Your Weakest Link by James E. McMinn, M.D.
We’ve all heard the adage before: a chain is only as strong as your weakest link. So what’s your weakest link? At the end of the day, what’s going to get you? And just as importantly, what can you do to improve your odds?
Cardiovascular disease: Heart disease is by far the number one cause of death in America. Almost one million Americans die of cardiovascular disease each year. This amounts to about 40%, or 1 out of 2.7 deaths in our country. Your first important decision in avoiding this, the weakest of all links, is to pick your parents well. There is definitely a genetic component for cardiovascular disease. However, much of the risk for cardiovascular disease is also attributable to lifestyle choices, and most of these risk factors are well within your control. Smoking is perhaps the biggest single risk factor. If you smoke, you automatically increase your risk of dying from heart disease by approximately 3 fold. If you smoke, the single most important thing that you can do for your health is to put away the pack. It’s not easy, but the benefits are enormous. Obesity and being overweight are the next major risk factors. In fact, obesity has overtaken smoking as the number one overall cause of preventable death in America. I believe that a few extra pounds is often the beginning the slippery slope of disease leading to a premature death. Many of the other risk factors for cardiac disease are often directly linked to the weight issue, such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and triglycerides. Obesity is also very pro-inflammatory, and inflammation is evermore being appreciated as a major contributor to many disease processes, including heart disease, as well as Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Cancer: Although cardiovascular disease is by far the most common cause of death, cancer is the most feared. Although we declared a “war on cancer” many years ago, this terrible disease has gone unabated. Two out of every five people in America will develop cancer, and one in five will die from it. Approximately one in every eight women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. Even worse almost all men will get prostate cancer if they live long enough. To my way of thinking, the key is prevention. Certainly, diagnostic tests are becoming more and more advanced, but they can’t prevent cancer, they can only find it, and by that time you’ve already got the disease.
The number one rule of cancer prevention is “don’t smoke”. Sound familiar? As it turns out, the same preventive measures pertinent to cardiovascular disease, also apply to cancer. It’s all about diet and lifestyle. Studies suggest that if you take people from a country with a low rate of cancer and put them in a country with a high rate of cancer, once they adopt the diet and lifestyle of the new country, their cancer rate goes way up, to equal that of their new home country. In fact a majority of cancers in our country could be prevented with smoking cessation, exercise, diet, and lifestyle changes. Some specific strategies for cancer prevention include the following: stay slim, get regular exercise, avid saturated fats, eat more fiber, avoid excess alcohol, avoid unnecessary radiation, avoid toxins, This is more powerful than any expensive, high tech treatment on earth. Your mother was right, eat your fruits and vegetables!
Diabetes: It is fair and accurate to say that we are currently in the midst of a very frightening epidemic of type 2 diabetes. Between 1980 and 2002 the prevalence of diabetes has doubled. If this trend continues, we may soon start to see shorter lifespan in America starting with the next generation. Unfortunately, these shorter lifespans will be fraught with complications such as: heart disease, hypertension, stroke, impotence, kidney failure, amputations, blindness, and nerve damage. Diabetes has even been linked with cancer.
I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but here we go again. For diabetes prevention, it’s back to basics. You really are what you eat. Diet and exercise are the keys to diabetes prevention. The basic diet principe is called glycemic index. Avoid sugar and anything that acts like sugar, such as white flour. Sugar hides and goes by many names, so learn to read labels. Often “health foods” are really sugar Trojan horses and heart attacks in disguise.
Dementia: So far we’ve had the most common disease, the most feared disease, and the scariest disease. I’ll wrap things up with what I consider the saddest of diseases; dementia. This tragic disease may take many forms including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, and stroke dementia. Your lifetime risk of dementia now stands at about 10-15 percent. Once again, prevention lies in the foundations of wellness: exercise, diet with plenty of antioxidants. Staying socially involved, and keeping your mind active are also helpful.
The list of weak links goes on to include infectious disease, kidney failure, and liver disease. However, by now it is quite clear that the prevention prescription remains largely the same. Most importantly, it all starts with the conscious decision to live a wellness lifestyle. It sounds simple enough, but in our modern day stressed out society full of junk food and toxins, the wellness path is the exception rather than the norm. In addition, it is not enough to make a decision. One must then set goals and devise an action plan for getting there. In America, we seem to be caught up in a “victim mentality” when it comes to our health. Even the phrase “heart attack” implies that this disease lashes out at innocent victims, like a “shark attack.” When in fact, most of us have been knowingly sewing the seeds of that heart attack for many years. It says on the package of cigarettes in bold letters, yet many of us knowingly keep smoking. We know that most processed food is full of junk, and fast food makes us fat, and causes heart diseases, diabetes, and stroke and yet many of us keep eating it.
My plea is that we wake up out of our victim slumber and realize that we, the patients, have much more control than ever before to make changes for the better. Changes that will shore up our weak link, and allow us to live a life of wellness.