There is increasing acknowledgement of the crucial role played by diet, exercise and management of stress in our overall health.
When asked, most people will complacently lay claim to a healthy lifestyle, but what does this really entail for those of us who have no discernible health problems but want to ensure we’re doing everything possible to stay well? There are a number of fundamental criteria which can help us assess our overall ‘wellness,’ says GP Mark Murphy, a lecturer in general practise with the Royal College of Surgeons and chairman of communications with the Irish College of General Practitioners.
But he cautions against the routine widespread use of corporate medical check-ups: “When someone is feeling well there is limited evidence that multiple testing is useful,” he says. Anyone’s personal ‘wellness’ check-up will vary depending on age, gender and family history, he says, but in general, the most important factors that any one at any age can consider are:
1 Physical activity
“If exercise was a drug, it would be the most effective drug ever created,” says Dr Murphy, who adds that for anyone who is reasonably fit and healthy, they should take a daily ‘dose’ of 30 to 60 minutes’ exercise.
“That is the best thing you can do for overall health and to reduce your risk of cardiovascular and cancer disease,” he advises.
2 Eat a healthy diet
This should include lots of fruit and vegetables, not too many fats, sugar, salt or alcohol.
“Eat things you enjoy in moderation but don’t consume excessive quantities of calories or sugar,” Dr Murphy advises.
“Eat below the recommended daily calorific intake and eat an all-round healthy mixed diet with protein fats and complex carbohydrates.”
Simple refined carbohydrates like sugars predispose people to unhealthy lifestyle habits, make you tired and can promote addiction to sugary drinks and sweets, he says.
“It’s important that people reduce their exposure to sugar generally.” (For more, see pages 4 and 5)
3 Maintain a healthy weight
“It is usually self-evident as to who is overweight or obese, but if you are unsure, you can calculate your Body Mass Index (BMI) using a medical app on your smartphone. Give your weight in kilograms and your height in metres,” says Dr Murphy, who explains that a healthy BMI should be between 20 and 25.
“If your BMI is over 30, you are obese — and many Irish adults and children are obese,” he warns.
4 Don’t Smoke
“If you smoke, try to give it up. It can be difficult, but many smokers give up on a daily basis,” he recommends. Visit the HSE anti-smoking website www.quit.ie
5 Manage your alcohol intake
“The recommended amount of alcohol consumption for women is 14 units a week.
“For men this is 21 units a week. Remember, one pint equals two units. On a physical level, he points out, the effects of excessive alcohol use are linked with cancer, cardiovascular illnesses and certain organ damage such as liver disease.
“Binge-drinking can cause many problems including mental health problems as well as financial issues,” he adds.
6 Manage Your Stress levels
“People should think about their stress levels,” says Dr Murphy, observing that, of the 25 million or so annual consultations around this country, about one-fifth relate to mental health issues such as anxiety, stress or depression.
“Stress can disrupt your quality of life and increase the likelihood of physical illness in the future, for example cardiovascular disease,” he warns.
7 Undergo routine cancer screening tests
“There are some screening techniques for cancer which are recommended by the health service,” Dr Murphy explains.
From age 50 to 69, it is recommended that women undergo breast cancer screening (www.breastcheck.ie). Cervical cancer screening (www.cervicalcheck.ie) is available to women aged from 25 to 60, while both men and women aged from 60 to 69 can avail of free bowel screening from age 60 (www.bowelscreen.ie).
“We can only screen for three cancers, and we encourage people to attend them,” he advises.
This, he says, is generally what people can do at home. If you’re concerned about anything, attend your GP.
8 Get a check-up with your GP at 40
From age 40 — and particularly if there is a strong family history of heart disease — GPs recommend that patients attend a consultation with their doctor to discuss lifestyle issues, get blood pressure checks, undergo fasting blood tests, and have checks for diabetes and to assess cholesterol levels, Dr Murphy says.
However, he advises, ideally don’t do blood pressure or blood sugar tests yourself.
“In the modern environment where medical investigations are being sold in the supermarkets, there is an increasing tendency by patients to monitor vital signs at home such as blood pressure,” he says.
“I think it is important that we don’t turn people into patients.
“We don’t recommend daily or weekly blood pressure checks at home for people, even if they have been diagnosed with mild or moderate hypertension and are being treated for it.
“You can also buy a test to check your blood sugar levels but if you have type 2 diabetes and are on the most common oral medication for this, doctors do not recommend that patients check their blood sugars,” he adds.
“The most important thing is to consider the lifestyle issues we have discussed, including stress.
“From about the age of 40, know your blood pressure, and from about 45 to 50, know your cholesterol levels. Avail of the three national screening programmes.”
The Silent Killers:
Heart disease and stroke are known as the Silent Killers, because our risk of these conditions develops in silence over many years, explains Patricia Hall, helpline nurse manager with the Irish Heart Foundation.
"The only way you're going to know about it is to have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked, so you need to periodically check in with your GP," she says, adding that how often you need routine checks carried out depends on your individual risk factors as well as your age, gender and where you are in life.
It's useful to know that there are two types of risk factor for heart disease and stroke, Hall explains - modifiable and non-modifiable.
Modifiable risks for heart disease and stroke:
* Smoking: "Give it up," Hall recommends.
* High blood pressure: Ask your doctor to take your blood pressure and get to know your numbers, she advises: "If you have a family history of heart disease, even if you're in your twenties, it's important that you know your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. "If you're told your blood pressure is high, take the appropriate recommended action and take any prescribed medication.
"Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables, not too many fats or sugars, maintain a healthy weight, cut down on salt, keep alcohol below the recommended amount, get regular exercise and be physically active," she advises.
* High cholesterol: If your cholesterol is greater than five mmol/l (the measurement used for cholesterol levels,) cut down on your fat intake and optimise your weight.
* Overweight or obesity: Make realistic targets around weight loss.
* Poor/unhealthy diet: It's a good idea to get a fasting blood sugar test for diabetes.
* Physical inactivity: Take the appropriate steps to reverse this, but always ensure your targets are realistic, advises Hall.
* Stress: "Long-term stress increases your risk of high blood pressure," says Hall, who suggests techniques such as deep breathing or exercise.
Non-modifiable risks for heart disease and stroke
* Age: As you get older, your risk increases, so stay in touch with your doctor as you age.
* Gender: Men are at higher risk than women but women who tend to 'catch up' after menopause should be aware of their increased risk after this time and take appropriate steps, Hall says.
* Family history: If you have a relative who has heart disease or stroke, you are at higher risk so talk to your family about any family conditions and make sure that your GP is aware of your family history.