As someone who has covered the health beat two times as a reporter—the first as a medical reporter for a TV station in Sacramento, the second as a ghost writer for the Health Matters column in the Princeton Packet several years back—you would think I would have the whole “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” angle down pat.
And yet, in many ways, I, like too many Americans, allow procrastination to get the better of me in terms of safeguarding what is truly one of our most prized possessions—our health.
There was a well-known commercial with the tagline, “when you’ve got your health, you’ve got just about everything.” And now, especially at this point in my life, I know this to be true.
Health is easy to take for granted unless you don’t have it any more. When is the last time you thought about the complex thoughts and processes that go on in your brain and body to conduct the simple steps of walking from one place to another?
In walking—literally—with both my parents on their journey back to wellness after brain injury, I have met and talked to so many people who consider their greatest daily victories the act of getting out of bed and putting one foot in front of the other.
At the facility where I take my parents for physical therapy, there is a man whose wife suffered a stroke when she was only 39 years old; she is now 60 and has been going to therapy on and off for 21 years.
Another woman, Mary, took care of her mother after a stroke for 18 years, and just as she was looking forward to her freedom, her daughter, 54, suffered a stroke as well. For Mary, the role of caregiver began as a parent with her own child—which is the natural order of things—but then shifted as the child with a parent, and now, has come back full circle as a parent with her own child for the second time—neither of which is the natural order of things.
Stroke can be devastating, not just for the patients, but for the families who love them, and depending on the severity, can have lifelong impact. While many strokes seem to occur out of the blue, there are certain risk factors that increase the odds, which is why it is important to be vigilant to keep those odds in your favor.
Staying healthy is not only imperative for me to have a better life, but also to ensure that my children do as well. The last thing I want is to become a burden to my kids.
Diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, high cholesterol and excess stress—these all increase the risk of stroke. So watch your weight and get regular blood tests to make sure your sugars are in control, as well as your lipids. If you are prescribed medication, stay on it religiously and do not deviate from the dosage, unless directed to do so. Don’t skip meals to lose weight and don’t skip your pills, either.
I have been the world’s worst procrastinator when it comes to making and keeping doctors’ appointments. For example, I skipped the general practitioner for years because I was afraid of being scolded for not losing the weight I had been told to—but now I understand that annual checkups are scheduled for a reason.
And as you grow older and enter into certain age zones, these checkups become windows into your overall health that could signal a larger issue. Caught early, continued deterioration can be halted, though actual reversal is usually impossible.
Here’s one example: regular appointments with the eye doctor become even more critical with every year. You hear those commercials on late—night TV about something called “wet age—related macular degeneration” that—just as the name suggests—with advancing age, can cause loss of vision. Treated early, that loss can be slowed, if not halted. Diabetics are at greater risk for glaucoma, so a diagnosis of high blood sugar should be a red flag to complete regular eye exams. Unchecked, glaucoma can also cause vision loss.
Dentist visits should be conducted like clockwork every six months, and not only to prevent cavities and gum disease. Like the eyes, the mouth can be a window into the body’s overall health. Bacteria in an unhealthy mouth can spread through the bloodstream into the body.
Another lesson that I have learned: study the hospitals in your area before you need one in an emergency. Some are better at delivering a certain kind of care than others, and not just because it has a trauma unit or neonatal ward.
For example, in northern New Jersey, Morristown Medical Center is renowned for its cardiac care—if you suffer a heart attack, it is said that this is the best place to be treated. Overlook Hospital in Summit is regarded as the place to be treated for stroke—not just because of its staff, but also for its advanced stroke treatments often unavailable at smaller regional hospitals.
Ultimately, the best way to preserve your health—in addition to eating right, exercising—all the stuff you already know —is to be the best—educated healthcare consumer you can be.
Make the most of your appointments, and while you are spending quality time with your doctor, know the right questions to ask. You don’t want to learn the hard way what you could and should have done to extend the quality of life for yourself or a loved one. When it comes to your health, you cannot turn back the clock. So make sure you have no reason to wish to do so.