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Preventive health care is the new macho

Preventive health care is the new macho

Earlier this month, I shared a distinctly male -- and mistaken -- viewpoint about heart attacks being a great way to die. This week I’d like to debunk another statement I often hear from male patients. It goes something like this: “I’m tough. I feel fine.  Why do I even need to go to a doctor?”

This sentiment is also misguided: Delaying health care is never a good idea. Prevention is by far the most effective, least expensive, and minimally stressful option … both in general, and specifically for heart health. Remember, 80% of heart disease need not exist. For the other 20%, you want to deal with heart problems when they’re small and manageable – not when they’re advanced and complicated. 

Let’s start with a non-heart health concern as an example: If you gave up brushing and flossing your teeth, the result would most likely be cavities and gum disease. We all know that those can be inconvenient, painful - and somewhat costly to eradicate.  But nothing compared to dental implants or dentures!

Taking care of your heart means you can avoid much more catastrophic consequences than cavities. Just think of eating well and exercising as the equivalent of brushing and flossing … only now, you’re avoiding the path that can lead to things that can completely mess up your life, such as a heart attack or stroke.

Eating right and exercising are foundational.  But some of us remain at increased risk even after lifestyle factors are addressed.  Unfortunately, it’s easier to notice a cavity than an out-of-control lab test.  And when you’re not on top of preventive heart health care, things can be missed. You can’t feel your cholesterol rising, for example.  And high blood pressure is notoriously silent, even when readings are imminently dangerous.  What you don’t know could literally kill you.

Skipping an annual physical because you “think you’re fine” or because it’s inconvenient can have other, more subtle, consequences.  For example, I counsel my patients on diet and nutrition at nearly every visit. When patients skip appointments, they don’t get that. And a doctor’s office is the best place to evaluate health trends and interpret your cholesterol and blood pressure readings in context.  Sometimes the clues are not in the numbers themselves, but in what’s happened to them over time.

And I haven’t even mentioned screenings for other health issues:  Testing is critically important in the early detection -- and successful treatment -- of various types of cancer.  As a case in point, colon cancer – the third most common form of cancer diagnosed in the US - is almost entirely preventable with a personalized screening protocol (based upon family history and prior findings on a colonoscopy).

So, rather than just counting on the fact that you are “tough,” a much manlier approach would be to take control of as much as you can... starting today. Fortunately, on the lifestyle end, the exact same healthy habits that affect heart health can prevent a multitude of health issues. And it doesn't have to be overwhelming.  Begin by adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet.  Even one extra serving of fruits or vegetables per day is associated with a 4% decrease in risk of heart disease and 6% decrease in the risk of stroke!  Then incorporate a bit more physical activity into your day.  To make up for 8 hours of sitting aim for getting 1 hour of aerobic exercise each day.  This does not need to be super strenuous – walking, biking, swimming, dancing all count.  And if an hour seems totally out of reach because you're completely inactive now, start with a minute.  And add a minute each day.  In 2 months, you'll be at your 1 hour goal.  And for heaven’s sake, if you smoke, quit.

Then man up, brush your teeth and schedule your physical.

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