By: Molly Ramsey
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” It’s an ancient proverb that rings true in almost every facet of life. Take 15 minutes to whip up a grocery list and save half an hour wandering aimlessly down aisles (not to mention dollars at the register). Get your car’s oil changed every few thousand miles to help protect from engine troubles years down the road.
In theory, preventative measures sound easy. But in reality, taking steps now to stave off future what-ifs—even when we’re dealing with something as significant as our health—can be difficult. In some cases, we’re tempted by the lure of instant gratification. “I can swing by McDonald’s now for a burger or wait until I’m home to make a salad.” Other times—often in the case of potentially life-saving health screenings—it’s a matter of procrastination. “I feel fine! I’ll get that done next year.”
Whatever the reason, statistics show that many Americans aren’t anteing up that ounce when it comes to their own health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that among those age 65 and older, only approximately 50 percent are up-to-date on all recommended health screenings and immunizations. And even fewer between the ages of 50 and 64—less than a quarter—are current on age-specific preventative services. Moreover, less than 25 percent of American adults get the recommended amount of physical activity each week, despite it being a proven way to ward off disease. The result? For the last three decades, heart disease, cancer, and stroke have remained among the top killers in the U.S., many cases of which the CDC classifies as preventable.
But here’s the good news: in recent years, there has been a systematic shift in how we approach health care. Rather than focusing on treating disease, bandaging ailments, and writing prescriptions, doctors are geared toward helping patients ward off chronic disease, injury, and illness from the start. “Preventative care looks like attending regular wellness visits, getting recommended screenings and immunizations, and making day-to-day lifestyle decisions with your health in mind,” explains Roper St. Francis affiliated family medicine doctor Brendan Neary.
Here, Dr. Neary shares the basics of a preventative health plan and the tools and checklists you’ll need to take action.
STEP 1: Pick a Primary Care Doctor
The first stop on your path toward preventative wellness is finding a primary care doctor to serve as your home base for health care. “A primary care doctor’s purview is broad,” says Dr. Neary. “We aren’t tasked with focusing on one area of
health; it’s our responsibility to care for many different facets of a patient’s life.”
During the first visit with your doctor, you’ll discuss your personal and family health histories, including any conditions or diseases you or your immediate relatives may have had. “This helps us determine your base risk factors,” Dr. Neary explains.
From there, in addition to being available for appointments when you’re sick, you’ll have wellness visits with your primary care doctor every year or two, during which he or she will take a series of measurements, including your weight, blood pressure, and heart rate. Excess weight can increase a person’s risk for everything from osteoarthritis and sleep apnea to certain types of cancer, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes, while blood pressure results can reveal if you have or are at risk for developing hypertension (high blood pressure), which, if left uncontrolled, increases a person’s risk for heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, and heart failure. You also may have blood drawn to reveal cholesterol and glucose levels as well as information on how well your organs are working. “These measurements help steer the conversation during your visit and can—and should—influence your diet and exercise goals once you leave the office,” he says.
Don’t have a primary care doc? Be picky when choosing. “You want to find someone who will take time to listen to what’s going on in your life,” says Dr. Neary, adding that you shouldn’t feel shy around your physician. “Many people opt for a doctor roughly their same age so there’s a generational understanding of challenges and so they can better relate to certain problems.” Location is another factor to consider. “You want to make going to the doctor as convenient as possible,” adds Dr. Neary. Visit rsfh.com or call (843) 402-CARE to locate a primary care doctor near you.
STEP 2: Get Immunized
They may sound archaic today, but less than a century ago diseases like measles, mumps, and polio were commonplace in the U.S. Thanks to nationwide childhood vaccines becoming available in the late 1950s and ’60s, these potentially fatal ailments—along with smallpox, rubella, pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria, tetanus, and more—are in large part a worry of the past. “Immunization by way of vaccination is a pillar of prevention as it helps stop the spread of infectious disease,”
Dr. Neary explains. Indeed, according to the CDC, vaccines (substances that stimulate the production of antibodies to provide immunity against disease) will prevent more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among people born between 1994 and 2013.
While most vaccinations are given during childhood (the CDC recommends children receive 10 vaccines to protect against 15 preventable diseases by the time they are 18 months old), certain vaccinations are recommended for adults. “Immunization is a big reason why having a primary care doctor is important,” says Dr. Neary. “Many people aren’t aware that we need vaccines as adults, but your doctor will let you know which are needed and when.”
Are You Up-to-Date on Immunizations? Here, Dr. Neary shares a core list of adult vaccines.
An annual flu shot. According to a 2016 report from the CDC, anywhere from 12,000 to 56,000 Americans die annually from influenza-related illness. Dr. Neary stresses that though you may be healthy enough to battle the virus, getting vaccinated helps prevent it from spreading. “The flu might not badly affect you, but you run the risk of passing that virus on to someone else who it could have a much more detrimental effect on, like an infant or an elderly person,” he says.
The shingles vaccine. Adults age 60 and older should receive the shingles vaccine, which studies show reduces one’s risk of developing shingles—a reactivation of the chickenpox virus that causes a painful rash—by half.
Tetanus shots. Adults immunized for tetanus as a child should receive the tetanus-diphtheria booster (Td) once every 10 years. (One dose should be swapped out for the Tdap booster to protect against pertussis, as well.)
The pneumonia vaccine. Adults age 65 or older and others at high risk should receive two forms of the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumococcal disease, which can cause severe infection of the lungs (pneumonia), bloodstream, or the lining of the brain (meningitis).
Possibly others, based on immunization history and risk factors. For example, the Gardasil vaccine for the human papillomavirus, or HPV, is suggested for women up to age 26 and men through age 21 who were not
vaccinated against HPV as a child.
STEP 3: Get Screened
While immunization guards against infectious disease, another key to prevention—health screenings—can help detect diseases that develop over time. Different than MRIs and other diagnostic tests, which seek to discover the cause behind a set of symptoms, screenings such as skin exams, colonoscopies, Pap smears, and mammograms are administered prior to the onset of symptoms in hopes of catching cancer at its earliest, and thus most treatable, stage. Some preventative checks are folded into your routine wellness visits—like blood pressure and cholesterol tests and discussions about tobacco and alcohol use—while others require a visit to a specialist, like a gastroenterologist, an OB/GYN, or an optometrist.
Cancer screenings in particular have the ability to root out disease at its earliest, allowing for prompt treatment. And the stakes here are high. When colorectal cancer is discovered and treated at stage one, the five-year survival rate is as high as 90 percent, cites the CDC (compared to 50 to 70 percent when it reaches stage three). Likewise, according to the American Cancer Society, when melanoma is discovered and treated at stage one, the five-year survival rate is roughly 97 percent. That drops to between 15 and 20 percent at stage four (though survival rates vary greatly from case to case and are dependent on many factors.)
STEP 4: Take It Day by Day
Annual wellness visits aren’t like a college exam you can cram for the night before. “The choices you make day in and day out have a huge effect on your risk for disease,” says Dr. Neary. For example, not only does regular exercise help prevent diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, it’s also been shown to lower rates of depression, chronic stress, and more. “My patients and I discuss their exercise routine and diet, whether or not they smoke, and even their stress levels and sleep habits. It all plays into your overall health.”
And though making tweaks to diet and fitness are perhaps the most obvious forms of prevention, many people struggle with achieving their goals. According to poll results released earlier this year, three out of four Americans say they wish they were in better shape, but only 31 percent reported committing to a regular exercise routine. (ReporterLinker ran the poll, which included 500 American adults.)
Dr. Neary’s tip for success? Make slow but steady shifts. “If you’re starting a fitness plan from scratch, you don’t have to change your life and sign up for a marathon. Start with a 20-minute walk around block three times a week. That walk can become a jog, or those three days can become four.” The same goes for making a shift in your diet. “Focus on one thing at a time, like reducing your sodium or sugar intake,” he says. “Really attack it and beat that one obstacle then move on to the next one.”
Lastly, remember that healthy habits go beyond the gym and kitchen. Dr. Neary reminds his patients to practice preventative care while driving (wear a seatbelt); biking (wear a helmet); in their sex life (take precaution against STDs); in relationships (seek professional help if you experience verbal or physical abuse or signs of depression); and in the sun (wear sunscreen every day).
The end goal of these steps toward prevention? Living the longest, happiest, healthiest life possible. So go on—ante up!