Taking good health to heart

How appropriate that during the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day — an annual tradition related to sweeter matters of the heart — that we also acknowledge heart disease, a nefarious killer that affects hundreds of thousands of Americans as silently as Cupid’s arrow.  Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and is a major cause of disability. February is American Heart Month, and it’s still early in the new year so there’s plenty of time in 2013 to adjust your lifestyle and make smarter choices that will prolong both the longevity and quality of your life.

The most common heart disease in the United States is coronary heart disease, which often appears as a heart attack. Each year, an estimated 785,000 Americans have a new coronary attack, and about 470,000 have a recurrent attack. About every 25 seconds, an American will have a coronary event, and although heart disease is sometimes thought of as a “man’s disease,” it is the leading cause of death for both women and men in the United States, with women accounting for nearly half of heart disease deaths.

There are many risk factors that contribute to heart disease, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, tobacco use, unhealthy diet, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, and secondhand smoke. While some of these problems are due to heredity, there’s much we can do to improve our odds of remaining heart healthy and to control problems that we may have inherited.

Stay fit and active

While there are elements of our health we can’t control, there’s much we can do, and remaining active is a huge step toward improved wellness. If winter hiking and outdoor sports and activities don’t thrill you, consider all the interesting ways to stay fit indoors. Beyond exercising in a gym, fitness center or at home, you can play tennis, racquetball, basketball, volleyball or other team sports, skate or pursue highly beneficial personal activities like swimming, spinning, yoga, martial arts and forms like Tai Chi. These strengthen mind and body, help you establish a healthy routine, and are great stress reducers, as well.

Many people in today’s electronic age also turn to gaming systems that offer interactive “aerobic,” exercise and sports programs. While clearly a step above normal couch potato activities, don’t be lulled into believing that tennis, boxing, golf or bowling on your Wii or X-Box is going to keep you fit. Sports and exercise programs on these systems may help improve your balance, coordination and agility, but we need more vigorous aerobic activities and to remain active for far greater portions of the day.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy these programs. Game maker Nintendo, for example, never claimed that its popular Wii Fit program will help people lose weight — or even become healthier. The company says it merely hoped to create a game that combines entertainment and the ability to track progress with a healthy activity. Anything that encourages us to be more physically active is positive. For those who are already engaging in physical activity, it’s not a substitute, but can be a nice complement to a regular exercise program.

Overall, a healthy diet and lifestyle are the best weapons we have to fight heart disease. It is the overall pattern of the choices we make that count. Eating smart, exercise, sleeping well, and stress and weight reduction all play important roles.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Catering to our aches and pains: What painkiller is best, and when?

Whether you have a headache, fever, backache, arthritis or other pains and discomfort, over-the-counter pain relievers are our most commonly self- and physician-prescribed medicines of choice in America. There are dozens of pain-relief products. Most contain aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen. These three drugs, as well as naproxen, relieve pain and reduce fever. Aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen also relieve inflammation. They belong to a class of drugs called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  Here’s a brief guide to which non-prescription, over-the-counter pain relievers to use, and cautions to observe when using them.

Choosing the most appropriate non-prescription pain reliever

Aspirin is widely used for relieving pain and reducing fever in adults. It also relieves minor itching and reduces swelling and inflammation. Aspirin comes as adult-strength (325 mg) or low-dose (81 mg). In addition to relieving pain and inflammation, aspirin is effective against many other ailments. For example, aspirin in low regular low doses may help prevent heart attacks and strokes in certain people. Because of the danger of side effects and the interactions aspirin may have with other medicines, do not try these uses of aspirin without a doctor’s supervision.

Although it seems familiar and safe, aspirin is a very powerful drug. Here are important precautions for aspirin use:

  • Keep all aspirin out of children’s reach. Aspirin increases the risk of Reye syndrome in children. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20 unless your doctor tells you to do so.
  • Aspirin can irritate the stomach lining, causing bleeding or ulcers. If aspirin upsets your stomach, try a coated brand, such as Ecotrin. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist to find out what may work best for you.
  • Because aspirin can increase the risk of bleeding, it is not recommended for new injuries. Take other medicines such as ibuprofen or naproxen for the first two or three days after an injury. If you take a blood thinner (anticoagulant), such as warfarin, or if you have gout, talk to your doctor before you take aspirin.
  • High doses may result in aspirin poisoning (salicylism). To help prevent taking a high dose, follow what the label says or what your doctor told you. Stop taking aspirin and call a doctor if you experience ringing in the ears, nausea, dizziness, or rapid deep breathing.

Ibuprofen (the active ingredient in products such as Advil and Motrin) and naproxen (in products such as Aleve) are other NSAIDs. Like aspirin, these drugs relieve pain and reduce fever and inflammation. Also like aspirin, they can cause nausea, stomach irritation, and heartburn.

Ibuprofen is used to relieve pain from various conditions such as headache, dental pain, menstrual cramps, muscle aches, or arthritis. It is also used to reduce fever and to relieve minor aches and pain due to the common cold or flu. Ibuprofen works by blocking your body’s production of certain natural substances that cause inflammation. This helps to decrease swelling, pain, or fever.

NSAID precautions

Do not use an NSAID for longer than 10 days without talking to your doctor, and talk to your doctor before taking NSAIDs if you have

  • Ulcers or a history of bleeding in your stomach, or stomach pain, upset stomach, or heartburn that lasts or comes back
  • Anemia, bleeding or easy bruising
  • A habit of drinking more than three alcoholic drinks a day — this increases your risk of stomach bleeding
  • High blood pressure, kidney, liver, or heart disease.

Also talk with your doctor before taking NSAIDs if you use blood thinners, such as warfarin, heparin or aspirin, if you take medicine to treat mental health problems, to decrease swelling (water pills), or if you take medicine for arthritis or diabetes.

Acetaminophen (the active ingredient in products such as Tylenol) is an analgesic that reduces fever and relieves pain. It does not have the anti-inflammatory effect of NSAIDS, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, but it also does not cause stomach upset and other side effects. Acetaminophen is typically used for mild to moderate pain. Do not take acetaminophen if you have kidney or liver disease, or drink alcohol heavily (three or more drinks a day for men and two or more drinks a day for women).

Finally, note that when you buy pain relievers, keep in mind that generic products are chemically equivalent to more expensive brand-name products, and they usually work equally well. And if you are pregnant, always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking a pain reliever.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Chocolate and wine for improved health? Sounds delicious!

It’s always a thrill when we learn that something we already love to eat and do actually is good for our health! While everyone doesn’t have a taste for chocolate, or may not be interested in drinking red wine, both of these universal favorites contain important sources of chemical elements that have been proven beneficial for our overall health and wellness. And with February being the month of Valentines, that’s particularly good news!

Research has shown that the intake of dark chocolate has demonstrated positive results in reducing blood clotting, improving the flow of blood to brain and heart and lowering of blood pressure. Cocoa, from which dark chocolate is prepared, is derived from cocoa beans. Cocoa beans contain a rich source of antioxidants also called flavonoids and polyphenols. The pungent taste of cocoa is attributed to these flavonoids. These help remove unhealthy free radicals — which can contribute to increased cholesterol — and increase the oxidation level in the blood cells.

Furthermore, a survey at Oxford University has proven that proportionate amounts of dark chocolate intake produces positive results in improving and maintaining cognitive abilities, thereby reducing the probability of getting Alzheimer’s disease.

Dark chocolate contains four times more antioxidants as that in tea, and dark chocolate, like red wine, contains phenols, which protect us against heart diseases. The phenols check fat-like substances in the blood from oxidizing and blocking arteries. Dark chocolate has the highest amount of antioxidants, whereas milk chocolates contain the least amount. The more cocoa present in your chocolate the better your chocolate becomes for your health.

Red wine, in moderation, has long been thought of as heart healthy. The alcohol and antioxidants found in red wine may help prevent heart disease by increasing levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL) and protecting against artery damage. Antioxidants such as flavonoids or a substance called resveratrol, a polyphenol (like those found in dark chocolate) that helps protect the lining of blood vessels in our heart, has heart-healthy benefits and can actually help boost HDL and prevent blood clots.

While the news about red wine might sound great if you enjoy a glass of red wine with your evening meal, doctors are wary of encouraging anyone to start drinking alcohol. That’s because too much alcohol can have many harmful effects on your body. Don’t exceed one drink a day for women; one to two drinks for men — and talk to your doctor first. Alcohol may cause problems for people taking aspirin and other medications, and too much alcohol actually hurts the heart.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Building your wellness roadmap takes time, planning, and commitment

As a small business leader, you are constantly analyzing your benefits programs, taking into account growing healthcare expenditures and the personal health and wellness of your employees. To address this, you may have already taken the first step by joining a wellness program such as CBIA Healthy Connections. The program was designed with this key tenet in mind: To reduce costs, employees need to become engaged in both their healthcare spending and in reducing their health risks.

But remember, while one obvious goal of any wellness program is to reduce costs, it is not the primary message. Wellness is about people and improving their quality of life. Successful programs place heavy emphasis on personal outcomes. Employees benefit from access to fitness facilities, and access to healthcare education and information on topics ranging from stress management and exercise to healthy cooking. Employees also benefit from smoking-cessation courses and materials, and through an understanding of their own personal responsibility in ensuring their health and wellness.

When you integrate wellness and intervention programs, you have the opportunity to educate employees about how the connections between their healthy behaviors and lifestyle choices relate to their premiums and other healthcare costs. And these efforts also are rewarded through improved teamwork, increased productivity, fewer sick days, and enhanced quality and service.

How to get started

It’s already February, and if you’re like most of us, January just flew by. Blink and it will be summer. So, if you’re thinking of implementing a more proactive health and wellness program in 2013, you have to dig in now by identifying initial action steps, setting goals, and implementing your program.

A critical first step is to take advantage of interactive, online health and wellness programs. You’re at an advantage here because as a member of CBIA Health Connections, your company can join CBIA Healthy Connections for free! This program was developed to enhance the health and productivity of employees and support a more complete system of care.

Pulling together members of your team to discuss and build a road map, or plan, is the next step. What do you want to achieve? What is reasonable, given time, costs, the business you’re in and your culture? Will you shoot for the “low-hanging fruit,” or try to implement a more comprehensive program?  Once you’ve had these discussions, and have determined what you can reasonably achieve, you have to establish a timetable and a communication plan for building consensus, promoting action steps, and rewarding successes.

The next step is encouraging your team to complete the free, in-depth health assessment offered through CBIA Healthy Connections. This online assessment yields revealing, yet actionable information for the individual, and can be used to help guide the employee to programs and actions that will address his or her health needs. There’s also a popular incentive:  Each employee who completes an assessment receives a $50 Amazon gift card, and your company is automatically entered into a raffle for a $500 gift card.

Quality educational courses and materials, accessible fitness activities and effective communication are all core components of a successful wellness program. Employers must make the connections between medical costs, health risks and personal responsibility. The more we understand that health risks, many of which are modifiable, drive health utilization and cost, the more effective we can be in helping our employees adjust their behaviors and attitudes toward wellness.

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If you’re not enjoying 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!