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Ahead of the Game

Knowledge Is Power and Can Help Pave the Road to Prevention

September 08, 1997|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | TIMES MEDICAL WRITER

So you want to live forever? Or at least to a ripe old age?

The answer is simple: Be born female, stay out of cars and gangs, avoid sex and drugs, and try not to get depressed.

Do this and the odds are quite good that you'll live into your 70s or 80s.

Not practical?

There is still a variety of things--most of them related to lifestyle--that you can do to lengthen your life and to make your old age healthier. They're not all pleasant, most you already know--even if you don't practice them--and none come with guarantees. But applied judiciously, they can give you the greatest gift possible: good health.

Consider this a road map to a long and healthy future.

Birth to age 1

* Effective maintenance actually begins before birth. Good prenatal care is among the best assurances that a child will get off to a good start in life.

* Begin a comprehensive immunization program.

* Child-proof your home to prevent accidents. Put safety devices in electrical outlets and fasteners on cabinet doors. Store dangerous materials out of children's reach.

Ages 1 to 19

* Continue immunizations. By the time a child reaches school, he or she should have received all the recommended vaccines, including hepatitis B. Immunize against influenza each year.

* Always use approved car seats for infants and children and make sure they are installed properly. Auto accidents are the leading killer in this age group. Despite your instinct to have them next to you in the front, children and infants should be safely secured in the back seat. Air bags are a lifesaver for adults, but they can seriously harm, or even kill, small children.

* Teach your children good safety habits, such as looking both ways before crossing streets and not talking to strangers.

* Sadly, homicide by parents is among the leading causes of death of small children. Family counseling is readily available.

* Gang membership is the leading cause of homicide among teens. Find alternative activities for your children.

Ages 20 to 39

* Infectious disease and accidents are the leading causes of death in this age group, and the best protection is simply living safely.

* Wear seat belts. Auto accidents are one of the leading causes of death among young people and a contributor among older ones.

* Practice safe sex. AIDS is the leading cause of death among young men 29 to 44, and a growing cause of death among young women.

* Don't use intravenous drugs. After unsafe sex, this is the second leading cause of AIDS.

Many of the habits you practice at this age will affect your later life:

* Don't smoke. Smoking is the leading cause of both lung cancer and emphysema, as well as oral cancers, and is a major contributor to heart disease. It will also make you look older than you are.

* Drink in moderation. Alcohol abuse is the leading cause of liver disease, which also shows up as a leading cause of death later in life.

* Exercise regularly. It protects against heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis and diabetes, and helps to control obesity, which is also a risk factor for many disorders that could lead to death.

* Improve your diet. Eat fruit, vegetables and fiber. They will help prevent cancer, reduce the risk of diabetes, and help prevent heart disease. Keep the amount of fat in your diet below 30%.

* Wear sunglasses. Ultraviolet radiation is the leading cause of cataracts. It also causes skin cancer and wrinkling, so wear sunscreen with both UV-A and UV-B protection.

Testing: At this age, you need only a few tests. These include blood pressure tests every two years and an occasional cholesterol test--at least every five years--as well as a Pap smear and a clinical breast exam every three years for women. (If there is a family history of disease, testing for susceptibility may be warranted and you should pay close attention to potential symptoms.)

Ages 40 to 64

* Continue the good things you were doing in earlier decades, particularly regular exercise and consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Also:

* Take vitamin E, 400 milligrams a day. It is beneficial in preventing heart disease, helps stave off Alzheimer's disease and may help prevent cancer.

* Men and women should ensure that they are getting adequate calcium in their diets, at least 1,300 milligrams a day.

* Have your cholesterol and blood pressure checked regularly and, if either level is high, see your doctor and get it lowered. Both are major contributors to heart disease. Diet and exercise are the best ways to lower cholesterol, but drugs can be valuable as well. Medication will probably be necessary if your blood pressure is high.

* If you are older than 50, one-half to one aspirin a day will help reduce the risk of heart disease.

* Post-menopausal women with no history of ovarian or breast cancer should strongly consider hormone replacement therapy. It not only strengthens bones, but also reduces cholesterol and helps prevent heart disease and colon cancer. (See accompanying story.)

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