Your Health Checkup: Is Death Before Age 80 Your Own Fault?

Everyone knows that things like diet and exercise can have a huge impact on your health and longevity. Here are a few other less obvious risks that might affect your well-being.

An older man doing squats on an exercise mat
Vasyl Nagernyak / Shutterstock<

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“Your Health Checkup” is our online column by Dr. Douglas Zipes, an internationally acclaimed cardiologist, professor, author, inventor, and authority on pacing and electrophysiology. Dr. Zipes is also a contributor to The Saturday Evening Post print magazine. Subscribe to receive thoughtful articles, new fiction, health and wellness advice, and gems from our archive. 

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Time and again we are confronted by facts that show how we can reduce our own health risks with appropriate behavioral changes. To quote once more the famous Boston cardiologist Paul Dudley White, “Death from a heart attack before the age of 80 is not God’s will, it is man’s will.”

The American Heart Association recently summarized behavioral activities that would reduce heart disease. Called “Life’s Simple 7, (LS7),” these actions include not smoking, exercising, and controlling diet, body mass index, blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose. While adherence to LS7 has lowered heart disease risk, it is only a critical foundation upon which to build additional health safeguards. Here are other issues to consider when thinking about your health.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Traumatic brain injuries (TBI) caused by a forceful bump, blow, or jolt to the head or body have increased in recent years, particularly while playing sports. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has estimated that 1.6 million to 3.8 million sports- and recreation-related TBIs occur annually in the U.S. Blunt trauma to the head causes the brain to move unrestrained within the skull, an event known as a “slosh.” To help reduce such movement and the associated brain trauma, the Food and Drug Administration has authorized marketing a new device worn around the neck of athletes aged 13 years and older during sports activities. Called the Q-Collar, the device is a C-shaped collar that applies compressive force to the internal jugular veins in the neck, which increases blood volume in the brain to help reduce the “slosh” movement within the skull during head impact.

In one prospective, longitudinal study of 284 football players 13 years or older, 139 athletes wore the Q-Collar, and 145 athletes did not. Significant brain changes were found by MRI in deeper tissues of the brain in 106 of the 145 (73 percent) participants in the no-collar group, while no significant changes in these regions were found in 107 of the 139 (77 percent) of the group who wore the Q Collar. No significant adverse events were associated with device use. The Q-Collar should not be considered as protection from all head impacts, including serious head injuries such as concussions. However, it does seem to offer some protection. Other protective sports equipment associated with specific sports activities, such as helmets and shoulder pads, should continue to be worn. As always, users should consult a health professional before application.

Recreational Substance Abuse

Another consideration for optimal health is limiting the use of “recreational substances.” Despite adherence to LS7 and substantial improvements in the prevention and treatment of atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases (ASCVD), recreational substance abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs remains one area where risk factors can be improved. Users of such substances experience higher rates of adverse cardiovascular events compared with non-users.

To determine the impact of recreational substances, investigators categorized a group of veterans into those having premature, extremely premature, or non-premature ASCVD. Premature ASCVD was defined as having a first ASCVD event at age 55 or younger for men and 65 or younger for women; extremely premature as having a first ASCVD event at age 40 or younger; and non-premature ASCVD as having a first ASCVD event at age 55 or older for men and 65 or older for women.

Patients with premature and extremely premature ASCVD had a higher use of tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, cannabis, and amphetamine (in decreasing order of frequency) compared with patients who had non-premature ASCVD. Patients with polysubstance use had a graded response with the highest risk (~nine-fold) of premature ASCVD among patients using four or more recreational substances. All subgroups of recreational substances were independently associated with a higher likelihood of premature and extremely premature ASCVD.

Remember, you have a lot of control over your own health outcomes, and there’s no time like the present to establish good habits. Pick a goal today so you can strive for a healthier you in the future.

Featured image: Vasyl Nagernyak / Shutterstock

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