted in a Boston suburb). They found nearly the same rates of aortic- and mitral-valve leaking in the Framingham volunteers as in the diet-drug study participants. More »