Live long with these tips. Image by: Calaimage/ Paul Bradbury
Bad health habits are literally taking years off your life, according to a new Canadian study. But we have strategies for curbing the worst offenders.
We have bad news and good news. First, the bad: whether it’s being a couch potato, smoking, letting one glass of Chardonnay turn into the whole bottle, or indulging in a giant bowl of chips and dip, our most beloved vices are killing us. Or rather, they’re drastically reducing our life expectancy, says a new study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Medicine. It found that smoking, eating junk food, vegging out and drinking can actually slash almost six years off the life expectancy of both men and women.
The study, authored by Dr. Doug Manuel, a senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor at the University of Ottawa, focused on the worst habits, which contributed to nearly half of all deaths reported in Canada. Using a predictive algorithm Manuel and his team created, population health surveys at the individual level were examined to learn just how dangerous these vices can be. The findings were dramatic—“smoking, by itself, was associated with 32% to 39% of the difference in life expectancy across social groups,” the study says.
But that’s where the good news comes in: though their impact can’t be understated, you can combat unhealthy habits—or at least tame them. Here are the 4 guilty pleasures that are worst for your health, and what you can do to curb them.
While only about 20 per cent of Canada’s total population smokes, it is still the reigning health hazard for Canadians. When lighting up again, remember that the overall loss of life expectancy is an estimated 2.8 years. Coming up with a smoking cessation plan can help you butt out.
2. Eating Junk Food
A poor diet can shave off 1.2 years of your life, so we think it’s safe to say that giving into your sweet tooth at every craving is not a good call. To head off that 3pm junk food craving, don’t skip meals, and keep healthier snack options on-hand.
3. Physical Inactivity
With all the hours you put in at the office, it can be hard to find the opportunity and motivation to head to the gym. But yoga, Pilates, running or even going on 15-minute walks will add an extra 2.6 years onto your life. The solution? Changing your perspective.
4. Consuming Alcohol
Drinking has the least impact of these four vices—drinking contributed to a two-week decrease in life expectancy, but we know heavy drinking impacts your health in other ways. That’s why it’s important to drink with restraint.
Heart disease and stroke are one of the leading causes of death for Canadian women—and risk factors, symptoms and even treatment might vary by age. Here's what you need to know.
It was Dec. 13, 2014. I was getting ready to go out for dinner when suddenly everything went wrong. I lost coordination, almost like I was drunk. I went numb, as if the local anesthetic that dentists use had been applied to half of my body. My arm went limp, I could barely walk and, out of the blue, I got a raging migraine. At 31 years old, I was in the midst of a transient ischemic attack, often called a ministroke, but I had no idea.
It wasn't until the next day, when I was feeling only slightly better, that I realized something was really wrong. I didn't want to wait for an appointment with my family doctor, so I called Telehealth Ontario, the provincial service that connects callers to a registered nurse via telephone. In the very back of my mind, I wondered if I'd had a stroke—but I was too young, or so I thought. But when I described my symptoms, it became clear that I wasn't too young. In fact, the nurse who took my call was worried enough to send paramedics to my house. Soon, I was in the back of an ambulance, rushing through Toronto's busy streets on the way to the hospital.
Luckily, my stroke was mild, and, in July 2015, I underwent surgery to have a patent foramen ovale closure device inserted to close the hole in my heart. But, to this day, I'm still shocked at how little I knew about the risks associated with stroke and heart disease, or just how common they are. As I soon learned, about 1.6 million Canadians—557,000 of them women over the age of 24—report having cardiovascular disease. And, according to a study looking at factors and behaviours affecting cardiovascular health published in 2013 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, fewer than one in 10 adult Canadians were in ideal cardiovascular health from 2003 to 2011, which means 90 percent of us are making choices that are increasing our risk for a cardiovascular event. In fact, heart disease and stroke is one of the leading causes of death for Canadian women, and most of us have at least one risk factor.
It's a club that I didn't particularly want to be a part of, but having joined, I began wondering what other women's experiences had been like.
Unlike me, when Victoria resident Carolyn Thomas started having a range of symptoms— crushing chest pain, nausea, weakness, sweating and a persistent ache down her left arm—on her 58th birthday, she immediately thought it could be a heart attack and went straight to the ER. But when she got there and told the doctor on duty about her symptoms, he said it was just acid reflux. "I remember exactly what he said," she recalls. " 'You're in the right demographic for acid reflux. Go home and call your family doctor for a prescription for antacids.' " Embarrassed and apologetic, she did just that. But her symptoms persisted for two more weeks. She eventually went back to the hospital, and this time, she was told she was suffering from what was actually one of the most serious types of heart attacks—a complete blockage of her left anterior descending artery, which is often referred to as the widow-maker.
Since then, she has recovered, but it's far from full—she had to retire early and continues to see a specialist at her regional pain clinic.
Irmine MacKenzie also went to the hospital immediately. It's been 35 years since the New Waterford, N.S., resident lost the use of her left arm and leg after suffering a stroke caused by carotid artery stenosis, narrowing of the arteries that carry blood from the heart to the brain. She was 61 years old and, having just finished eating breakfast with her husband, John, she headed to the kitchen to tackle the dishes. Suddenly, plates started dropping from her hands, shattering as they hit the floor.
After a six-week hospital stay and a three-month stint in a rehabilitation program in Halifax, she eventually learned to walk again. Her ability to manage quite well over the past three decades is clearly a testament to her grit— and maybe some kind words from a stranger. "I won't ever forget the ambulance driver who took me to the rehabilitation centre," she says. "He told me, 'We're taking you by stretcher now, but you'll be walking out of there with a cane.' " Sure enough, that's exactly what she did.
A better understanding
It has now been two years since I suffered my transient ischemic attack, and I feel like I'm still learning about heart health. I now understand the importance of cardiac rehabilitation, for one thing. When I had my stroke, I didn't know this kind of program existed—my cardiologist didn't refer me to one, but having access to dedicated professionals in a safe, encouraging environment could have helped me navigate the health-care system and guided me toward healthier choices.
One thing I found myself, Carolyn and Irmine echoing is how, as women, we must advocate for ourselves in the health-care system, ensuring that our voices are heard and our health is looked after. We need to put ourselves first, without shame or guilt. As Dr. Paula Harvey, director of the cardiovascular research program at Women's College Hospital in Toronto, says, "It comes back to education and partnership with your health provider. Don't be afraid to ask questions and be informed."
Heart health by the decade
Nearly two-thirds of all heart attacks and strokes occur in Canadians 65 or older, but younger Canadians are increasingly at risk. Here's what you need to know at every age.
In your 20s and 30s: Young people with heart-health issues are part of a growing minority. A study published in 2012 out of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that, over a period of 12 years, strokes among people aged 20 to 54 made up an increasingly greater proportion of strokes across all age groups, growing from about 13 percent in 1993–94 to 19 percent in 2005.
Closer to home, the Heart and Stroke Foundation says several studies predict that the rate of strokes among younger adults will double in the next 15 years. The main reason? According to Dr. Tara Sedlak, a cardiologist at Vancouver General Hospital and clinical assistant professor at The University of British Columbia, it comes down to lifestyle—high stress levels, poor eating habits, lack of exercise and smoking. Research bears this out: The University of Cincinnati study suggested that a rise in lifestyle-related risk factors (such as diabetes, obesity and high cholesterol) may contribute to a higher incidence of stroke.
But there is a way to turn the tide: As with other age groups, simple changes such as exercising regularly, quitting smoking and eating healthily could see the rates of cardiovascular disease—and, more specifically, stroke—decrease, says Dr. Paula Harvey, director of the cardiovascular research program at Women's College Hospital in Toronto.
In your 40s and 50s: Cardiovascular disease is less common among younger women, in part because of their higher estrogen levels; the hormone offers some protection to the arteries. But as women approach menopause and their estrogen levels drop, the incidence of stroke and heart attack increases.
Unfortunately, broad knowledge of their increased risk may not protect perimenopausal women from misdiagnosis. According to research by the Canadian Medical Protective Association, which provides advice, legal assistance and risk-management education to 95,000 Canadian physicians, doctors are missing the signs of stroke in patients nearly 10 percent of the time, largely because symptoms are often nonspecific—patients often complained of headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting.
And women, who have historically been less inclined to advocate for themselves, are particularly at risk. Research out of the University of Leeds in England showed that, between April 2004 and March 2013, 198,534 heart attack patients at National Health Service hospitals in England and Wales were initially misdiagnosed—and most of them were women. During that time, women suffering a heart attack were 50 percent more likely to be misdiagnosed compared to men.
It might be difficult to challenge doctors who tell you nothing's wrong, but Dr. Sedlak encourages women to listen to their bodies and to be firm with health-care providers about what they're experiencing. "If you feel there is a real problem, be persistent," she says.
In your 60s and beyond: Women over 65 have the most strokes of all age groups, but they still have fewer strokes than men the same age. However, a Danish study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2015 found that, after 60, women tend to have more serious strokes than men—and they're more likely to survive, which can have serious repercussions on quality of life.
John Sawdon, the public education and special projects director of the Cardiac Health Foundation of Canada, explains that cardiac rehabilitation programs, which are free with a referral from your doctor, are the perfect next step for recovering cardiac patients of all ages, but they're particularly important for older Canadians, who tend to live more sedentary lives. These programs are supervised by a cardiologist and, after an assessment, are tailored by your cardiac rehab team, which usually includes nurses, physical therapists, kinesiologists and social workers. They can provide exercise training, education on heart-healthy living and stress counselling—all of which can contribute to the health and well-being of people who have heart problems. And they're effective, too: "Research has shown that those completing cardiac rehab live seven years longer than control groups," says Sawdon. It also "reduces incidence of another heart attack by 50 percent."
What's your risk?
Ninety percent of adult Canadians have at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease. But while factors such as obesity, hypertension, alcohol abuse, family history and ethnicity increase everyone's risk, regardless of gender, the following three are particularly relevant to women.
Smoking: While we all know that smoking is seriously unhealthy, it can be especially damaging to women's cardiovascular health. Smoking when taking the oral contraceptive pill can drastically increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. But quitting can cut your risk within a year.
Diabetes: According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, people with diabetes are at a very high risk of developing cardiovascular disease. In fact, "they may develop heart disease 10 to 15 years earlier than individuals without diabetes."
Mental illness and stress: "Women have a higher frequency of stress-induced heart disease, and women's hearts are affected by stress and depression more than men's," says Dr. David Fitchett, a cardiologist at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto and associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.
Heart health dictionary
Atherosclerosis: When arteries narrow and harden due to plaque buildup.
Cardiomyopathhy: Diseases of the heart muscle, which cause it to become enlarged, thick or rigid.
Cardiovascular disease: A broad term for problems with the heart and blood vessels, often due to atherosclerosis. These conditions can lead to heart attack, angina or stroke.
Heart attack: Also known as a myocardial infarction, these attacks happen when the flow of blood to a section of the heart is blocked, preventing the muscle from getting oxygen.
High blood pressure: Also called hypertension, this is when the long-term force of blood against artery walls is elevated, requiring the heart to work harder, which may eventually lead to heart disease.
Microvascular angina: A disease of the small coronary artery blood vessels. Many angiograms do not view the small blood vessels, so this can be difficult to diagnose.
Spontaneous coronary artery dissection: A tear in the coronary artery wall. Physical or emotional stress appears to play a role. Most cases (around 70 percent) occur in women under 50—and a third of those are pregnant or postpartum women.
Stroke: When the blood supply to a portion of the brain is interrupted. This can happen when a blood vessel carrying oxygen and nutrients to the brain either bursts or is blocked.
Beverages account for a huge source of our sugar intake. Image by: Getty Images
Sugary drinks contain a lot of empty calories and have been linked to numerous health issues. Learn how to kick these drinks to the curb with five healthy alternatives.Trading in your sugary chai latte for a chai tea made with steamed milk may seem like the end of the world. But, changing your diet can be easier – and yummier - than you think.
Have you been putting yourself last lately? Here are 19 super-easy things you can do to beat stress, reduce anxiety and boost your mood.
If you're trying to live your healthiest life, eating clean, working out and making sure you take preventative measures against the illnesses women commonly face are all likely on your radar. But do you remember to do the small things, too? Those tiny, seemingly unimportant actions, like taking a real lunch break, grabbing coffee with a friend or planning a do-nothing day, can actually have a huge impact on your mental, and even physical, health. Keeping that in mind, self-care isn't selfish or shallow; it's a really important part of a healthy lifestyle. (This is especially true for women, who often put everyone else's needs before their own!) With that in mind, here are 19 inexpensive and easy things you can do to put yourself first.
1. Make your bath or shower that much better
Turn your nightly shower into an impromptu aromatherapy session by using an easy-to-make bath or shower bomb. A 2009 study in the International Journal of Neuroscience found "credible evidence that odours can affect mood, physiology and behaviour"—so try lavender, jasmine or ylang ylang for relaxation and peppermint, citrus or rosemary for an energy boost.
Yes, we're quoting a hashtag. But it actually is important to do something for yourself, for no other reason than you want to, even if it's just once in a while. So consider this permission to have that doughnut or splurge at the mall!
3. Stay hydrated
Don't forget your H2O! If you need some help in the hydration department, try adding citrus fruits, mint or cucumbers for a flavour boost. Also worth a try: finding a fun eco-friendly water bottle that you love. And there are also apps that will ping you when it's time to refill your glass. Try Plant Nanny or Waterlogged.
4. Be creative
There's a reason adult colouring books have become so trendy—art therapy has proven health benefits. A 2016 study in Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, the British Psychological Society's academic journal, found it helped people with mental health issues like depression or anxiety relax, express themselves and feel empowered, among other benefits.
5. Plan a spa day
Splurge on a professional massage, or, get the same effect at home by giving yourself a spa-quality DIY facial. Even taking a few minutes to paint your toenails can have a soothing effect.
6. Start an indulgent post-shower ritual
Use a luxurious lotion with a scent you love, toss your ratty PJs in favour of soft and cozy new threads—and consider splurging on the fancy face cream!
7. Go outside
There are serious wellness benefits to getting out of the house (or the office, for that matter). In fact, spending time in nature has been part of the Japanese government's preventative health strategy since the 80s. They call it shinrin-yoku, which translates to "forest bathing," and it means simply being in the presence of trees—not by hiking or camping, just by… being there. And there's science behind it: a 2010 study in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine found that spending time in nature leads to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, lower blood pressure and a lower pulse rate than spending time in urban settings.
8. Set screen time limits—for yourself
We love our smartphones, tablets and laptops, too… but binge-watching the hottest new show or scrolling through emails before bed can impact your sleep, and researchers are starting to look at the ways social media can impact your mental health. Turns out, there a real health benefits to going tech-free for at least part of the day.
9. Spend time reading
Whether it's a novel, non-fiction read or collection of poetry, practice some affordable escapism with a good book. (Need a recommendation? Check out our book club.)
10. Pet a dog
Or a cat! Researchers believe cuddling with a pet has real mental health benefits. Low serotonin levels have been linked to depression, and petting an animal prompts your body to release this hormone. And owning a pet has other health benefits, too, including decreasing your blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, warding off loneliness and encouraging you to exercise and socialize more, says the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
11. Or, cuddle up with a loved one
In fact, hugging another person—or even a pillow!—releases serotonin, too.
12. Listen to music
Put on your favourite song or album and let yourself jam out. Scientists say music can have mood-boosting effects—though one study did find it only works if you actively try to feel happier. Here's to dancing like nobody's watching!
13. De-clutter your social media accounts
It can feel rude to unfollow people on Facebook or Twitter, but if you're constantly cringing at friends' too-candid updates, or you disagree with their political or religious posts, or you don't actually like them IRL, it may be time to clean up your friends list. And it doesn't have to be a major statement—both Facebook and Twitter allow you to stop seeing someone's updates without actually severing your connection. (Just opt to unfollow on Facebook and mute on Twitter.)
14. Bake something
There's something meditative about the act of baking—you have to measure the ingredients precisely and combine them in just the right order, and at the end, you're rewarded with a positive result: a sweet treat!
15. Get organized
If you're feeling stressed out but you're not sure why, the culprit might be surprisingly close to home. Actually, it might be your home. Clutter isn't often discussed as a source of stress, but it can make us feel anxious, overwhelmed and embarrassed. Don't feel like you have to whip your entire house into shape at once, though. Start by tackling small corners of your space—say, your cluttered home office or overflowing front closet. You'll find peace in the order and cleanliness, we promise.
16. Write it out
Jotting down your thoughts and impressions about stressful, emotional or even traumatic experiences can actually help you overcome those events, according to a 2005 study published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment.
17. Try breathing exercises
Meditation, and it's recently popular cousin, mindfulness, has lots of well-documented health benefits—including reducing anxiety and depression, according to a 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine, and lowering blood pressure and increased quality of life in senior citizens, according to a study published the same year in Geriatrics & Gerontology. But if you (like us) find the idea of meditating a little intimidating, there's good news: simply breathing deeply can have a similarly positive impact, reducing your heart rate and blood pressure, relieving stress and even boosting productivity.
"Laughter is the best medicine" isn't just a pithy saying. It can instantly put you in a better mood. Find a funny movie, TV show or stand-up comedian and have the first, and last laugh.
19. Get enough sleep
Don't cheat yourself out of one of the most important things you can do for your health! Skimping on sleep can lead to an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. So make sure you're getting enough shut-eye—and don't feel bad about taking a quick cat nap if you're not.