Doctor’s Prescription: An Ounce of Prevention

What do your neck measurement, the way you stand, or Great-Uncle Joe’s demise in the 1960s have to do with proactively managing your health? More than you might think, says Canyon Ranch Corporate Medical Director Mark Liponis, M.D.

Actively keeping tabs on your health is your most vital line of defense in preventing chronic conditions, from heart and cardiovascular disease to joint pain and hypertension, he says – and there are lots of simple ways to monitor your health and your family’s.

“People always wish they’d done more to maintain their health after they develop a disease,” says Dr. Liponis, “but prevention is painless.”

Give yourself a history lesson
Start by learning your family health history. “It’s the best way to guard against genetic risks,” he says. If several family members have developed type 2 diabetes, you can substantially reduce your risk by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly and reducing sugary and high-carb foods. Or, if you have a strong family history of smoking-related cancers, protect yourself by minimizing your exposure to secondhand smoke, smog, fumes and smoke from fires.

An easy, web-based tool for organizing your family’s health information is available at hhs.gov/familyhistory/, devised by Richard Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., FACS, 17th Surgeon General of the United States (2002-2006), Vice Chairman, Canyon Ranch and President, Canyon Ranch Institute®, who has long crusaded for greater awareness of preventive care.

Even your childhood health history can predict future health, says Dr. Liponis. If you grew up with pets, you’re less likely to develop asthma or allergies. If your birth weight was less than 6.5 or more than 9.5 pounds, you’re statistically at greater risk for diabetes, cardiovascular and heart disease and stroke. The good news is that knowledge and prevention can significantly lower potential health problems.

Be your own detective
Sleep apnea often goes undetected, but is a major cause of cardiovascular problems, heart disease and hypertension, says Dr. Liponis. Obesity or a naturally receding jaw can result in narrowed airways, which may close off intermittently when you sleep, especially if you sleep on your back. “If your neck measures more than 18 inches around, you may be at risk, he says. “If it’s hard to stop sleeping on your back, try sewing a tennis ball in the back of your night clothes.”

To minimize your risk of needing a hip or knee replacement, check your feet. Do your toes turn in? Is your weight centered over your feet, or is there a misalignment? A professional assessment and properly fitted orthotics can correct foot problems that can eventually wear out your ankles, feet, knees and hips and may lead to joint damage and surgery.

Don’t forget your environment. “Radon is a leading cause of cancer in nonsmokers,” says Dr. Liponis. “It’s a colorless, odorless radioactive gas, which can percolate up through bedrock under your home and get trapped in the house.” For your health, get your home checked even if radon testing is not mandated in your area.

Vitamin D is essential for the health of your immune system and for your bones and joints. In summer, you can get enough vitamin D from the sun – but if you live north of Atlanta, you can’t get vitamin D from sunshine between September and May. A simple blood test can show your vitamin D level; most people will need a supplement during the fall and winter.

Don’t go it alone
Having a primary care doctor is important, says Dr. Liponis. “A lot of adults don’t have one. When you’re a kid, you have a pediatrician, but most women only see a gynecologist, and many men don’t see a doctor between the ages of about 20 and 50. That’s way too long to go without a preventive checkup.” Your annual physical is the ideal opportunity to coordinate important regular screening tests such as mammograms and colonoscopies, and to raise any concerns since your last visit.

Monitoring your blood pressure can give you a baseline to help your physician evaluate your overall health. A blood pressure kit is inexpensive, and recording your numbers creates an overview of whether you’re close to a healthy average resting measurement of 120/80 or below. A home urine test can give you an early indication of possible kidney disease. This measure can be a lifesaver, says Dr. Liponis, whose own test some years ago led to a diagnosis of kidney cancer – since cured, thanks to early detection. 

Any time you detect a change in your baseline numbers, meet with your physician so you can decide together how best to maintain and optimize your most vital resource – your health. Being a proactive participant in your own health care will arm you with the information you need so you can make the best possible choices for a long, healthy and active life.

Here are some tests to make sure you’re up to date:

Cancer Screening

  • Chest X-ray or CT scan for cigarette smokers may be worth considering to detect lung cancer early.
  • Colonoscopy beginning at age 50, or sooner if there is a family history of colon cancer. Prostate examination for men beginning at age 40. PSA test may add helpful information, although this is currently controversial.
  • Breast exam and imaging: Periodic self-examination for women, with baseline breast imaging at age 40. High-risk women should be screened annually. Options include mammography, ultrasound and breast MRI.
  • Pap smear annually for sexually active women to screen for cervical cancer and HPV infection.

Vaccines

  • Usual childhood vaccines
  • Travel vaccines
  • Pneumonia vaccine for people over 65, given every 10 years, or for younger people with pulmonary problems (asthma, emphysema, etc.)
  • Shingles vaccine recommended after age 50
  • Annual flu shot for those likely to be exposed to flu, or who have chronic conditions such as asthma or diabetes

Blood Tests

  • Cholesterol profile, blood sugar, C-reactive protein, along with general blood chemistry profile and urinalysis, annually beginning at adulthood
  • Bone density – baseline for women (or men at increased risk for osteoporosis) beginning at age 40