Surprising Health Risks

May 8, 2015 by  
Filed under Features

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We all know the usual culprits behind diseases such as stroke, heart disease and diabetes. But some of the biggest hazards may surprise you.

by Stacy Baker Masand

You’ve got this healthy-living stuff nailed, right? You don’t smoke, you eat nutritiously (give or take a few indulgences), you’ve done tens of thousands of planks and rolled over in Pilates class more than a Mafia informer. You try to lead a well-balanced, stress-free lifestyle—just like the doctor ordered. Problem is, you may be sabotaging your health without even knowing it.

There are a host of unexpected risks for five of the most prevalent diseases. Read on to find out the surprising ways that even seemingly innocuous lifestyle factors may be putting your health at risk.

DIABETES

Most of us associate diabetes with inactivity, a bad diet and being overweight, but that’s only part of the story. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 35 percent of us over the age of 20 fall into the category of pre-diabetes. That means your blood sugar levels are higher than they should be but aren’t high enough to qualify you as having type 2 diabetes.

And once you’ve got diabetes, you’re twice as likely to develop heart disease. “Because of the growing trend of increased body weight, lack of exercise and a sedentary lifestyle, we’ve noticed an increase in high blood pressure, high cholesterol and a surprising jump in the incidence of diabetes and other heart problems,” says Ravi Dave, MD, director of cardiology at UCLA Santa Monica Cardiology. “A lot of these issues start at a surprisingly young age.” Which makes it all the more imperative to avoid these other unexpected risks:

Sleepless-NightBad sleep habits. Studies show that if you sleep less than six hours a day or more than nine, your risk of heart disease and stroke goes up. “Lack of sleep doesn’t directly increase diabetes, but indirectly, it creates situations that put you at risk,” Dr. Dave says. “It prevents exercise and increases your intake of sugars and starches, because you’re more likely to reach for a doughnut when you’re falling asleep midday.”

Reduce your risk: “You need to fall into that sweet spot of sleep—between six and eight hours a night,” Dr. Dave advises.

Abdominal fat. Metabolic syndrome, a condition Dr. Dave describes as having excess fat in your abdominal area and a pear-shaped body, will increase your risk significantly. For women, this is a belt size over 34 inches and, for men, over 38 inches. “This puts you at risk for both diabetes and heart disease,” he says. Metabolic syndrome also includes a host of other symptoms, like increased blood pressure, high blood sugar levels and abnormal cholesterol levels, which contribute to diabetes and other health issues.

Reduce your risk: “If this is your natural body type, be extra vigilant in getting exercise and watching your diet,” says Dr. Dave. “Control sugar, soda and sodium intake, and avoid rice, pasta and bread, which increase fat in the abdomen.”

Business-Man-ChairSitting. By now you’ve heard the mantra that “sitting
is the new smoking.” It’s true. Studies show that sitting for prolonged periods of time not only contributes to poor posture, but also impedes blood flow to the legs, creates swelling of the ankles and causes overall fatigue because your body gets used to being sedentary, according to Dr. Dave.

Reduce your risk: Get an adjustable desk, so you can stand for part of the day, or find other opportunities to stand, such as when you’re on the phone. Another option is to walk around periodically. Researchers at Indiana University found that taking a five-minute stroll once an hour can counter the effects of sitting.

STROKE

Every year, more than 795,000 people in the United States have a stroke, and nearly 130,000 die from one, according to the CDC. It is a leading cause of serious long-term disability, and can cause partial paralysis, impaired thinking, and awareness and speech problems. You probably know that high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking are major risk factors, but check out these other, surprising risks:

Depression. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with depression were 45 percent more likely to have a stroke and 55 percent more likely to die from it. Another study showed that people with heart disease had more severe and frequent depression symptoms and a greater risk of stroke.

Reduce your risk: If you’re overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, have lost interest in everyday activities, feel tired and unenergetic, or have feelings of anxiety and irritability, see your doctor or a mental-health professional.

OTC pain killers. If you think nothing of regularly popping an ibuprofen for everyday pain relief, think again. Doing so ups your stroke risk three times higher than someone taking a placebo pill, a 2013 study in The Lancet found.

Reduce your risk: Switch to all-natural pain relievers, suggests Dr. Gabrielle Francis, ND, DC, LAc, and author of The Rockstar Remedy (HarperWave, 2014). “Omega-3s are natural anti-inflammatories that you can take in the form of fish oil or organic flax oil,” she explains. Take about a tablespoon per day, she says. A sweet alternative: One ounce of pure dark chocolate, which, Dr. Francis explains, is high in phenylalanine, which helps alleviate pain and increases endorphins.

A nightly Epsom salt bath can also help relieve pain. “Add two cups to a warm bath and soak for 20 minutes to reduce pain and relax muscles.”

Bad gums. Many studies have shown that people who have periodontal disease have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Columbia University researchers found that people who have higher levels of the bacteria that cause periodontal disease also tend to have thicker carotid arteries, a strong predictor of stroke and heart attack.

Reduce your risk: Brush your teeth twice a day and floss daily to remove plaque from between teeth. Also make sure to visit your dentist every six months or when you notice an issue such as bleeding gums.

LUNG CANCER

More people die of lung cancer than any other type of cancer; it takes more lives than prostate, breast and colon cancers combined.

Though it’s associated mainly with cigarette smoking, 30 percent of lung cancer patients have never smoked a single cigarette. But there are a number of unexpected threats, including:

Radon. Radon causes about 20,000 cases of lung cancer each year, making it the second leading cause of lung cancer, according to Lonny Brett Yarmus, DO, clinical chief of the division of pulmonary and critical care at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. He says what’s scary about radon—a naturally occurring gas that comes from rocks and dirt and can get trapped in buildings—is that it cannot be seen, tasted or smelled. While that sounds like something you wouldn’t find in modern homes or environments, the truth is that radon gas can be found anywhere. And high levels of exposure, which usually occur in well-insulated homes or those built on radium-, uranium- or thorium-rich soils, is the second leading cause of lung cancer.

Reduce your risk: The Environmental Protection Agency and the Surgeon General recommend that all homes below the third floor be tested for the presence of radon. Consumer Reports gave highest marks to the AccuStar Alpha Track Test Kit AT 100 Radon test kit ($25; www.accustarlabs.com).

Secondhand smoke. Having a partner who’s a smoker increases your chances of developing lung cancer by 20 percent. “Tobacco smoke is a toxic mix of more than 7,000 chemicals, of which many are known to cause cancer in people or animals,” says Dr. Yarmus. “About 7,300 people who never smoked die from lung cancer due to secondhand smoke every year.”

Reduce your risk: Keep your home and other indoor spaces, like your car, completely smoke-free, he suggests. No exceptions.

Diesel exhaust. Think a little exposure to urban exhaust fumes won’t be too harmful? Diesel pollution from cars and busses doesn’t just smell bad, but high levels can up your risk of lung cancer by 30 percent, according to a study in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene.

Reduce your risk: Help rid your body of toxins by increasing your intake of detoxifying foods. A recent study in Cancer Prevention Research found that vegetables, like broccoli and kale, help rid the body of cancer-causing pollutants like benzene and acrolein.

HEART DISEASE

Someone in the U.S. dies from cardiovascular disease every 33 seconds, making it the number-one cause of death in America, according to the CDC. A recent study showed that if women control specific risk factors, they can lower their risk of heart disease and stroke by 90 percent, says Dr. Dave. The big five: maintaining a BMI of less than 25; exercising two-and-a-half hours a week (half an hour five times a week); eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables that also limits saturated fats and cholesterol; watching less than seven hours of TV a week; and reducing alcohol consumption to no more than one drink a day. Also make sure to avoid these other surprising causes of heart disease:

Being skinny fat. Just because you look thin doesn’t mean you’re healthy. If your metabolism rocks, you may get by despite drinking soda, downing processed foods and avoiding exercise without gaining an ounce. But a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows that 25 percent of people with normal weight have issues with blood pressure, cholesterol or heart disease. That’s because all those sugars and processed chemicals cause visceral fat storage, and up your risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Reduce your risk: Even though you don’t need to eat better and exercise for weight control, you’ll want to incorporate healthier habits to improve your overall well-being.

Calcium supplements. A 2013 University of Aukland study found that women who took one gram of calcium citrate for five years had twice the risk for heart attack. (Though the reasons aren’t clear, researchers suspect that the supplements may cause blood calcium levels to quickly spike, which could contribute to artery disease. Calcium from foods causes levels to rise much more slowly.)

Reduce your risk: Boost your daily intake of calcium-rich foods, like milk, yogurt, cheese, collard greens, broccoli, sardines and edamame.

Relationship problems. When tensions run high at home between you and your partner, your risk of having a heart attack increases by 34 percent, according to a study conducted at University College London. That’s because the stress associated with these problems may increase high blood pressure, as well as your risk of diabetes and stroke.

Reduce your risk: When you hit a rough patch, seek support from friends, get space, and be sure to sleep six-to-eight hours a night.

SKIN CANCER

While skin cancer is highly preventable, it accounts for more than half of all diagnosed cancers combined. Treatment of non-melanoma skin cancers increased by nearly 77 percent between 1992 and 2006, and one person every hour dies from melanoma, the most aggressive and serious type, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

While there’s not much you can do to mitigate some of the risks (being fair-skinned, living in a sunny climate), staying vigilant and notifying your doctor about changes in your skin can help you prevent serious issues. And you should try to avoid these other unforeseen risks:

Vitamin A creams. “Topical vitamin A creams, also called retinoids, are used to treat acne and fine lines and wrinkling,” explains Dr. Shannon Trotter, a professor of dermatology with the James Cancer Hospital and Ohio State University. “They may help correct photo-damaged skin as well.” Another form of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, is an ingredient in some sunscreens.  But now, two independent studies have shown that retinoids and other vitamin A–packed lotions may actually be increasing the production of skin lesions and tumors.

Reduce your risk: “We recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 and reapplying it every two hours,” Dr. Trotter says. But pass up sunscreens that contain retinyl palmitate, and only apply lotions containing retinols or vitamin A at night. “We also recommend avoiding the sun during peak hours of 10 and 4 p.m. and using sun-protective clothing, like hats, sunglasses and clothes that have a UPF rating. A diet rich in antioxidants may be protective against several types of cancer, including skin cancer.”

Viagra. A new Harvard study found that men who took the little blue pill were 84 percent more likely to develop melanoma than non-users.

Reduce your risk: A study from the University of the West in the United Kingdom found that pelvic exercises helped 40 percent of men with erectile dysfunction (ED) regain normal erectile function. Hit up a Pilates or yoga class for exercises that can help strengthen the pelvic floor. Other studies have found that aerobic exercise can also help remedy ED.

HPV. HPV may play a role in the development of a certain type of skin cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, according to a new study from the Mayo Clinic.

Reduce your risk: If you’ve ever been diagnosed with HPV, make sure to inform your dermatologist. H

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