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by Sid Kirchheimer, September 17, 2009
1. Catch some rays
We’ve been bombarded with advice to stay out of the sun—and for good reason, because the sun’s rays have been linked to a greater risk of skin cancer. But spending a small amount of time in direct sunlight, without sunscreen, could help ward off serious illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, and even some cancers. Reason: each of these conditions can be triggered by a vitamin D deficiency. Sunlight is our primary source of the vitamin, says Michael Holick, M.D., Ph.D., of the Boston University Medical Center. “But when you wear sunscreen, it reduces the production of vitamin D in the skin.” What’s more, the vitamin D that comes in many pills doesn’t contain the health-protecting D3 type of the nutrient that comes from sunshine.
By sunning your unprotected face, arms, and hands for a few minutes, you can produce as much vitamin D as is in ten glasses of milk. (The darker your skin, the longer it takes, though. For fair skin, spend 5 to 10 minutes in the sun, two or three times a week. If your skin is dark, spend 15 to 30 minutes.) Just be sure to keep the session short. More is clearly not better. After your sunbath, be sure to apply sunscreen, and reapply it every two hours for as long as you’re outdoors.
2. Drink more coffee
The steaming cup that wakes you up can also keep you healthy. Research shows that coffee protects against a variety of ailments—from cavities to colon cancer. And some studies suggest that the more you drink, the better. The beverage lowers your risk of type 2 diabetes and can protect your liver from damage, too. Caffeine gets the credit for some of coffee’s magic powers, including protection against Parkinson’s disease and gallstones. But coffee’s main benefit comes from its wealth of antioxidants. In fact, the coffee bean, which is technically a berry, has one of the highest antioxidant contents of all berries, says Tomas de Paulis, Ph.D., formerly of the Vanderbilt University Institute for Coffee Studies. That’s why, drop for drop, coffee has more of these nutrients than even red wine. If you have osteoporosis, be sure to follow your doctor’s advice for calcium supplementation, because in some studies, coffee drinking has raised the risk of bone fractures.
3. Brush and floss
It takes only six minutes a day to keep gums in the pink…and help prevent heart disease. People with periodontal disease face nearly twice the risk of heart attack as their healthy-gummed brethren. But you can zap that risk by brushing your teeth for two minutes twice a day and flossing for two minutes each night.
Doctors aren’t sure why people with gum disease get more heart disease. One theory is that bacteria from the mouth enter the bloodstream through inflamed gums and cause small blood clots that contribute to clogged arteries. Another theory is that diseases such as gingivitis, later-stage periodontitis, and even cavities cause the release of an inflammatory chemical that plays a role in the buildup of fatty deposits in the heart.
Either way, diligent brushing and flossing can help. The secret is in the technique, says Sally Cram, D.D.S., a periodontist in Washington, D.C., and spokesperson for the American Dental Association: after brushing your teeth with a soft toothbrush, hold the brush against your gums at a 45-degree angle and lightly massage with short, circular strokes. For the best protection, go the full two minutes; most people brush for fewer than 30 seconds. Mouthwash isn’t necessary, but if you like to use it, look for products that contain menthol, thymol, and eucalyptol.
4. Wash up on washday
Just how clean are your just-laundered clothes? If you’re like most Americans, not very. Only 5 percent of Americans now regularly wash their underwear and towels in water that’s hot enough—at least 160° F—to kill bacteria, according to University of Arizona environmental microbiologist Charles Gerba, Ph.D. That means live bacteria can spread from one garment to another; when when you remove your wet laundry, those live germs can get on your hands. Touch your mouth or rub your eyes and you might get a cold, an infection, or even E. coli.
Your defense: unless you use bleach or your wash water is 160° F or hotter, head to the sink for a soapy hand wash immediately after putting laundry into the dryer (which is hot enough to kill bacteria). “In order to kill germs, you need to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds, and use plenty of soap and hot water,” says Gerba. It’s also wise to regularly use a commercial sanitizer to wipe the bottoms of handbags, which collect dangerous germs when placed on tabletops and public-restroom floors.
5. Move your pills
Don’t keep vials of drugs and vitamins in the bathroom medicine chest or kitchen. The humidity and heat can diminish the effectiveness of many medications and supplements. Instead, relocate your medications to a cool, dry, visible spot, such as your bedroom bureau or the dining room table…but keep them out of direct sunlight, which damages drugs as well. Toss a bottle if you notice pills flaking or capsules sticking together—both signs of moisture damage.
Also, whenever possible, avoid the pharmacy during the first week of each month. That’s crunch time for drug dispensers, with a surge on new and refill medications for those who just received their Social Security checks—and it’s the time when the risk of death caused by drug error is at its peak.
6. Take a breather
New Age practices such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation are known to boost your health, improve blood circulation, and reduce tension. If you don’t have time for those lofty pursuits, though, you can get some of the same benefits with just three to five minutes of deep breathing twice a day. “It’s really one of the best and easiest ways to manage stress,” says David Katz, M.D., M.P.H., coauthor of Stealth Health: How to Sneak Age-Defying, Disease-Fighting Habits Into Your Life Without Really Trying (Reader’s Digest Books, 2005). Not only does deep breathing reduce muscle and emotional tension; it can also temporarily lower blood pressure and heart rate and deliver a quick rush of additional oxygen to cells. There’s even some evidence that brief but regular deep-breathing sessions can reduce food cravings, improve sleep quality, and boost energy levels.
Just sit in a comfortable chair, feet flat on the floor. Close your eyes and take five to seven seconds to inhale through your nose, hold for another five seconds, and then slowly release that air through your mouth. Shoot for 10 to 20 breaths per session, both morning and evening—and add a session anytime you’re feeling tense.
7. Step lively
Experts recommend that you exercise for half an hour each day, but who’s got time for that? Only 16 percent of people over 65, it turns out. If you’re in the underexercised 84 percent, you may live a longer and healthier life if you’re able to walk a brisk quarter mile. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that people in their 70s who could walk this distance in 4.8 minutes or less were much less likely to die, during a six-year study, than the ones who slowed down. Slower walkers were also more likely to experience disability later.
To boost endurance—whatever your current fitness level, age, or time restraints—study author Anne B. Newman, M.D., M.P.H., recommends walking or doing some other exercise every single day, trying to pick up the pace as you grow more fit.
If you compare two people with the same fitness level, she says, “the one who pushes himself a little harder in exercise will get a huge benefit as he ages.”
8. Open windows
Sealing your home from drafts may lower your heating and cooling costs, but it can also cost you your health. In any structure—but especially those built after 1970—better insulation can make air inside the typical home more than 100 times more toxic than outdoor air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Blame it on the scores of chemical vapors that seep from building materials and household products—from cancer-causing formaldehyde in carpeting, furniture, and wood panels to asthma-inducing chemicals in air fresheners, cleaners, and paints.
To clear out those toxins, open windows and doors for about ten minutes each day in winter and summer, with the heat or air conditioning turned off, advises Alex Wilson, author of Your Green Home (New Society Publishers, 2006). For maximum cross ventilation, it’s best to keep all the windows and doors open at the same time, if possible. In spring and fall, when air doesn’t move as easily from indoors to out, run exhaust fans such as your stove, attic, and bathroom fans. (Springing for quieter fans might make you more likely to use them for this health-preserving purpose, Wilson adds.)
Another way to clear the air: get at least two tropical houseplants per 12-by-12-foot room. Palms, ferns, bamboo, and other tropical plants absorb airborne toxins into their leaves and roots, says Bill Wolverton, Ph.D., an environmental engineer and former NASA research scientist who pioneered the use of these plants as air filters in space stations.
Also, when you buy a television, computer, or piece of particleboard furniture, let it air out in the garage for a few days before setting it up indoors; when new, these items release their highest concentrations of pollutants.
9. Be a pill
If you’re a woman, a few minutes of pestering could save the life of the man you love. Men tend to conveniently forget to schedule their annual rectal exam, an embarrassing but brief little procedure that can detect early signs of prostate cancer. But an overwhelming majority of men told researchers they would set up and submit to the exam if their wives reminded them, a recent study by the Prostate Cancer Foundation discovered. “You may need to do a little nagging,” says Mary-Ellen Taplin, M.D., of Harvard’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “It’s worth it.”
Sid Kirchheimer wrote about preventing heart disease in the January & February 2006 issue.
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