October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

About one in eight American women, close to 12 percent, will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. In 2011, approximately 230,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in U.S. women, along with approximately 58,000 new cases of non-invasive breast cancer. Additionally, more than 2,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in men. Breast cancer results in close to 40,000 deaths in the United States alone, annually. While primary causes of breast cancer are genetic mutations that happen as a result of the aging process and life in general, there are a number of steps we can all take to help reduce the chance of contracting this dangerous disease.

Knowing your family history is important for understanding your risk for inheriting many genetically linked illnesses or potentially life-threatening diseases, but close to 85 percent of breast cancers occur in women who have no family history of breast cancer. It’s important to know your risk, to get screened appropriately, to know what’s normal for you and your body, and to make healthy lifestyle choices. You also should have a physical every year. If any unusual symptoms or changes in your breasts occur before your scheduled visit, do not hesitate to see your doctor immediately.

Here are 10 healthy lifestyle choices you can make that may reduce your risk of breast cancer:

1. Maintain a healthy weight. Gaining weight after menopause increases the risk of breast cancer. In general, weight gain of 20 pounds or more after the age of 18 may increase your risk of breast cancer. Likewise, if you have gained weight, losing weight may lower your risk of breast cancer.

2. Add exercise to your routine. Exercise pumps up the immune system and lowers estrogen levels. With as little as four hours of exercise per week, a woman can begin to lower her risk of breast cancer. Physical activity involves the energy that you release from your body. It not only burns energy (calories), but may also help lower the risk of breast cancer. This is because exercise lowers estrogen levels, fights obesity, lowers insulin levels and boosts the function of immune system cells that attack tumors.

If you have been inactive for a long time, are overweight, have a high risk of heart disease or some other chronic health problem, see your doctor before starting an exercise program. Do whatever physical activity you enjoy most and that gets you moving daily. All you need is moderate (where you break a sweat) activity like brisk walking for 30 minutes a day.

3. Maintain a healthy diet. A nutritious, low-fat diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables can help reduce the risk of developing breast cancer. A high-fat diet increases the risk because fat triggers estrogen production that can fuel tumor growth.

4. Limit alcohol intake. Research has showed that having one serving of alcohol (for example, a glass of wine) each day improves your health by reducing your risk of heart attack. But many studies have also shown that alcohol intake can increase the risk of breast cancer. In general, the more alcohol you drink, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer. If you drink alcohol, try to have less than one drink a day.

5. Women, limit postmenopausal hormones. For each year that combined estrogen plus progestin hormones are taken, the risk of breast cancer goes up. Once the drug is no longer taken, this risk returns to that of a woman who has never used hormones in about five to 10 years. Post-menopausal hormones also increase the risk of ovarian cancer and heart disease. Talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits.

6. Breastfeed, if you can. Breastfeeding protects against breast cancer, especially in pre-menopausal women. There are benefits of breastfeeding to the baby as well.

7. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. Although the link to breast cancer is not clear, you do your body a world of good by avoiding tobacco. If you do smoke, ask your doctor for help in quitting. Although there is no strong evidence that smoking causes breast cancer, smoking has been linked to many other types of cancer and diseases. There are health benefits from quitting at any age.

8. Focus on your emotional health. Researchers continue studying the relationship between our physical and emotional health, but there is conclusive evidence that people who are stronger, emotionally, are more resistant to illness and certain diseases. It is also important to keep a healthy attitude. Do things that make you happy and that bring balance to your life. Pay attention to yourself and your needs. Read books, walk in the park, have coffee with a friend. Find what works for you– many things can help you be healthier and feel better about yourself in spite of whatever is going on in your life.

9. Schedule regular mammograms.  Even though many women without a family history of breast cancer are at risk, if you have a grandmother, mother, sister, or daughter who has been diagnosed with breast cancer, this does put you in a higher risk group. Have a baseline mammogram at least five years before the age of breast cancer onset in any close relatives, or starting at age 35. See your physician at any sign of unusual symptoms.

10. Give yourself a breast self-exam at least once a month. Look for any changes in breast tissue, such as changes in size, a lump, dimpling or puckering of the breast, or a discharge from the nipple. If you discover a persistent lump in your breast or any changes in breast tissue, it is very important that you see a physician immediately. However, 8 out of 10 lumps are benign, or not cancerous.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Separating the chaff from the grain: Gluten-free diets

Have you noticed that when you walk into one of the large chain supermarkets, it seems there’s an aisle for almost everything: Seasonal items, international foods, pharmacy, pet food, organic sections and, now, gluten-free products?

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and daytime television, stomach sufferers have more to worry about these days than ever before. Between the mysteries of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and new advances in identifying and treating ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, salivary stones, lactose intolerance, Crohn’s Disease, and heart burn, our stomachs are in knots…understandably.

For many of us, it’s often just about eating too much; eating at the wrong times; or enjoying too much of the wrong thing. As the holidays approach, we’ll be facing tables laden with tempting pastries, cakes and cookies, pasta and breads of every sort. For people who have or suspect they may have issues related to grains, eating healthfully poses a problem. But what exactly is “grain sensitivity” such as gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease, and how can you determine if you have it?

Understanding Celiac Disease and glutens

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease in which a person can’t tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten shows up in bread and pasta, but may also hide in many other foods such as cold cuts, salad dressings, beer, and even candy and sweetened drinks.

If a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the lining of their small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged. That hampers the absorption of nutrients and can lead to malnutrition and weight loss. Celiac patients also struggle with symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach upset, abdominal pain, and bloating.

Celiac Disease affects approximately one percent of Americans. It may take years to diagnose because people don’t seek medical help, and because doctors often mistake it for IBS or other stomach disorders. It’s often a waiting game, and a process of testing and running through a list of possible culprits. For long-term sufferers, years of poor calcium absorption, a related side effect, can lead to joint and tooth problems and, for women, delayed menstruation. Besides gastrointestinal symptoms, gluten-sensitive people often complain of fatigue and headaches, as well.

The “good news,” at least for people with gluten allergies or sensitivities, is that a strict, gluten-free diet can typically allow the intestines to restore themselves to health and alleviate your suffering. While only one percent of Americans have Celiac Disease, as many as 10 percent may be gluten sensitive, which often causes similar symptoms, but doesn’t appear to damage the patients’ intestines.

Celiac Disease is on the rise, with rates doubling about every 20 years in Western countries.  Ironically, researchers suspect that hygiene may play a role in that expansion. Due to far cleaner environments and hygiene, children today aren’t exposed to as many antigens in the environment while their immune systems are developing. This, it’s theorized, may result in our immune systems responding intolerantly toward glutens.

Though Celiac Disease can be diagnosed through a blood test and an intestinal biopsy, there’s no reliable test for gluten sensitivity. Diagnosis requires a historical perspective (it often runs in families) and discussion and tracking of symptoms. In fact, patients are typically asked to eat glutens so the body produces antibodies for the blood test to detect Celiac disease. If a person simply stops ingesting gluten, a Celiac disease diagnosis can be missed or delayed.

Hardly a “fad diet,” gluten-free eating is life-changing for many, but not if you don’t have gluten sensitivities or Celiac Disease. In these cases, going “gluten free” is not good for your health. Contrary to common belief, a gluten-free diet won’t aid weight loss, and can cause deficiencies in iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium, fiber, and other nutrients that we typically gain through bread, cereals and other grains that are fortified. Additionally, gluten-free products on store shelves are typically higher in carbohydrates, fat and sodium, and lower in fiber.

With proper direction, people can bake healthier breads at home, varieties that are higher in fiber and protein and made with gluten-free grains that have been certified to be uncontaminated and gluten-free, such as quinoa, amaranth, or millet. Either way, if you suspect you may be gluten sensitive, talk with your physician – there is hope, and  many tasty alternatives!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Viruses, bacteria, and antibiotics: What you need to know to stay well

Like the muted diesel roar of school buses, earlier sunsets, pumpkins on doorsteps and frost on the ground, colds, influenza, ear, throat and sinus infections are as reliable an indicator of the return to autumn as the spectacular palette of changing leaves. With kids in close proximity, poor hand-washing habits, and everyone sneezing around us, our natural immunities to bacterial and viral infections are taxed, leaving us more likely to contract a variety of seasonal illnesses. And with the aches and pains, runny noses, itchy throats and increased body temperature, we’re off to the doctor in search of an antibiotic or other magic pill to cure us.

Many of the illnesses that wreak havoc in the autumn and winter are caused by bacteria or viruses, and it’s important to know the difference. Bacteria are single-celled organisms usually found all over the inside and outside of our bodies, except in the blood and spinal fluid. Many bacteria are not harmful. In fact, some are actually beneficial. However, disease-causing bacteria trigger illnesses, such as strep throat and some ear infections. Viruses are even smaller than bacteria. A virus cannot survive outside the body’s cells. It causes illnesses by invading healthy cells and reproducing.

Antibiotics, the so-called wonder drugs, are our chosen line of offense against many types of infections, but they don’t work against all. For example, we should not treat viral infections such as colds, the flu, sore throats (unless caused by strep), most coughs, and some ear infections with antibiotics.

Antibiotics are drugs that fight infections caused by bacteria. After the first use of antibiotics in the 1940s, they transformed medical care and dramatically reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. The term “antibiotic” originally referred to a natural compound produced by a fungus or another microorganism that kills bacteria which cause disease in humans or animals. Although antibiotics have many beneficial effects, their use has contributed to the problem of antibiotic resistance.

Why we should be concerned about antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance is the ability of bacteria or other microbes to resist the effects of an antibiotic. Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria change in some ways that reduce or eliminate the effectiveness of drugs, chemicals, or other agents designed to cure or prevent infections. The bacteria survive and continue to multiply causing more harm. Almost every type of bacteria has become stronger and less responsive to antibiotic treatment. These antibiotic-resistant bacteria can quickly spread to family members, schoolmates, and co-workers, threatening the community with a new strain of infectious disease that is more difficult to cure and more expensive to treat.

An essential part of preventing the spread of infection in the community and at home is proper hygiene. This includes hand-washing and cleaning shared items and surfaces. Antibacterial-containing products, by the way, have not been proven to prevent the spread of infection better than products that do not contain antibacterial chemicals. More studies examining resistance issues related to these products are needed.

Smart use of antibiotics is the key to controlling the spread of resistance. If you or someone you care for is ill, talk with your physician about antibiotic resistance and whether or not antibiotics are likely to be beneficial for the illness. Here are some other useful tips to remember:

  • Do not take an antibiotic for a viral infection like colds, sore throats, the flu, and some ear infections.
  • Do not save some of your antibiotic for the next time you get sick. Discard any leftover medication once you have completed your prescribed course of treatment.
  • Take an antibiotic exactly as your healthcare provider tells you. Do not skip doses. Complete the prescribed course of treatment even if you are feeling better. If treatment stops too soon, some bacteria may survive and re-infect you.
  • Do not take antibiotics prescribed for someone else. The antibiotic may not be appropriate for your illness. Taking the wrong medicine may delay correct treatment and allow bacteria to multiply.
  • If your healthcare provider determines that you do not have a bacterial infection, ask about ways to help relieve your symptoms. Do not pressure your provider to prescribe an antibiotic.

By being responsible and knowing when to allow our bodies and nature to run their course, we’ll all be healthier for the long term!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Why bother investing in prevention?

Employers face a variety of costs related to their employees. If you’re already providing health benefits, giving your staff a safe work environment, and underwriting paid vacations and sick days, why do more? After all, people manage their lives outside of the workplace every day. So what’s an employers’ return on investing in prevention?

Every day, we take steps to prevent unwanted events from happening. We brush our teeth and take vitamins. We wear helmets when we ride our bikes, safety glasses on the job, or protective gear in contact sports. Even our lawnmowers and tools have safety devices to limit our chances of hurting ourselves. Of course, accidents still happen. People who brush their teeth can still get cavities. People who always wear their seat belts may still get hurt in a car crash. The best we can do is to reduce the odds these events will happen by improving the chances for a good outcome.

When talking about cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases, the same concept applies. Prevention mainly refers to lowering the risk of getting a disease rather than completely removing the risk. There always will be elements outside of our control, and there are many behaviors or realities we can’t prevent.

If you’re an employer, the health and wellness of your employees is and should remain of concern to you on a number of levels. The stronger, more vibrant and happier your workforce, the better their productivity and morale. Healthy employees take fewer sick days, are more “present” at their jobs, and provide better service to your customers. So, what can you do to help keep them healthy and well?

Making a difference

Humans, by and large, are pleasure driven, well-intentioned, convenience-dependent creatures. We eat what tastes good, drive when we can walk, sleep when we’re able, and create amazing tools and devices to make our lives faster, cheaper, and easier.

It’s hard to know who benefits from prevention. We know some behaviors can lower the risk of cancer, but we don’t know how great the benefit is for any one person. For example, non-smokers are much less likely to develop lung cancer compared to smokers. However, we do not know who prevents lung cancer by not smoking and who would have remained cancer-free even if they had smoked. Further, most smokers will never be diagnosed with lung cancer and some non-smokers will. So, taking steps to prevent cancer lowers risk, but it does not ensure a person never develops the disease.

Cancer, like many other chronic diseases, tends to be caused by a combination of factors. Some factors we may be able to control (like exercise and diet), some are out of our control (like age and genetics), and some are still unknown. Since many factors drive risk and we can change only a few of these, we cannot avoid some amount of risk.

But employers are leaders, and as such, we can lead our employees to better health by creating an environment and culture at work or outside of the office that educates, informs, accommodates, and rewards for healthier behaviors. We can provide easy online or onsite access to health assessments and screenings, underwrite gym memberships, support walking during breaks, sponsor bowling or softball teams, contribute toward charitable events like walkathons and 5K races, and much more. We can recognize and provide incentives, like time off, gift certificates and peer celebrations for our employees who set and achieve personal goals such as weight loss, smoking cessation and cholesterol reduction. And we can encourage our workers to get regular physical exams, mammograms, colonoscopies, and other preventative tests that help reduce long-term health risks.

Prevention is not an illusion. The disease process is very complex, so it’s hard to pin down how a certain set of risk factors will affect a person. But the good news is that many behaviors that comprise a healthier lifestyle are under our control. Making healthy choices offers rewards far beyond disease prevention, and leaders can set the bar higher for their employees and help them achieve those benefits.

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To enjoy the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!