Category Archives: Health Tips

The Cold Season Diet – Foods that Strengthen Your Immune System

Guest Writer: Timi Gustafson, RD

It is the time of the year again when many of us get the sniffles, wondering when there will be a cure for the common cold at last. Of course, not everybody will fall sick. Some people seem to remain unscathed no matter what, while others succumb as soon as the temperatures drop. It’s a mystery how a chosen few can handle the germ assault so much better than the rest of us. These folks must have an extraordinarily robust immune system that protects them like an invisible shield. But were they born this way or did they acquire their immunity over time. And if so, how?

'Walmart's Healthier Foods Annoucement in D.C.' photo (c) 2009, Walmart - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Humans have three types of immunity: “Innate,” “adaptive” and “passive.” We all are equipped with “innate” or “natural” immunity at birth. It is our first line of defense against the countless health hazards we become exposed to the moment we begin to breath. We also have external barriers, like our skin and the membranes that line the nose, throat and gastrointestinal tract. If any of these outer defense walls break down and an opening occurs, e.g. through an abrasion or cut, immune cells keep pathogens from invading while the wound heals.

By contrast, “adaptive” immunity is a defense mechanism we acquire as we encounter various diseases or become intentionally immunized through vaccinations. It is a process that continues over the duration of our lifetime.

“Passive” immunity only lasts for a limited period. For instance, we receive certain antibodies as infants from breast milk, protecting us initially from the infectious diseases our mother carries anti-bodies against. But that kind of protection is only temporary.

As we get older, our immune system should grow increasingly stronger and more efficient, simply because it recognizes many germs from past encounters and eliminates these faster. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Immunity disorders and allergies can severely diminish our natural defenses. But if it functions properly, the immune system is a magnificent asset without which we would not survive for long.

Fortunately, we have also means to strengthen the immune system’s capacity. Most people may think in terms of vaccinations. However, one of the most effective ways to boost the immune system is through a healthy, balanced diet. Experts believe that eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables is probably the single best thing one can do to support the immune system and thereby ward off many infections.

Some of the most important nutritional benefits we can get come from antioxidants. Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help to protect cells in the body from damages caused by so-called “free radicals.” These are highly unstable organic molecules, mostly generated by exposure to toxins, which can adversely affect cells and tissues and thereby contribute to diseases and aging. They can also impact the immune system and interfere with its functions. Antioxidants are believed to prevent these free radicals from doing their harmful work. Including lots of rich sources of antioxidants in one’s diet is therefore highly recommended as a preventive measure against colds and other infections.

Certain foods contain higher levels of antioxidants than others. Look for fruits and vegetables that are high in beta-carotene and other carotenoids. You can easily recognize them by their bright colors, like orange, purple, red and yellow. Apricots, cantaloupes, mangoes, nectarines, peaches, grapefruit, tangerines and watermelons are all fruits rich in beta-carotene. So are vegetables like asparagus, beets, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, kale, collard greens, squash, spinach, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.

You may want to include good sources of essential vitamins and minerals as well. Vitamins A, C, E and the mineral selenium (all antioxidants), B-complex vitamins, iron and zinc are especially beneficial for the immune system. Vitamin C and E are present in many produce items and are readily available for most of the year. Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, citrus fruits and berries are loaded with them. Foods that can be found in colder climates during the fall and winter season are prunes, apples, raisins, plums, grapes as well as onions, eggplants, beans, squash, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. The richest Vitamin E sources are wheat, nuts, seeds and also certain fruits and vegetables.

All these foods contain many more varieties of nutrients that work together in support of the immune system and have other health benefits too. Some have important anti-inflammatory properties, which can be used for the treatment of allergies and other inflammations.

With regards to their nutritional value, natural sources of antioxidants are preferable to vitamin supplements. However, in order to avoid deficiencies, I do recommend a daily multivitamin supplement, at least during the cold season. Supplements are never to be considered a substitute for real food, but they can serve as useful additives, especially when your diet is less than balanced. However, I do not advise taking specific immune boosting supplements or medications, unless prescribed by a doctor for therapeutic purposes. The reason is that some vitamins (like A and E) are not as easily eliminated as others (e.g. vitamin C) and may accumulate to the point where they become toxic.

Last, but not least, it needs to be said that good nutrition alone will not guarantee the immune system to function at top level. Stress management and sleep hygiene are also part of the equation. If you are too run down from work or sleep deprivation, the best food in the world will not prevent you from having to pay the price eventually. But with all (or most) of your health needs met, you should make it through the coming winter just fine. Perhaps, this time you will be among the chosen few who stay above the fray, no matter what.

Timi Gustafson RD, LDN. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

How to Cope With the Back-to-School Routine

'tired' photo (c) 2008, nigelpepper - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Here it is almost September again. How is that possible? Wasn’t Memorial Day just last weekend? It’s time for the start of another school year, which is a stressful time in my house and I’m guessing yours as well.

It isn’t exactly a secret when school starts; we’ve known the date for months. We’ve been hitting the back-to-school sales for weeks, so it’s not like we weren’t thinking about it. One would think with all this advanced warning and preparation, we would have this down to an art. However, my third and eighth grade kids will tell you we don’t.

Why is the start of the school year so physically and emotionally challenging? Perhaps it is sleep, specifically the lack of it. Bedtimes for most students slowly drift into the late evening hours as summer progresses, and the kids never see a sunrise.

Despite the best of intentions, bedtimes do not adjust easily or painlessly when school begins. The two- or three-hour sudden change in bedtime amounts to a good case of Jet Lag; colorfully named “desynchronosis.” The rule of thumb is it takes one day to adjust for every hour changed. Common symptoms of desynchronosis include fatigue, irritability, headache and mild depression. This describes how my kids feel on the first few days of school – and you thought it was normal.

But what time they go to bed isn’t the whole story. When they get up is important, too. “Sleep latency” is the medical term for being awakened and feeling like “something the cat drug in.” This depends on when in a sleep cycle you wake up. Being awakened during deep sleep or REM sleep is disorienting and amplifies sleep latency (the cat thing).

If you wake up during light sleep you feel almost human. There are actually alarm clocks that monitor your sleep and wake you up only when you’re sleeping lightly. So a wake up range would replace the wake up time. Have to get up at 7 a.m.? Set your range for 5:30-7 a.m. and it might make you feel better. Counterintuitive isn’t it?

But sleep patterns are not the only thing to consider when kids go back to school; change in activity is a factor as well. During the summer, kids move rapidly from interest to interest to keep themselves amused. They are working with an attention span that is as short as five minutes in young kids and 20 minutes for teenagers. When school starts they are suddenly trapped like rats for hours on end. Their activities are chosen by their teachers, who share neither their restlessness nor their short attention span. This too takes several days to readjust.

What about summer meals? What summer meals? The kids are going five different directions and grab something when they occasionally make a pass through the kitchen. Frequent small feedings, heavily loaded with “carbs” and taken at liberty, are the rule. Their young digestive systems tolerate this surprisingly well. With the start of school and scheduled, regulated meal times, blood sugars are predictably plummeting. The result is more restlessness, fatigue and irritability.

Like so many other things in life, the solution to adjusting to the back-to-school routine is practice, practice, practice. Think about the school day, wake up times, meal times and bed times. You can still fit in some fun and readjust your sleep and meal schedules at the same time. A two- or three-day head start will make all the difference. No, that doesn’t mean you have to do homework before school starts. Let’s not be ridiculous.

Take care, and good luck with your new wake-up regimen.

Dr B

10 Reasons Not to Exercise

I was a great exerciser for most of my life. Recently I seem better at making up excuses not to exercise than to actually exercise.

As a motivation tool for myself I have listed all my good reasons for not exercising. You may find a few of your favorites. Hopefully you will see my folly and get back on a program yourself. So after a little reflection, here are my favorites.

1. I am middle aged and don’t need to pretend I’m young.
2. I am too busy to exercise – work, child rearing, keeping the house livable doesn’t leave time for exercise.
3. I don’t get enough sleep as it is without getting up an hour earlier to exercise.
4. My back hurts. You may substitute knees, hips, or your big toe – pick your favorite, or least favorite, body part
5. It’s too hot to exercise (115 F in Phoenix as I write). Of course too cold, humid, windy, rainy or generally inclement works equally well. It could also be too light or too dark for that matter.
6. I have a big meeting tomorrow and I need to be well rested.
7. I’ve been married for 17 years and my wife still likes me (even without exercise).
8. My weight is good and I look like I exercise (I actually stole that one from my wife a decade ago).
9. No matter how much I exercise I still don’t look like Arnold (or Halle).
10. If I can’t do the exercise I want, why bother.

So use one excuse a week and it will be a long time before you exercise.

More seriously, most of these are easily swatted away and I have done that myself many times.

A few to discuss:

No. 10 is a real struggle for many. I had two back surgeries that put a stop to my running and weightlifting. It took some pondering, but rollerblading is easy on the back and aerobic exercise. Aging and injuries do force you to lower the exercise bar, but throwing in the towel is not necessary. If you can only walk, do that. Almost anyone can swim for exercise, the weightlessness makes it joint friendly.

Looking like you exercise is not the point. Living longer and being able to participate is the point. Exercise can make some wheelchair bound people walk again. You can be fat, thin, short, tall, old or young and still make your life better with exercise.

Most studies show exercise helps joint pain. This is true even with relatively advance degenerative joint disease. It also helps you lose weight, lessening pain.

Hopefully, I will think of these counterpoints tomorrow morning when I wake up with an excuse at my lips.

I will recognize it for the excuse it is and move anyway. If doesn’t work, Sheba, my Siberian Husky, will remind me she needs exercise also and doesn’t take excuses.

Take Care.

Dr. Bucklin

The Placer (Calif.) Herald: Sun can pose long-term danger to outdoor workers

By Dr. Donald Bucklin, U.S. HealthWorks

June 9, 2011

With the summer and its heat approaching, almost everyone will be out in the sun more than they were during the winter.
http://placerherald.com/detail/180515.html

What to Sweat Over When It Comes to Sports Drinks

Every time I see a “Gatorade shower” after a sporting event, I ask myself if this is a waste of a great hydration resource or just a cheap replacement for champagne.

Gatorade was the original sports beverage, invented in 1965 by a “medical team” in Florida. That all sounds pretty impressive, but 1965 was practically the Middle Ages in the world of medicine. Sports drinks have proliferated in recent years; Gatorade, Power Aid, Sobe and Vitamin Water all compete for your attention and hydration dollar. Each comes in multiple flavors and special formulas. I have to admit that it wasn’t long ago that I expected a measurable and substantial increase in my performance due to the consumption of a sports beverage or bar. I thought of it as pouring rocket fuel into my ski legs. It even seemed to work.

Nevertheless, water has been the hydration “beverage of choice” for more than 200,000 years, and that was without the benefit of research, television or advertising. You have to admire the audacity of the “medical team” that sought to improve on water. They started with the simple discovery that sweat is salty. This is something that any of us non-scientists could have explained after mowing the lawn on a summer afternoon in Florida.

This what my dad spends money onphoto © 2008 Zac Zellers | more info (via: Wylio)Sports beverages, first and foremost, provide hydration. Their claim to fame is the provision of electrolytes (salt) and carbohydrate for muscle energy. This salt and carb combo is touted to be an improvement on water for sustained performance.

The whole point of sports drinks is to replace sweat. So what is sweat? It’s salt water, more or less. To make comparisons of saltiness, we use milligrams per liter (mg/l). This is handy because sport drinks come in roughly liter bottles (a little more than a quart).

Sweat is about 97% water. Sodium, the next most common element in sweat, weighs in at a whopping 900mg/l. Potassium is next at 200mg/l. There are many other elements in small amounts, but sodium and potassium are the main ones. We can sweat a liter per hour during heavy exertion, mostly as a way to dissipate the heat of muscle use.

When sports drinks talk electrolytes, they are talking sodium. Sodium is a plentiful element in human beings. There is a lot of it in sweat (900mg/l), but even more in the blood (3100 mg/l). So looking at electrolytes in sports drinks, it is obvious that the amount of sodium in them (100 mg/l) is trivial compared to the sodium in sweat or blood. Drinking a sports drink will replace about 3% of the electrolytes you lose in sweat.

So there may be good reasons for drinking sports drinks, but electrolyte replacement isn’t one of them.

Carbohydrates, and specifically glycogen, are the preferred fuel of working muscles. Your internal store of this sugar molecule is in the muscles and the liver. You have a couple of hours worth of fuel stored before turning to the much-less-efficient fat metabolism. The carbohydrate in a sports beverage provides 15 to 20 grams of sugar, something like 5 teaspoons which supplies 60 fuel calories. Strenuous physical activity burns about 300-400 calories per hour. Again, the sports beverage provides fuel, but only a very minor amount.

So there may be good reasons for drinking sports beverages, but fuel replacement isn’t one of them.

Which brings me back to the true strength of sports beverages. Most people would rather drink Gatorade than water. It just tastes better. Hydration is absolutely crucial to maintain during exercise. This not only helps maintain performance, but also prevents exhaustion, shock and even death. Many studies of exercise show people drink more sports beverages than water.

So bring what you’ll drink to your next session of strenuous exercise. Your drink will sustain you whether it is the highest tech beverage or very old school H2O.

For those on budget: a little orange juice mixed with a lot of water ends up being pretty close to the sports beverage formulae – not to mention, cheap and palatable.

Keep drinking and take care,

Dr. B

Is Cell Phone Use Linked to Brain Cancer?

Cell phones are in the news again. The World Heath Organization says they may be associated with brain cancer. This immediately brings to mind a picture of people with aluminum foil wrapped around their heads (probably from an old “Saturday Night Live” skit). Many of us probably would get out the aluminum foil before giving up our beloved cell phones.

Is cell phone radiation worth worrying about or simply the Alarming Headline of the Week?

Finding out increased risk for any exposure, including cell phones, is all about the numbers. Really big numbers give us the statistical power to find even tiny risks. There are 4.3 billion cell phone users on the planet. That should certainly be enough to find some answers.

Businessman on the phonephoto © 2010 yago1.com Yago Veith – Switzerland | more info (via: Wylio)One of the problems with the whole cell phone radiation-brain cancer debate is the use of the word “radiation,” which is used for anything from cell phones to Fukushima. Radiation from nuclear sources is ionizing radiation. This radiation breaks down DNA and is a known risk for cancer. Cell phones emit radiation of an entirely different type. Cell phones emit low-level microwave radiation which is non-ionizing.

You are surrounded by microwave radiation all day, and you practically can’t find a microwave-free place on the planet (maybe a really deep mine shaft, but that offers dangers of its own).

You probably heated your coffee this morning in a microwave oven, then drove to work listening to broadcast FM radio, which is a microwave signal. The GPS in your car works on a microwave satellite signal. Your computer could be hooked to a Wi-Fi network (microwave), and your Bluetooth mouse is also a microwave emitter. Your garage door opener uses microwaves as well as your satellite TV. Your cordless landline phone generates microwaves – all in addition to your cell phone.

If microwave radiation exposure was smoking, we would all be 100 packs-a-day smokers. At that level, it wouldn’t take three months to find a cancer risk. But interesting enough, the brain cancer rate is stable or decreasing over the last 30 years despite the enormous increase in microwave radiation.

The World Heath Organization came to its conclusion based on a small study by Swedish scientists. The study showed an apparent association between cell phone use and a brain tumor called gliomas.

This conclusion has generated tremendous controversy in the scientific community. To start, there is no theoretical basis for microwave radiation to cause tumors. We have a lot of experience with carcinogens, and they have mechanisms that make sense. They damage or modify DNA (the blueprint of life). Microwave radiation doesn’t affect DNA in any way known. So while the lack of a mechanism doesn’t disprove anything, it sure makes the scientific community question the finding.

Other studies, one involving 14 nations, found no increase in brain cancer from cell phone use.

Where do we go from here? One thing I know for sure: we can count on many more studies on this issue and a lot more conversation.

Take care,

Dr. B

Sun Poses Long-Term Dangers to Outdoor Workers

By Dr. Donald Bucklin

With the summer and its heat approaching, almost everyone will be out in the sun more than they were during the winter.

For 9 million Americans, being outside and in the sun is not just for summer fun – it’s a part of their job.

Workers in farming, landscaping, construction, recreation and even postal workers will spend hours in the sun – and consequently be exposed to potentially harmful levels of ultraviolet radiation.

Working in the Heatphoto © 2011 MSDSonline.com | more info (via: Wylio)Ultraviolet radiation, and specifically UVB, is the main environmental hazard to the outdoor worker. Most workers’ shifts include the peak intensity hours of UV exposure – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Since this type of radiation, UVB, easily penetrates clouds, it can reach worrisome levels even on days where little sun is visible. It easily passes through glass and can be reflected into areas of apparent shade.

UVB penetrates through the tough, dead outer layers of skin, into the replicating layers. It is there that it interacts with the living tissue, not entirely in a negative fashion – UV radiation on unprotected skin produces Vitamin D. Many believe, and there is some evidence to back it up, that there are anti-cancer properties in this potent antioxidant vitamin.

But radiation on living tissue also has a biologic cost. UVB radiation causes DNA damage and is officially listed as a carcinogen. This damage is cumulative. Ultraviolet radiation and skin cancer share a similar relationship to that of cigarette smoking and lung cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, those who work outside are twice as likely to contract skin cancer as indoor workers.

To protect workers from this hazard, we need to reduce the dose of UVB radiation.

The obvious solution for employers is to instruct workers to avoid sun exposure and seek shade when available. When possible, employers can rotate or stagger work shifts so that employees spend less time working during the sunniest parts of the day.

While the suggestion that people wear long-sleeve shirts during high temperature periods usually is greeted with derision, in fact there are a variety of new fabrics with high Sun Protection Factor values that are light weight, breathable and durable.

One of the oldest fabrics, cotton, has long been recognized for its skin protective value in the hottest climates. Cotton long-sleeved, loose-fitting shirts and pants, and broad-billed hats are some effective clothing options for outdoor workers. In dry climates, the fabric actually soaks up sweat and is an effective evaporative cooler.

Sunblock provides UV protection, but the level of protection is almost universally overestimated.

The most common error people make is using high Sun Protection Factor, sweat-proof sunblock and applying it only once. Sunblock generally loses effectiveness after about two hours due to sweating, the friction of clothing and deterioration due to sunshine. And too often, too little is applied. An ounce is recommended to get advertised protection. But remember, sunblock isn’t “liquid shade.”

These common sense protective measures can help safeguard you and your employees year round, but particularly during the summer months when, in most parts of the country, exposure to UVB radiation is highest. With awareness and a few simple steps, we can help workers avoid the short-term sting of a sunburn and the long-term consequences of too much sun exposure.

Chronic Sinusitis at a Glance

No273 13 Oct 2009 Sneezephoto © 2009 mcfarlandmo | more info (via: Wylio)Sinusitis makes you and almost 30 million people each year feel miserable. The combination of facial pressure, headache, fatigue, sneezing, runny nose, drainage of thick colorful mucus from the nose and severe nasal congestion contribute to the misery. It is often difficult to treat, in many people is very slow to improve, and recurs frequently.

The chronic recurring condition known as chronic sinusitis or rhinosinusitis is a bit of a puzzle. We do not really understand all the factors that promote the symptoms that make you so vulnerable to recurrence.

Although the causes are not understood, there are several theories and observations floating around. Clearly, this is a stubborn condition often slow to resolve.

  • Infections are a common component but not the only piece to the puzzle. Research suggests there is a certain amount of swelling and inflammation in the sinuses and nasal passages that cause the congestion blocking airways and connections between sinus cavities. Any time there is warm, moist, closed-off space in the human body, it predisposes to problems.
  • Many factors may stimulate the swelling and inflammation. Environmental allergies are common and probably an underrated contributor to the inflammatory response.
  • The presence of some kinds of bacteria without actually causing an infection may also irritate the immune system to produce inflammation.
  • Structural abnormalities to the septum or polyps, which also result from chronic inflammation, may serve to block nasal airways as well.
  • Other medical conditions can be part of the problem. This can range from simple allergies, acid reflux from the stomach reaching nasal passages while asleep, cystic fibrosis, or any chronic conditions that affect immune system response.

The importance of identifying chronic sinusitis and initiating management can help provide greater comfort and prevent serious complications.

Treatment should aggressively address infections when they are present.

  • Since so many clues point to the role of inflammation, nasal steroid sprays have become a cornerstone of management.
  • There are several non-sedating antihistamines available without prescriptions that are effective when allergies play a role.
  • Many people find benefit from daily use of saline irrigation done with an inexpensive neti pot or irrigation bottle. Regular use of simple saline spray also is very helpful to help open and provide added moisture to nasal airways.
  • Surgery should be left as a last resort for only extreme cases that have failed all other measures.

Over-the-counter decongestants should be avoided. Although they provide quick short-lived relief, they just as quickly become less effective and can actually stimulate rebound congestion. This means they become part of the problem rather than the solution.

Chronic sinusitis is undoubtedly a stubborn and all too common problem. Although we do not understand completely why, many treatment options are available. Consult your healthcare provider to tailor a regimen that suits your needs. Do not ignore it and keep suffering. There is help!

– Dr. Bruce Kaler

Debunking 3 Weight Management Myths

Overweight? You have lots of company. It is one of the greatest public health issues of the last 20 years. Let’s discuss a few myths, as well as a few ideas.

Myth: Eat three meals a day.
Not so! Three meals a day is a modern concept. Historically there never was enough food for the average person to eat three meals a day. In many parts of the world, that is still true. If you eat three “reasonable” meals a day, you will be overweight.

Chinese Food Macro 12-6-08 7photo © 2008 Steven Depolo | more info (via: Wylio)

Myth: The kind of food you eat dramatically affects your weight.
That also is more myth than science. Your body needs somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,500 calories per day. If you take in more calories, you gain weight; taking in less means you lose weight. If you eat 4,000 calories of carrots per day, you will gain weight (and turn orange – I’m not kidding). The body happily converts protein, carbohydrates and fat in your diet to whatever the body needs. Carbohydrates are not the great Satan, nor are fats. Fats do happen to be twice as calorie-rich per weight as everything else. So you can only eat half as much fat. On that thought, it really is too bad that the body stores extra calories as fat (4,100 calories per pound). If it stored excess as carbohydrate or protein, it would only take 1,800 calories to burn a pound.

What is a calorie anyway? The calorie is a certain amount of energy that is contained in food. It can be thought of as “stored work.” You use it when you exercise or to keep your heart beating. Calories are good stuff, in moderation.

Myth: Exercise absolves you of food sin.
Unfortunately, there is no absolution. You need to exercise, and it is one of the most important health habits you can have. Exercise will burn 200-500 calories per session. That will help you lose weight or keep you trim. Keep in mind that 200-500 calories isn’t even a candy bar’s worth of calories. So exercise alone won’t do the job.

Now I would like to suggest the concept of dining for enjoyment vs. for fuel. I define fuel as calories I take in only to keep going. These are not tasted, savored or enjoyed. They are simply thrown down my throat hastily. Here is the important thing, in my opinion: if I am not going to savor and enjoy a meal, I might as well throw down something good for me (a protein or yogurt drink). If I have time to sit down and really enjoy a meal, I might as well eat something tasty, even if it’s not that great for me.

So get some exercise and don’t throw down bad food without enjoying it. If you are trim, it will help you stay that way, and if not, you will make steadily progress toward a lesser you.

Stay well,

Dr. B

Unlearning Supposedly Healthy Practices

Health information these days comes at us with the volume and velocity of a fire hose. Is anyone else struggling to stay afloat, or is it just me? Today let’s unlearn a few things and do a little myth-busting – kind of take out our brains and rinse them off with cool water.

Doctor Handphoto © 2009 Truthout.org | more info (via: Wylio)Retirement
Let’s start at the end with retirement – the golden years. Americans have eagerly awaited retirement since it was invented, which was only about 100 years ago. Retirement came about with the invention of the pension system. Previously people literally worked until they dropped. Ah, but to permanently abandon the grindstone and pursue a life of leisure filled with fly-fishing, golf and grandkid wrestling. What could be more healthful?

Retirement is actually one of the worst things you can do for your health. Everybody knows retirement is associated with a higher death rate, but we assume that is simply because old people retire. This has actually been studied, and if you match people for age, smoking and all important risk factors, the group that retires first, dies first. That is a curious phenomenon given retirement is a reprieve from the stress of work life.

Some of the reason for this is retired people’s activity level is often reduced – too much time watching TV or playing cards. Any job gets you out of bed and provides some exercise. The other factor is psychological. People need a reason to live. Believe it or not, endless rounds of golf or any other leisure activity gets tiresome. Work provides structure, social interaction and self-esteem that is not easily replaced after leaving the workplace. Retired people sometimes are haunted by feeling unimportant. They sometimes lose the “will to survive.” The body soon gets the message.

Avoiding Sun
We all know that sunshine is terrible for your skin. It will make you old and wrinkled, and it causes skin cancer. Surprisingly enough, this also not the whole story. Scientists study death rates all around the country looking for trends. The so-called Sunbelt consistently has lower death rates than our more cloudy neighbors. Serious diseases like a number of cancers (colon cancer is one of them) are less prevalent in the Sunbelt. It turns out sunshine on your skin produces Vitamin D, which is good for more than simply preventing rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults. Vitamin D is a potent antioxidant. The elevated levels of Vitamin D after regular sun exposure offers you some protection against cancer and premature death. It might very well be a choice between looking old and getting old. Just to be safe, try 15 minutes of sun a day without sunblock.

Sanitizing
Dirt can’t be good. My mother kept the house spic and span. Cleanliness was not just desirable, it was elevated to the moral plane of godliness. All that sanitization, however, can wreak havoc with an immature immune system. Kids in very clean houses have elevated rates of asthma and autoimmune disease. These are diseases that can last a lifetime. One of the initial scientific findings that suggested dirt is good studied houses with dogs. Houses with two dogs have drastically reduced asthma rates. If you ever had a dog or two, you know it’s impossible to keep the house antiseptically clean. For those with no knowledge of the dog experience – dogs like to roll around in dirt, come in the house and joyously shake, raising a huge dust cloud. Makes you want to go right out and buy one, doesn’t it?

Single Life
Marriage is talked about a lot in both glowing and derogatory terms, but it has a surprisingly big impact on your health. This is a total surprise to every medical student who learns it. Mortality from almost every cause is significantly reduced by marriage. The truly amazing thing is no one mechanism is able to account for this. Married people have less heart disease and cancer, possibly because they eat better. But they also have lower rates of death from shark bites, gun shot wounds or almost any other cause you can think of. This has remained stubbornly unexplained after literally decades of research, and still today baffles young (single) medical students.

Reading About Health
Finally, obsessing about your health might not be a healthful activity, even though it seems like it should be. Many of us spend a lot more time researching, reading and discussing health than actually doing something healthy. Unlike your diet, where it matters very much what you consume, your reading choices don’t have nearly as much impact on your health. This might have considerable individual variability. The $10 million question is: does health obsession lead to more healthful activities? After 30 years of medicine, I remain unconvinced. Usually people just decide. Tomorrow is your next chance.

Take care,

Dr. B