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Ready or Not…

We’ve made it!  It’s January.  It’s 2012.  The electioneering is in relentless full swing.  We are hearing all sorts of gloom and doom from one side (of all the possible equations), and euphoric prognostications from the other.  And they keep switching sides.  Who knows what’s true and what isn’t?  Everybody has some point to make, and everything changes all the time.  It’s rather exhausting, actually, all this endless talk, talk, talk.  Throw in the tweet, tweet, tweets, and it’s chaos, absolute chaos!

Thank goodness there are a few lessons from 2011 we can carry forward, some things we learned last year that are sound enough, solid enough, to help us navigate the first months of this new year.  Let’s have a look, shall we?

1.  You gotta have friends!  A Brigham Young University study found that good friends can mean good health.  A strong, positive social network improves your likelihood of living longer by 50% – especially if those buddies are healthy.  That same network protects you from colds and doubles your odds of surviving cancer.  There may be cardiovascular benefits as well.  By way of contrast, not having close friends or bonds is as harmful for you as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day!  So seek out, keep close to and spend time with fun people who support and inspire you!

2.  Having trouble remembering things? Take more walks!  How easy is this?  Walk for about 45 minutes three days a week and you can help prevent – even reverse! – memory loss and some of the other less attractive effects of aging.  Moderate exercise increases BDNF, the protein linked to learning and improved memory.  Exercise increases brain volume – really.  In fact, couch potatoes and other non-exercisers undergo a shrinking of brain volume, which contributes to memory loss and Alzheimer’s.  It is believed some 21% of Alzheimer’s cases are related to inadequate physical activity.

3.  Wait a second!  Weights control weight?  Researchers working at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis concluded that weight sessions really do make a difference.  Lifting weights alone – without any changes to your diet – could make you lighter.  Working strength training into your exercise routine helps you burn calories at a brisker rate.  Using heavier weights could maximize the effect.  Even a few repetitions with heavier weights – 3 to 6 reps, for example – increased the test exercisers sleeping metabolic rates by nearly 8%.  This means more calories burned overnight.  Sweet!  If your resolutions for 2012 involved more exercise, think about giving this a try.

4.  Free of fat-free tyranny!  You simply  must have some fats in your diet, whether you are trying to lose weight or not.  The Institute of Medicine recommends fats make up 20% to 35% of your daily calories.  Now these are not just any old fats of course.  Saturated fats are still out and trans fats should be scrupulously avoided.  But monounsaturated fats – MUFAs – are another story. These good fats are found in plant foods, in olives, nuts and avocados.  There are very encouraging reports about the benefits of MUFA-rich diets.  A breakfast high in MUFAs could supercharge your calorie burn for five hours after the meal; a diet with plenty of MUFAs helped people lose weight and body fat without changing their actual calorie intake.

5.  The drive to work is aging you!  And it’s not the awful drivers you deal with every day, either.  It’s the air on the highway!  Reports of a new study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology indicate that women exposed to higher concentrations of  highway traffic-related particulate matter (including the invisible carbon particles in engine exhaust) had 20% more age spots.  The exhaust particles appear to stimulate melanin production.  So protect yourself.  Lotions containing ingredients that inhibit melanin will contain licorice root extract, kojic acid and niacinamide.  Or check with your pharmacist for suggestions.  No one wants more age spots.

6.  There’s a new vaccine that could help fight breast cancer.  Everything is still in the earliest of testing phases, but the approach is promising.  Researchers are looking for ways to enlist the body’s own defenses in the fight against breast cancer.  Cancer vaccines are different from traditional vaccines in that they are not expected to prevent a disease but to prevent its return by teaching the immune system to hunt down and attack any cancer cells that survived the initial chemotherapy.  The vaccines will contain very precise instructions and co-ordinates while targeting rogue cells.  The theory is that the right vaccine could inspire an immune response powerful enough to vanquish those last malignant cells and keep the illness from coming back.

7.  Statins are not a universal cure-all after all.  Statins are a class of drugs that block a liver enzyme that helps create cholesterol.  Some 30 million Americans are prescribed statins, generally as an aid to preventing heart attacks.  About 7 million American with normal cholesterol levels are taking statins because they have other risk factors for heart disease.  However, recent studies show that only those patients with calcium buildup in their arteries (indicating heart disease is actually already in progress) would be likely to benefit from the medication.  Other, additional tests, including genetic tests, advanced blood tests, the carotid ultrasound and the calcium scoring test, provide better and more complete information that can be used to determine who should be taking a statin.  Or shouldn’t be.

8.  Brew yourself some green tea to protect yourself against skin cancer.  This is not marginal stuff.  Green tea has some terrific benefits, including protection against heart disease and maybe boosting metabolism.  It tastes good, too.  Now studies show that drinking green tea before heading out into the sun may help decrease skin damage from UV rays.  And its antioxidants could be protecting you against skin cancer.  So drink up!

9.  Avoid surgery in July.  No one is really sure why, but there is a 10% jump in deaths at teaching hospitals in July.  Is it because that’s when newly graduated doctors begin their residencies?  That may be part of it.  It is also vacation time for many doctors and other hospital workers and staffing glitches, distractions and changes don’t help.  Many of the fatalities involve prescribing and administering patient drugs and medications.  Whatever the cause, medical mistakes happen.  There are things you can do prevent them.    It is strongly recommended that should you have to schedule surgery in July (or any other month, come to think of it), be sure to request the second or third slot of the morning.  The staff will still be fresh and alert, but any kinks or misfits will have been worked out by the team by then.

10.  The Fountain of Youth?  Is it happiness?  We all love mysteries, and one of the biggest involves longevity.  Why do lots of us, despite poor health and even poorer prospects, live on, bright and content, while our apparently healthier and wealthier friends die years too soon?  No one knows.  And while studies keep circling back to happiness, by default really, that vague and intangible notion, scientists, stubborn and determined as ever, keep trying to pin longevity down,  hoping it’s something they can measure and replicate.  But we’ll bet it is indeed happiness.  Whatever that means.  Mysteries – and dogs – rule!

Special thanks to Prevention Magazine. 

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