Seeing clearly

There’s a lot we take for granted when it comes to our health, and much we can do to reduce the risk of illness, control aging-related issues and prevent or limit disease. Education, awareness and preventative steps typically are the best prescriptions for us and our families, yet we often fail to take precautionary measures that can prevent common and potentially dangerous health conditions from taking hold.

August is Eye Injury Protection Month, but taking good care of our eyes requires far more than simply wearing safety glasses at work and play. The first rule, naturally, is to wear approved eye protection. That can be safety glasses on a jobsite or while competing in sports, but also when mowing the lawn or using power equipment. There are so many ways to hit ourselves in the eye, or to be injured by thrown objects, splashed liquids, and even wind-blown contaminants or materials. So if you’re doing something that might result in an injury, take the safe and easy step to cover your eyes.

Being aware of the potential damage from ultraviolet light also is important. Sunglasses and clear eyeglasses with protective coatings filter out the sun’s damaging rays, so if you work or spend a lot of time outdoors, you need that extra protection.

Adults should visit with an optometrist or an ophthalmologist at least once every other year, and annually if you have bad eyesight or a family history of glaucoma, cataracts, or other congenital or age-related eye ailments. Many eye maladies develop as we get older, part of the natural aging process. Through a comprehensive eye exam, eye care professionals not only determine sight deficiencies and illnesses, but also find warning signs pointing to other dangers such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer.

Dry eye syndrome and glaucoma are two common ailments that effect people as we age. If the glands in our eyes stop making enough natural lubricants, we can buy over-the-counter remedies, but we should check for inflammation or infection. Sometimes dry eyes occur from living or working in windy, dry, or low-humidity environments, or in buildings with air-blown hot air. Doctors recommend “artificial tears,” which don’t have as many chemicals as the “get the red out” eye drops. Also, anti-inflammation medications and vitamins or foods like fish oil which are high in Omega-3 are often recommended.

Glaucoma is a group of illnesses that can lead to blindness if not treated. When fluid builds up inside the eye, pressure and tension can result in damage to the optic nerve, including blindness. Glaucoma has no early warning signs. However, symptoms can include blurriness or clouded vision, sensitivity to light, headaches, reduced peripheral or “side” vision, or “tunnel vision.” It’s more common in adults over 60, in African American adults over 40, or in adults with diabetes or a family history of glaucoma. It’s most often treated through medications and surgery.

Simple tips for keeping our eyes healthy

There are many things we can do to keep our eyes healthy and make sure we are seeing our best. Here are simple steps for maintaining healthy eyes well into our golden years:

  • Have a comprehensive dilated eye exam. You might think your vision is fine or that your eyes are healthy, but visiting an eye-care professional for a comprehensive dilated eye exam is the only way to really be sure. When it comes to common vision problems, some people don’t realize they could see better with glasses or contact lenses. In addition, many common eye diseases such as glaucoma, diabetic eye disease and age-related macular degeneration often have no warning signs. A dilated eye exam is the only way to detect these diseases in their early stages.
  • Know your family’s eye health history. Talk to family members about their eye health history. It’s important to know if anyone has been diagnosed with a disease or condition, since many are hereditary. This will help to determine if we are at higher risk for developing an eye disease or condition.
  • Eat right to protect your sight. We’ve heard carrots are good for our eyes. But eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, particularly dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, or collard greens is important for keeping our eyes healthy. Research has also shown there are eye health benefits from eating fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases our risk of developing systemic conditions such as diabetic eye disease or glaucoma which can lead to vision loss. If you are having trouble maintaining a healthy weight, talk to your doctor.
  • Wear protective eyewear. Wear protective eyewear when playing sports or doing activities around the home. Protective eyewear includes safety glasses and goggles, safety shields, and eye guards specially designed to provide the correct protection for a certain activity. Most protective eyewear lenses are made of polycarbonate, which is 10 times stronger than other plastics. Many eye care providers sell protective eyewear, as do some sporting goods stores.
  • Quit smoking or never start. Smoking is as bad for our eyes as it is for the rest of our body. Research has linked smoking to an increased risk of developing age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, and optic nerve damage, all of which can lead to blindness.
  • Wear shades. Sunglasses are a great fashion accessory, but their most important job is to protect our eyes from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. When purchasing sunglasses, look for ones that block out 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B radiation.
  • Give our eyes a rest. If we spend a lot of time at the computer or focusing on any one thing, we sometimes forget to blink and our eyes can get fatigued. Try the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look away about 20 feet in front of you for 20 seconds. This can help reduce eyestrain.
  • Clean our hands and contact lenses properly. To avoid the risk of infection, always wash hands thoroughly before putting in or taking out contact lenses. Make sure to disinfect contact lenses as instructed and replace them as appropriate.

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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!

Immunizations are nothing to sneeze at

It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of complacency regarding infectious diseases. Seasonal maladies such as Influenza receive a lot of publicity, and millions of Americans now get themselves and their children vaccinated annually. But diseases we thought were eradicated or totally controlled are reemerging, and pose significant and often unnecessary risks.

It’s true that vaccine-preventable disease levels in the United States are at or near record lows. But even though most infants and toddlers have received all recommended vaccines by age two, many under-immunized children remain, leaving the potential for outbreaks of disease. Many adolescents and adults are under-immunized as well, missing opportunities to protect themselves against diseases such as Hepatitis B, influenza, and pneumococcal disease.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) works closely with public health agencies and private partners to improve and sustain immunization coverage and to monitor the safety of vaccines. And while the “big picture” is generally positive, there are emerging gaps, primarily the result of misinformation, a lack of compliance and ignorance about the importance of ensuring that you and your children are properly immunized.

Children can’t attend public school, go to camp, compete in many sports or travel outside of the country without a proven medical history of required immunizations. But as adults, we may not have received all the necessary immunizations, some of them may no longer be working effectively, and others, such as the vaccination for tetanus, have to be repeated periodically.

But we humans are procrastinators, and either disregard our physician’s warnings, don’t have a regular physician, or figure we’re already protected.  A perfect example of where this thinking goes awry involves Whooping Cough — known medically as pertussis, which has recently reappeared in Connecticut and in other states.

Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection caused by bacteria spread through direct contact with respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The reason for its reemergence, experts believe, is because our bodies may have stopped producing antibodies in response to the vaccinations we received as children, or because some parents are not protecting their children through recommended vaccinations. Although it initially resembles an ordinary cold, whooping cough may eventually turn more serious, particularly in infants. The best way to prevent it is through vaccinations. The childhood vaccine is called DTap. The whooping cough booster vaccine for adolescents and adults is called Tdap. Both protect against whooping cough, tetanus, and diphtheria.

Diphtheria, also prevented through the Tdap booster, is a very contagious bacterial disease that affects the respiratory system, including the lungs. As with pertussis and another common contagious disease, tuberculosis, diphtheria bacteria can be passed from person to person by direct contact with droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. When people are infected, the diphtheria bacteria produce a toxin in the body that can cause weakness, sore throat, low-grade fever, and swollen glands in the neck. Effects from this toxin can also lead to swelling of the heart muscle and, in some cases, heart failure. In severe cases, the illness can cause coma, paralysis, and even death.

The third leg of that triad involves tetanus (lockjaw), which also can be prevented by the Tdap vaccine. Tetanus is caused by bacteria found in soil. The bacteria enter the body through a wound, such as a deep cut. When people are infected, the bacteria produce a toxin in the body that causes serious, painful spasms and stiffness of all muscles in the body. This can lead to “locking” of the jaw so a person cannot open his or her mouth, swallow, or breathe. Complete recovery from tetanus can take months. Three of 10 people who get tetanus die from the disease.

Take simple steps to protect yourself and others

A good rule of thumb is that if you can’t remember if or when you had it, talk to your doctor. Additionally, if you plan to travel outside of the United States or Canada, it’s wise to speak with your physician or an infectious disease specialist about immunizations to consider, such as protection against Hepatitis A, before traveling. In many foreign countries, especially third-world nations, diseases can still be contracted through impure water systems, through food that hasn’t been properly prepared, and by air-borne particles.

But even if you aren’t traveling abroad, it’s important to know your medical history and to obtain a copy of your personal immunization record. That’s especially valuable if you can’t remember if you ever had common diseases such as mumps, chicken pox, rubella and measles, all of which still afflict thousands of Americans. In many cases, vaccinations to prevent these diseases may not have existed when you were a child, but they do now.

If your personal record doesn’t exist or has been lost, your physician can order a simple blood test that checks for the antibodies currently active in your system. He or she can then offer you the missing vaccinations, bringing you up-to-date as required. Typically, you’ll only have to do this once, unlike the vaccination for preventing influenza, which has to be received annually since strains of “flu” mutate or change from year to year.

Protecting ourselves and our loved ones is our most important job. Today’s medical advances and access make that far easier, but only if we each take personal responsibility to ensure that our immunizations are up-to-date. For more information, call toll free 1-800-CDC-INFO (1-800-232-4636) or visithttp://www.cdc.gov/vaccines.

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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!

Pick your ears and berries, squash and tomatoes

When it comes to fresh vegetables and fruit, there’s little thrill in hunting down perfect squash, eggplant, blueberries, cucumbers and native tomatoes in our local grocery store aisle. Sure, it’s easier and convenient, but visiting local farms, picking your own and frequenting farmer’s markets and roadside stands connects us with our food far more intimately than does opening a can or reaching into the freezer and popping frozen peas or corn into the microwave.

Don’t misunderstand: Frozen veggies and fruit are good, too, and often very healthy. But there is nothing quite like fruits and vegetables plucked fresh from the bush or vine, or recently pulled out of the ground or off the stalk. Connecticut is abundant in fresh produce – especially in the summer – and seeking out this unprocessed bounty rich in nutrients and often lower in pesticides or genetic mutations is healthy nutritionally and emotionally.

Connecticut features vegetable and dairy farms and fruit orchards throughout the state. The growing season is long and the climate is perfect for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Beans, squash, broccoli and cabbages start to come in around May and are available through October. Strawberries ripen in June, and in July the farms explode with produce, especially raspberries, blueberries, peaches and sweet corn. In August, the pepper and tomato crops are ready, and as summer comes to a close in September, pumpkins and seasonal squash are ready in plenty of time to welcome the autumn.

Fruits and vegetables ripen at different times over the course of the summer. Farms and farmers’ markets are not grocery stores, so not everything is available every week. Even when a crop is in season, there can be shortages due to weather and growing conditions or just high demand. Buying in large quantities is tempting, but unless you’re prepared to freeze or can the fresh fruits and vegetables, what is not immediately consumed will spoil, and spoil quickly. Proper preparation is a must, and if planning to store fresh fruits and vegetables you should do your research and stock up on the appropriate supplies (jars, lids, pectin, freezer bags, etc.).

Beyond the psychological value of searching out and eating locally grown food, there are practical and healthy reasons to celebrate foods that are in season. That’s when you get the most flavor and nutritional value. It’s also the time when it is the most affordable. Additionally, you’ll enjoy the greatest freshness when you look for foods that are both locally grown and are in season.

All of the world’s healthiest foods are seasonal. For ecologists, seasons are considered a source of natural diversity. Changes in growing conditions from spring to summer or fall to winter are considered essential for balancing the earth’s resources and its life forms. But today it’s so easy for us to forget about seasons when we eat. Modern food processing, high-tech storage and worldwide distribution networks make foods available year-round, and grocery stores shelves look much the same in December as they do in July. And with the growth of supermarkets and an ever-widening smorgasbord of imported food, the link between what we eat and when it’s in season has almost disappeared.

Consequently, nutritionists and environmentalists are increasingly concerned that what we gain in choice and convenience we lose in health benefits, leading to a call for a movement back towards seasonal eating. Food that’s in season not only tastes better, but may contain ingredients that suit the body’s needs for that time of year, such as summer fruits with their high fluid content.

Buying locally sustains our State’s farmers, supports the economy and helps remind us about the importance of understanding food sources and nutritional value. Besides, a trip to the farm or a produce stand is fun, and many children have never enjoyed the experience of picking their own berries or vegetables right off the plants, bushes or trees. It’s eye-opening, healthy and a good catalyst for discussing nutrition with the entire family.

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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!

Take your best shot at keeping employees healthy

There are a variety of ways employers can help their staff improve overall health and wellness, and at the same time enhance productivity, reduce time lost to illness, and build workplace morale. One easy solution is to consider an educational campaign aimed at verifying and promoting immunizations, to host an immunization clinic at the worksite, or to work with a local medical clinic to make it easy for employees to ensure they are properly immunized.

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. We’ve written two articles this month (read “Immunizations are nothing to sneeze at” here) on the topic to help provide more complete information on the importance of immunizations.

There’s a common misconception that vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States today have been virtually eliminated. In some cases, people use that erroneous belief to put off having themselves or their family members vaccinated, or they fall prey to misinformation about negative side effects.

It’s true that vaccination has enabled us to reduce most vaccine-preventable diseases to very low levels in the United States. However, some of them are still quite prevalent — even epidemic — in other parts of the world. Travelers can unknowingly bring these diseases into the United States, and if we were not protected by vaccinations these diseases could quickly spread throughout the population, causing epidemics here. At the same time, the relatively few cases we currently have in our country could very quickly become tens or hundreds of thousands of cases without the protection we get from vaccines.

We should still be vaccinated, then, for two reasons. The first is to protect ourselves. Even if we think our chances of getting any of these diseases are small, the diseases still exist and can still infect anyone who is not protected. Travelers are especially vulnerable. In 2005 and 2006, outbreaks of measles and mumps occurred in several U.S. states. The measles outbreak began in a group of travelers who had not been vaccinated upon their return from a trip to Romania where they had been exposed to measles.

The second reason to get vaccinated is to protect those around us. A small number of people cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons such as a severe allergy to vaccine components and a small percentage simply do not respond to vaccines. These persons are susceptible to disease, and their only hope of protection is that people around them have been successfully vaccinated and cannot pass disease along to them.

Soon it’ll be flu season again. Influenza sickens hundreds of thousands of Americans annually, and kills thousands. Flu vaccine is easily obtainable and a smart preventative health measure you and your employees can take to keep them from getting sick. Talk to your staff about the importance of updating their immunization history (a simple blood test can determine existing antibodies), and lead by example – the team that gets their shots together stays well together!

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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!