The Big Three
Among current bad health habits, eight out of nine doctors rate these three as having the potential to cause significant harm:
2. Chronic anger, stress or worry
3. Feeling out of control at home or in your relationships.
‘Certainly smoking is the biggest killer,’ notes geriatrician Robert Stall, MD, of Buffalo, one of the panelists. ‘My feeling is the tobacco companies are the biggest drug cartel in the world, killing more people than all illicit drugs combined.’
Tobacco smoke makes the risk of lung cancer and heart attack soar, but that’s only the beginning. ‘Smoking is the most destructive habit when it comes to lung health,’ Dr Stall notes. ‘It triggers conditions like emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [COPD], where you’re literally suffocating. It’s as if you’re holding your nostrils shut so that you can barely get any air through, and breathing that way every moment of every day. It’s torturous.’
What was the next tier of unhealthy habits? More than half the doctors identified the following as having the greatest chances of causing significant future harm to your health:
4. Not having a regular exercise routine
5. Drinking to excess on a weekly basis
6. Breathing secondhand smoke regularly
7. Taking sleeping pills to fall asleep most nights
8. Gulping large quantities of sugary drinks every day.
9. Being stuck in an unhappy relationship – with your spouse or with your own body – got top rankings, too. Experts said that ignoring warning signs and symptoms of potential health problems could be as damaging as living with a spouse or partner with whom you fight or maintain an icy silence.
10. Poor food habits set off alarms, too. All of the experts agreed that regularly indulging in high-calorie, high-fat, high-salt fast-food meals could cause moderate to significant health effects. And eight out of nine saw similar risks for those who skimped on veggies or rarely drank plain old water – as well as those who filled up on meat, pastries, sweets or ice cream.
11. Dieters, beware: gaining and losing the same 10 to 20 pounds repeatedly was deemed dangerous by most.
12. So was skipping breakfast.
13. Do you brush and floss? Eight out of nine said that neglecting dental health could be the cause of moderate to significant harm – an opinion corroborated by research linking gum disease with more chronic inflammation and a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease and even stroke.
Why did the experts come down harder on current bad habits than on health sins from your past? Is a current soft drink habit really worse than getting drunk in your 20s? It turns out that the answer is usually yes. ‘We all have a health reservoir called functional reserve – it’s the extra capacity that helps to protect us against illness, helps us to recover when we get sick and maintains body functions,’ Dr Stall notes. ‘As we get older, this reserve naturally lowers. And if you add insults such as smoking, drinking too much, overeating or avoiding exercise, the threshold is lowered even further. You can maintain a bigger safety cushion between health and disease, even in your 80s and 90s, if you eat well, exercise and relax.’
The 21st-Century Vices
Eight out of nine thought the following three could have moderate to significant health effects:
14. Too much debt
15. Too much coffee
16. Too much intense, stressful driving
17. Six warned that skipping vacations isn’t a good thing
18. Seven were concerned that being a workaholic could damage health.
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