But few patients tell their doctors the truth about their bad habits.
In fact, they go to great lengths to convince physicians they’ve been good. No weight loss? “It must be the water I’m retaining.” Smoking? “I threw the pack away.”
Some patients even empty their pill bottles before a doctor’sappointment to prove they’ve downed the lot.
No doubt about it: Bad habits are hard to break. One reason is a belief that a healthier lifestyle won’t make much difference.
You may be thinking, The damage is done. I may as well keep my bad habits and skip the agony of change.
But this is not true – you can reverse much of the damage caused by your poor choices and feel better in the process.
Healing from Harm
You’d be surprised how resilient the body is, with remarkable powers of recovery from stress and disease.
Drop bad habits now, and, as you’ll find out, you can head toward health.
So what kinds of damage can be at least partially reversed?
Smoking primarily affects the respiratorytract and the cardiovascular system. Puffing as few as four cigarettes a day can increase your risk of heart disease and of premature death.
On average, male smokers lose 13 years of their life, and women smokers, 14.
Fortunately, the body begins to restore itself the moment you quit smoking, no matter how many years you’ve indulged.
Not all the damage is reversible, but the immediate and long-term health effects are worth it.
For example, just 20 minutes after quitting, your heart rate and blood pressure drop.
Within 12 hours, the carbon monoxide level in your blood returns to normal.
After a few weeks, your circulation improves and your lung functionincreases. Coughing and shortness of breath decrease within a few months.
After one year, your risk of coronary heart disease is halved.
And you are stopping the premature aging and wrinkling of your skin that smoking causes.
Five years or more after quitting, your risk of stroke lowers.
Cancer risk plunges after 10 years – your lung cancer risk is now half that of a smoker. And the danger of other cigarette-related cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, bladder, cervix and pancreas also decreases.
Fifteen years after quitting, your chances of coronary artery disease are the same as that of a non-smoker.
The health effects of alcohol abuse are serious, especially for women. Their risk for alcohol-related organ damage is greater than men’s. Women develop liver disease more quickly, and are more likely to develophepatitis (inflammation of the liver) and to die from cirrhosis (scarring of the liver leading to liver failure).
Women also may be more vulnerable to alcohol-related brain damage, including reduced brain size and function. Heavy drinking in women increases the possibility of breast, head and neck cancers.
Although both genders have similar rates of alcohol-related heart and cardiovascular disease, it takes less alcohol to raise a woman’s risk.
Despite some well-publicized health benefits – a lowered danger of cardiovascular disease, for example – even moderate drinking (one drink per day for women, two for men) is a health gamble.
One drink on an empty stomach in a woman increases her chances of being killed in a single vehicle crash.
And, alcohol interacts with more than 100 medications, so ask your doctor or pharmacist whenever you start taking a new medicine.
Some researchers have also suggested that even a single drink a day canslightly increase the risk of breast cancer. Drinking during pregnancy may harm your unborn child.
Can the body recover from excessive drinking?
Research suggests it can.
The liver, one of the few organs that can compensate by growing new cells, has remarkable regenerative powers. A liver mildly inflamed by alcohol can recover fairly rapidly once the drinking stops. Even a scarred liver can halt the process of cirrhosis if alcohol abuse is stopped in time.
Recent research even suggests that brains too can recover from alcoholic damage.
A recent study found that after a month of sobriety, an alcoholic’s brain begins to repair itself, and brain volume, which tends to shrink from excess alcohol, is increased by a few percentage points. Patients’ ability to concentrate is also improved.
If you’re like most people, you probably gave little thought to the harmful effects of sun exposure when you were in your teens and 20s.
But now you know that healthy-looking tan was anything but, and those years of frying outside or visiting tanning salons during the winter months are taking a toll: Sun and tanning booth exposure are the major causes of skin cancer and premature aging.
Our skin cells work hard to recover from the injury caused by sun’s
ultraviolet rays (both UVB and UVA), but they are easily overwhelmed. The less pigment (melanin) you have in your skin, the greater the damage from light.
Over years, the damage is cumulative, resulting in duller, drier skin that is less resilient and more wrinkled, with uneven pigmentation and visible capillaries, or reddening due to a cluster of broken capillaries.
Cumulative sun-related skin damage does not reverse itself on its own, and you have to help your skin’s cells.
You can stop further damage by using a sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher and limiting sun exposure at midday, when the sun’s rays are most intense. Reversing aesthetic damage requires lasers and other cosmetic skin procedures.
Everyone is vulnerable to the dangers of unprotected sex with multiple partners, but women have particular challenges.
Exposure to the human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer, and you’ll easily miss its early symptoms unless you get routine PAP tests. Check with your doctor on how often you need one. HPV also has been linked to oral cancer and oral sex. Although the frequency of oral cancer is much lower than cervical cancer, it can be difficult to diagnose and be potentially fatal.
Other STDs that tend to cause symptoms in men may not be as obvious inwomen; in fact, they can go undetected until they have caused organ damage.
Initially, gonorrhea and chlamydia may cause only vague symptoms or none in women.
Untreated, the diseases may lead to infertility and chronic pelvic pain. And herpes infections that may be apparent in men may slip under the radar in women, potentially exposing other sexual partners to the disease.
If you’ve engaged in risky sexual behavior, get regular PAP tests that screen for a range of STDs, including HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and HPV – it’s essential for your health and that of your partner.
Testing for hepatitis B is also a good idea, because it, too, can be transmitted sexually. You also have an obligation to protect sexual partners by using barrier contraceptive methods, such as condoms.
The ill health effects of many STDs can be arrested or reversed if they are detected early. However, if unsuspected and untreated, these may cause serious organ damage and even death.
For all these conditions – from smoking to sex – a lot of bad road can berepaved if you’re willing to work hard at getting healthy.
Will You See Your 80th Birthday?
What is your life expectancy? Can you rely on good genetics to keep you thriving through the years, or do you need to do more to up your odds of living longer? Find out your chances of making it to age 80 in this life expectancy quiz.