Have you ever thought about how much of what you do each day is out of habit? For many of us, it may be the majority of what we do. For example, for my husband and I, our morning routine has become one set habit after another. Most weekdays we get up at around 5:00am, make the bed immediately, put on our workout clothes, drink our greens, go the gym, eat a healthy breakfast, have a cup of coffee while we do our spiritual reading of the day, meditate for a minimum of 15 minutes, shower, get dressed, and go to work. It's not the routine habits we had years ago. With the pursuit of wellness, we changed unhealthy morning habits for healthy ones.
We all need to Halt Harmful Habits (Essential Element #4 of Living WELL Aware). And we all have them. None of us is the perfect version we are capable of being. If we want to improve our lives, the key is developing better habits - - because they do RULE our lives.
Why is evaluating your habits so important? Because bad habits can literally lead to death and disability. Let's look at the data. What is the most common cause of death and disability in the United States? While cancer and cardiovascular disease (CVD: heart disease and strokes) lead the list, we actually need to look at the underlying CAUSES of morbidity (illness) and mortality (death). When we get right down to it, the root of most of our health problems are SELF-INDUCED by unhealthy habits. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced that hundreds of thousands of Americans die each year before the age of 80 from preventable causes. That's right! That 75-year-old who died because she didn't manage her weight and blood pressure might have made it into her 90s or older if she had made changes in her daily living. Of the 2.5 million people that die every year in this country, a significant percentage were avoidable - - many by just altering their lifestyle. If one looks at actual causes of death on a death certificate, the top 5 are heart attacks, cancer, stroke, lung disease, and accidents. Yes, accidents are in the top 5. Alzheimer's Disease and suicide are in the top 10 causes of death.
If the #1 killer of Americans is self induced diseases caused by unhealthy habits, what are we doing or not doing that's harming us? The most common unhealthy habits we engage in leading to death are:
Unhealthy food consumption
Being careless, in a hurry
Let's face it. We can all find ourselves partaking in one or more of the unhealthy habits on the list. While some have more deleterious consequences than others, they all increase our risk of disability and death. The good news: we can all look at the list and begin making slow but definite improvements. That's the answer to Living WELL Aware. Let's review each of these unhealthy habits.
If you smoke, get help. Remember, lung cancer remains the #1 cancer killer of Americans, surpassing deaths from breast and prostate cancer. If you smoke or know someone who does, I can't emphasize enough the importance of seeking help with cessation.
While smoking is considered the #1 preventable cause of death in America, it's predicted that physical inactivity will surpass it as the top killer. How can this be? Just think about it. If you have a sedentary life, you are increasing your chances of obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart attacks, stroke, cancer, and even dementia. Numerous studies have confirmed the many health benefits and increased lifespan in physically active individuals. Want to feel better, live longer, and even decrease your odds of Alzheimer's? Make Movement Mandatory on a regular basis. For Jeff and I, it has become a "habit" - - one of the best we have added to our lives.
When it comes to unhealthy food consumption, the majority of us could eat healthier - - including me. We can get into a habit of eating pizza, pasta, Mexican food, sandwiches, bread, donuts, pastries, and high fat dairy such as cream sauces, cream soups, ice cream, and fatty cheeses. While my husband and I have dramatically changed our eating habits, it's easy to slip into eating stuff that is just not good for us. My overweight patients often tell me "But Dr. Sulak, I eat healthy." If you are significantly overweight and are not losing weight, then you are NOT eating healthy. Whatever you are eating is TOO much, which is not healthy. Critiquing Caloric Consumption is about not only eating healthy food, but in portions that help you get to your ideal body weight.
What about alcohol? The CDC has recently announced that excessive alcohol consumption kills about 88,000 people in the U.S. each year. That's more than the number of deaths from breast and prostate cancer COMBINED! Many of my friends and patients complain of their spouses, children, and others who drink excessively, often consuming daily a couple of six packs of beer, a bottle of wine, or a few martinis. While these people may "function" day to day, the effects on the body from these amounts of alcohol are taking its toll. If you are in the habit of consuming more than one or two alcoholic beverages daily, that's excessive, and you need to decrease your drinking and seek help if necessary.
What about accidents? Motor vehicle accidents top the list. We need to slow down, pay attention, and focus on driving, not talking or texting on the phone or eating our hamburger. We can harm, and even kill ourselves, in other ways if we are being careless or in a hurry. How often have we heard of someone falling from a high elevation, missing a step or curb, or injuring themselves in the home or workplace, sustaining a serious or fatal injury? Living WELL Aware is all about being AWARE. We need to be careful in our daily actions and aware of our surroundings. We need to get into the habit of slowing down and stop multi-tasking in environments that can harm us.
In addition to the above list of unhealthy habits that we should avoid, or at least minimize, we need to get into the habit of partnering with our healthcare providers and other knowledgeable individuals and organizations for assistance with problems that we can't adequately manage ourselves. Examples include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, substance abuse including alcohol, tobacco, and drugs, depression, and stress management. Jim Fixx was a marathon runner who died at the age of 52 of a heart attack because he didn't follow his healthcare provider's advice. He inherited an abnormal cholesterol profile which could not be corrected with diet and exercise alone. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness or failure. Millions of Americans have inherited tendencies to disorders that lead to death and disability, including emotional disorders. It's not your fault. It is your problem if you don't go for help. Whether it's a physical problem or an emotional difficulty, adequately managing the issue can increase your health and happiness.
I would like to end this newsletter with a plea for us all to work on our emotional health. It seems today that just about everyone is stressed out and at a negative emotional level that is higher than that of previous generations. The statistics confirm this. More deaths occur today from suicide than motor vehicle accidents and rates have increased in several age groups over the last few years. The death rates from alcohol, drug overdoses, and liver disease are increasing. We live in the greatest country in the world and have more possessions and luxuries, but it's not buying us health and happiness. It's easy for all of us to "buy" into our current culture of consumption, convenience, and complacency leading to depression, discontent, dementia, disability, and death. We don't need to continue down this path. We need to be Living WELL Aware by Halting Harmful Habits.
While the statistics are staggering regarding self-induced disease, I'd like to end on an upbeat note. We can turn this around! My friend Carol lost 116 pounds from September 2014 to September 2015 by changing her lifestyle. She ditched the unhealthy habits of eating fast food and being a couch potato at the end of a long work day and replaced them with healthy ones by making it a habit to exercise after work each day and cook healthy food at home. My 93-year-old dad continues to make changes! He is alive today because years ago he quit smoking and a couple of years ago joined a fitness club. He continues to closely follow the advice of his doctors. Last summer, he and I went hiking on a glacier in Alaska. Now that's Living WELL Aware!
Let's get healthier and happier by Living WELL Aware!
Patricia J. Sulak, MD
Living WELL Aware LLC