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BLOG: January 2010

 Healthier life for New Year's resolution

What is a year of life worth? Or years of a healthier life, not bothered by poor health and fear of dying? Their value seems to be low for those relatively young and healthy, skyrocketing the closer we get to life's end, or the more we're crippled with a disease. So we keep falling in the same trap over and over again: we don't appreciate what we have while we have plenty, and when it's lost, we realize what it really meant to us, but it is often too late.

 Let's be a little smarter at the beginning of this year. Stop being preoccupied with "more important" things than taking care of your health. Having bigger, better TV, new car, house, or finer audio may lure you into thinking that the quality of your life is improving, but you may be neglecting the most important part of it. That is, how good for your health it is the way you live.

For all that we can gather, that vital aspect of life quality keeps deteriorating.

This last summer, a study comparing the year 2006 to 1988 with respect to the adherence to five key healthy lifestyle indicators:

5 or more servings of vegetables and fruit a day

exercising 12 times a month, or more

maintaining healthy body weight (body mass index 18.5-25)

moderate alcohol consumption (1 and 2 drinks a day, or less, for women and men, respectively), and

not smoking,

among American adults aged 40-74y, has found no improvement at all. Four of them are actually worse now than nearly two decades ago.

Specifically, the percent of those with unhealthy body weight (BMI over 30) increased from 28% to 36%.

Regular physical activity decreased from 53% to 43%.

Having healthy proportion of vegetables and fruits in a diet took a dive from 42% to 26%.

Moderate alcohol use has increased from 40% to 51% (King et al, Adherence to healthy lifestyle habits in US adults, 1988-2006, 2009).

American children may have fared even worse. A study on 700 children 2-19 years of age at Cincinnati Children's Hospital compared the data for two 350-children cohorts, one from 2008, and the other from 1986-88. While the percent of overweight kids changed only marginally (15% vs. 14%, respectively), obesity soared

from 5% in 1986-88 to 19% in 2008.

It raised the incidence of early degenerative changes on the heart. Mean left ventricular mass in the 2008 cohort rose by 4% from, and the prevalence of left ventricular hypertrophy in the children more than doubled (15% to 7%). Both, prevalence of eccentric and concentric hypertrophy (thickening of the heart muscle) also doubled in the 2008 cohort (Crowley et al, Cardiovascular Impact of Pediatric Obesity Epidemic Across Generations, 2009).

Study authors warn that health professionals should not accept generally elevated figures as normal, since they are all markers of increased risk for cardiovascular disease. The trend indicated by study figures is in the overall agreement with other data sources.

For instance, this year's survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that only 32% of high school students have two or more servings of fruit daily, and only 13% have three or more servings of vegetables. That is even worse than among adults (33% and 27%, respectively).

This clearly implies that the current generation of American children is

at the increased risk from developing cardiovascular diseases
in their adulthood.

A recently concluded study that had followed nearly 1,800 Swedish men for 30 years found that, among those without metabolic syndrome (which is present with any three out of the five cardiovascular risk factors: high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol and broad waist size - over 40 inch for men), the risk of cardiovascular disease was 52% higher for the overweight, and 95% higher for the obese men, than for those of normal weight.

Among those with metabolic syndrome, the risk was 63% higher with normal weight, 74% higher with the overweight, and 155% higher with the obese men (Ärnlöv et al, Impact of Body Mass Index and the Metabolic Syndrome on the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease and Death in Middle-Aged Men, 2009).

Of course, obesity increases the risk from a number of other diseases as well. The cumulative risk of ending up with a major disease is significantly higher than for cardiovascular disease alone.

Looking at the big picture,

it is to expect the rates for major diseases in the U.S.
to start turning up

in the foreseeable future for both, young and adults. That is, unless something begins to change for the better on the large scale.

How not to become part of this worsening statistics or, at least, do something meaningful to help avoid it? Chances are, it is easier than you may think. Even if you can't claim any of the five healthy habits above, just by picking out one of them, and sticking to it,

may nearly cut in half your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes
or cancer.

 The more healthy habits you add, the better, but that first one is the biggest step toward longer, healthier life (Ford et al, 2009).

Or, the other way around, succumbing to a single bad habit is likely costing more health-wise than what most people think. This year's Australian study on 8,800 healthy men and women aged 25y and older concluded, after 6-year follow up, that as innocent habit as watching TV adds to the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, cancer, or any cause, 18%, 9% and 11%

for every added hour of TV-watching a day,

respectively (Dunstan et al, Television Viewing Time and Mortality. The Australian Diabetes, Obesity and Lifestyle Study, 2010).

What you are watching is irrelevant; it is the sedentary lifestyle - especially when combined with excessive caloric intake, often of unhealthy foods - that does the damage. More so the more of other unhealthy habits pile up.

For comparison, Australians watch TV an average of about 3 hours a day, nearly the same as people in the U.K.; average daily TV-time in the U.S. is more than twice as long.

The irony is that poor habits, with time, do become boring and depressing (and so may some good habits, so watch out). But people somehow manage to trick themselves into thinking that there is no better thing for them in the whole world. Nothing can be further from the truth. The power of change is in inciting creativity, playfulness, and new, refreshing experiences.

Whether you need to change your lifestyle for the better because of the sense of urgency, of for the longer-term health benefits, doing it may as well surprise you with these "bonus" goodies; so - just do it. You may as well grow to love it...