October is time to bone up on your bones!

Sure, it’s almost Halloween, and bones are everywhere…hanging from doorways, draped in trees, and propped in gardens. But October is also Bone and Joint Health Awareness Month, so unwrap a chocolate bar and pay attention to this important information — you’ll appreciate it as your own bones get older!

It’s important to take steps now so that your bones will be healthy and strong throughout your lifetime. If you’re still young or a parent, note that it’s especially critical in the childhood and teen years to avoid osteoporosis and other bone problems later in life. Osteoporosis is a condition in which bones become softer and fragile, making them fracture or break much easier.

Your body continually removes and replaces small amounts of calcium from your bones. If your body removes more calcium than it replaces, your bones will become weaker and have a greater chance of breaking. By getting lots of calcium when you’re young, you can make sure your body doesn’t have to take too much from your bones.

Calcium is a mineral that is necessary for life. In addition to building bones and keeping them healthy, calcium helps our blood clot, nerves send messages and muscles contract. About 99 percent of the calcium in our bodies is in our bones and teeth. Each day, we lose calcium through our skin, nails, hair, sweat, urine and feces. But our bodies cannot produce new calcium — that ability ends around age 18. You can only maintain what is already stored to help your bones stay healthy.

Calcium is found in a variety of foods. Milk and other dairy products are great sources of calcium. Tweens and teens can get most of their daily calcium from three cups of low-fat or fat-free milk, but they also need additional servings of calcium to get the 1,300 mg necessary for strong bones. In addition:

  • The calcium in milk and dairy products is easy for the body to absorb and in a form that gives the body easy access to the calcium
  • Milk has added vitamin D, which is important for helping your body better absorb calcium
  • In addition to calcium, milk and dairy products provide other essential nutrients that are important for optimal bone health and development.

Other good sources of calcium include dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and bok choy. There also are foods with calcium added, such as calcium-fortified tofu, orange juice, soy beverages, and breakfast cereals or breads. Adults or youth who can’t process lactose also can take calcium supplements but you should check with your physician to ensure compatibility with other medicines or conditions.

There are a variety of calcium supplements available over the counter and by prescription. The amount of calcium you need from a supplement depends on the amount of calcium you get from food. If you get enough calcium from the foods you eat, then you don’t need to take a supplement. In fact, there is no added benefit to taking more calcium than you need in supplements and doing so may even have some risks.  

When choosing the best supplement to meet your needs, keep the following in mind:

  • Choose brand-name supplements with proven reliability. Look for labels that state “purified” or have the USP (United States Pharmacopeia) symbol. The “USP Verified Mark” on the supplement label means that the USP has tested and found the calcium supplement to meet certain standards for purity and quality.
  • Read the product label carefully to determine the amount of elemental calcium, which is the actual amount of calcium in the supplement, as well as how many doses or pills to take. When reading the label, pay close attention to the “amount per serving” and “serving size.”
  • Calcium is absorbed best when taken in amounts of 500-600 mg or less. This is the case when you eat calcium-rich foods or take supplements. Try to get your calcium-rich foods and/or supplements in smaller amounts throughout the day, preferably with a meal. While it’s not recommended, taking your calcium all at once is better than not taking it at all.
  • Take most calcium supplements with food. Eating food produces stomach acid that helps your body absorb most calcium supplements. The one exception to the rule is calcium citrate, which can absorb well when taken with or without food.

Exercise also builds strong bones

Even if you’re older, there are a variety of steps you can take to ensure healthier bones and joints. Bones are living tissue. Weight-bearing physical activity causes new bone tissue to form, which makes bones stronger. When muscles push and tug against bones during physical activity, bones and muscles become stronger.

There are two types of exercises that are important for building and maintaining bone density:  Weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercises. Weight-bearing exercises include activities that make you move against gravity while staying upright. These can be high-impact or low-impact. High-impact weight-bearing exercises help build bones and keep them strong. If you have broken a bone due to osteoporosis or are at risk of breaking a bone, you may need to avoid high-impact exercises. If you’re not sure, you should check with your healthcare provider.

Examples of high-impact weight-bearing exercises include dancing, aerobics, hiking, jogging or running, jumping rope, stair climbing and racquet sports such as tennis. Low-impact weight-bearing exercises can also help keep bones strong and are a safe alternative if you cannot do high-impact exercises. Examples of low-impact weight-bearing exercises include using elliptical training machines, doing low-impact aerobics, using stair-step machines, and fast walking on a treadmill or outside.

Muscle-strengthening exercises include activities where you move your body, a weight or some other resistance against gravity. They are also known as resistance exercises and include:

  • Lifting weights
  • Using elastic exercise bands
  • Using weight machines
  • Lifting your own body weight
  • Functional movements, such as standing and rising up on your toes.

Yoga and Pilates can also improve strength, balance and flexibility. However, certain positions may not be safe for people with osteoporosis or those at increased risk of broken bones. For example, exercises that have you bend forward may increase the chance of breaking a bone in the spine. A physical therapist or your physician should be able to help you learn which exercises are safe and appropriate for you.

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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!

Keeping your skin in the game

If we’re lucky enough to have healthy skin, many of us may visit a dermatologist only when we’re teenagers struggling with acne. In our 20s, 30s, and 40s we probably don’t think about our skin, even though we’re likely damaging it every day through sun exposure, stress, facial movements, obesity, and even how we sleep. As we get older we have to deal with wrinkles, spots, loss of subcutaneous support (the fatty tissue between skin and muscle), moles, skin tags and, more dangerously, a variety of skin cancers.

How our skin ages depends on a variety of factors: Lifestyle, diet, heredity, and other personal habits. For instance, smoking can produce free radicals, once-healthy oxygen molecules that are now overactive and unstable. Free radicals damage cells, leading to, among other things, premature wrinkles. Exposure to the sun also is a huge factor in skin-related deterioration.

As we age, skin becomes rougher, slacker, fragile and more transparent. We bruise more easily, the way our skin “fits” on our bones and face changes, it dries out and we become more susceptible to lesions such as benign and malignant growths or tumors. 

Exposure to sunlight is the single biggest culprit in aging skin. Over time, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light damages certain fibers in the skin called elastin. The breakdown of elastin fibers causes the skin to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to snap back after stretching. The skin also bruises and tears more easily and takes longer to heal. So while sun damage may not show when you’re young, it will later in life.

Nothing can completely undo sun damage, although the skin can sometimes repair itself. So, it’s never too late to begin protecting yourself from sun exposure and skin cancer. You can delay changes associated with aging by staying out of the sun, covering up, wearing a hat, and making a habit of using sunscreen.

Facial movement lines become more visible after the skin starts losing its elasticity (usually as people reach their 30s and 40s). Lines may appear horizontally on the forehead, vertically on the skin above the root of the nose (glabella), or as small curved lines on the temples, upper cheeks, and around the mouth.

Sleep creases result from the way the head is positioned on the pillow and may become more visible after the skin starts losing its elasticity. Sleep creases are commonly located on the side of the forehead, starting above the eyebrows to the hairline near the temples, as well as on the middle of the cheeks. Sleeping on your back may improve these sleep creases or prevent them from becoming worse. Also of important note, smokers tend to have more wrinkles than nonsmokers of the same age, complexion, and history of sun exposure.

Dry skin and itching is common in later life. About 85 percent of older people develop “winter itch,” because overheated indoor air is dry. The loss of oil glands as we age may also worsen dry skin. Anything that further dries the skin — such as overuse of soaps or hot baths — will make the problem worse. If your skin is very dry and itchy, see a doctor because this condition can affect your sleep, cause irritability, or be a symptom of a disease. Some medicines make the itchiness worse.

The importance of visiting a dermatologist

There are several skin lesions that are very common and benign (non-cancerous). These conditions include moles, freckles, skin tags, and discoloration. It’s important to have your physician check these skin issues regularly, and to see a dermatologist if they increase in size, are painful, change color or texture or become irritated or sensitive. Here is some basic information on the most common skin maladies:

> Moles are growths on the skin that are usually brown or black. Moles can appear anywhere on the skin, alone or in groups. Moles occur when cells in the skin grow in a cluster instead of being spread throughout the skin. These cells are called melanocytes, and they make the pigment that gives skin its natural color. Moles may darken after exposure to the sun, in the teen years, and during pregnancy.

The vast majority of moles are not dangerous. The only moles that are of medical concern are those that look different than other existing moles or those that first appear after age 30. If you notice changes in a mole’s color, height, size, or shape, you should have a dermatologist evaluate it. You also should have moles checked if they bleed, ooze, itch, or become tender or painful. The same goes for freckles.

> A skin tag is a small flap of tissue that hangs off the skin by a connecting stalk. Skin tags are not dangerous. They are usually found on the neck, chest, back, armpits, under the breasts, or in the groin area. Skin tags appear most often in women, especially with weight gain, and in elderly people.

Skin tags usually don’t cause any pain. However, they can become irritated if anything, such as clothing or jewelry rubs them. Your dermatologist can remove a skin tag by cutting it off with a scalpel or scissors, with cryosurgery (freezing it off), or with electrosurgery (burning it off with an electric current).

> A lentigo is a spot on the skin that is darker (usually brown) than the surrounding skin. Lentigines (plural) are more common among whites, especially those with fair skin. Exposure to the sun seems to be the major cause of lentigines. They most often appear on parts of the body that get the most sun, including the face and hands. Some lentigines may be caused by genetics (family history) or by medical procedures such as radiation therapy.

There are several methods for treating lentigines, including cryosurgery (freezing it off), laser surgery, and creams that are applied to the skin.

> Skin cancer is a cancer that forms in the tissues of the skin. There are several types of skin cancer. Skin cancer that forms in melanocytes (skin cells that make pigment) is called melanoma. Skin cancer that forms in the lower part of the epidermis (the outer layer of the skin) is called basal cell carcinoma. Skin cancer that forms in squamous cells (flat cells that form the surface of the skin) is called squamous cell carcinoma. Skin cancer that forms in neuroendocrine cells (cells that release hormones in response to signals from the nervous system) is called neuroendocrine carcinoma of the skin.

Most skin cancers form in older people on parts of the body exposed to the sun or in people who have weakened immune systems. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Each year, more than 68,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma, and another 48,000 are diagnosed with an early form of the disease that involves only the top layer of skin. Also, more than 2 million people are treated for basal cell or squamous cell skin cancer each year.

Basal cell skin cancer typically occurs on the face, chest or areas exposed to the sun. It is several times more common than squamous cell skin cancer and, when caught early, easily treated and removed.

Melanoma can occur on any skin surface. In men, it’s often found on the skin on the head, on the neck, or between the shoulders and the hips. In women, it’s often found on the skin on the lower legs or between the shoulders and the hips. Melanoma is more likely than other skin cancers to spread to other parts of the body. Squamous cell skin cancer sometimes spreads to other parts of the body, but basal cell skin cancer rarely does.

Regular examinations by a dermatologist can reveal skin cancers or likely skin cancers (called pre-cancerous) in time to tend to them. As in most illnesses, the earlier skin cancer is discovered, the better the chances of removing it and limiting its spread. If you’re over 50, visit a dermatologist annually. If you’re younger and have a family history of skin cancer or any skin issues of concerns, see your doctor as well.

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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!

Wash your hands of flu, colds, and viruses

For all our technology, medical advances and sophisticated health resources, it often seems we’re no closer to taming the common cold, eliminating flu and infections, or reducing many common and costly chronic diseases and illnesses. In part, that’s the insidious nature of human health and the ability of diseases to transform and elude researcher’s best efforts. But often, it’s also the result of misinformation, and our unwillingness — purposely or through lack of accurate direction or failed compliance — to help ourselves through knowledge and prevention.

As the annual flu season descends, we need to protect ourselves. Flu vaccine is plentiful and often effective against specific strains of influenza, but many people still choose to not get themselves or their children vaccinated. That’s a personal decision, but it can mean that you or your kids spread illness and disease to others, including the most vulnerable — the sick, elderly and babies.

Amid heightened global concerns over Ebola, which has now reached American shores, another far more common virus has been making the rounds. This flu-like strain, called Enterovirus (EV) D68, is now afflicting people across the country, and is particularly dangerous to infants, seniors, or anyone with respiratory illnesses, asthma, or chronic, obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Strains of the Enterovirus (there are more than 100) are not new — they’ve been formally catalogued since the early 1960s — but this year’s outbreak has been more virulent than in recent years.

Most common in the summer and early fall, mild symptoms may include fever, runny nose, sneezing, cough and body and muscle aches. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, it presents like the common cold and many other viruses. Severe symptoms may include wheezing and difficulty breathing. Since Enterovirus causes respiratory illness, the virus can be found in an infected person’s respiratory secretions, such as saliva, nasal mucus, or sputum. EV-D68 spreads from person to person when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or contaminates common surfaces or objects through touch.

There is no specific treatment for people with respiratory illness caused by EV-D68, nor a vaccine to prevent it. For mild respiratory illness, you can help relieve symptoms by taking over-the-counter medications for pain and fever (aspirin should not be given to children). Some people with severe respiratory illness may need to be hospitalized — if symptoms worsen, you should see your physician.

We can help protect ourselves from Enterovirus, the flu, other viruses and colds by following these simple steps:

  • The easiest, safest, cheapest and most effective way to prevent the spread of disease or to limit infection is to wash your hands often. That includes when you come home from anywhere, before you eat in a dining hall or restaurant, after you use a restroom, visit the supermarket, ride a bus or train, or touch an ATM. And when it isn’t easy to wash your hands, use a hand sanitizer. Also, don’t share toothbrushes, razors or other personal grooming products, and avoid sharing food, drinks or eating off of one another’s plates.
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick
  • Sneeze into tissues or your arm, not your hands and not into the air — airborne pathogens spread highly contagious viral or bacterial infections
  • Get a flu shot! Flu vaccines are very safe and can’t infect you with the flu. Injected flu vaccines only contain dead virus, and a dead virus can’t infect you. There is one type of live virus flu vaccine, the nasal vaccine, FluMist. But in this case, the virus is specially engineered to remove the parts of the virus that make people sick. The standard flu vaccine can be dangerous if you’re allergic to eggs, so you should always talk with your doctor before taking the vaccine.
  • Stay home when you’re sick; incubation time — or the days it takes for germs to turn into something truly nasty in your system — allow you to spread those germs to many other people before you even realize you’re infectious.

Additionally, remember that antibiotics won’t help you fight the flu or a cold, which are not caused by bacteria, but by a virus. Taking antibiotics unnecessarily weakens your body’s ability to fight bacterial illnesses, since many bacteria become resistant to antibiotics due to overuse and bad prescribing practices.

However, there are instances of flu complications that involve bacterial infection. The flu virus can weaken your body and allow bacterial invaders to infect you. Secondary bacterial infections due to the flu include bronchitis, ear infections, sinusitis, and most often, pneumonia. The flu doesn’t peak until February or March, and it hits all across the country, so if you haven’t had your flu shot there’s still plenty of time to protect yourself and your 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!

Sharing wellness information is easy, inexpensive and healthy

If you’re an employer concerned with keeping your workforce healthy and productive, there are a variety of simple and inexpensive steps you can take to help keep employees informed, motivated, and focused on their health and wellness. Raising awareness so employees make smarter health decisions doesn’t take a lot of effort, but the return on investment — measured through improved customer satisfaction, reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, better teamwork and enhanced morale — can be significant. October is a busy month on the national health observance calendar. There are numerous listings including:

  • Breast cancer awareness month
  • Health literacy month
  • Bone and joint health awareness month
  • National health education week
  • National infection prevention week

Each of these is important in its own right, and providing material or access to information for any one or a few of these would be valuable for your workforce. In fact, this issue of CBIA Healthy Connections has articles on bone health and how to prevent or limit infections, and another article on skin health. You also can find more than 200 articles on different health topics in the CBIA Healthy Connections archives.

There’s an abundance of good facts, recommendations, articles and health- and wellness-focused websites available for free on the Internet. There also are services you can subscribe to, and resources available locally through hospitals, health benefits providers and your physicians or various health provider offices. Additionally, most diseases or illnesses have dedicated national and local organizations specializing in outreach, prevention and education.

If you haven’t already, consider creating a simple disease-awareness grid or calendar, and choosing one health or wellness topic to discuss monthly, every-other month, or even quarterly. Your wellness champion can help lead the charge, or you can ask other employees to choose topics of interest and potential action steps to share internally with their associates.

Consider posting information on bulletin boards, in lunch rooms or other common spaces. Talk about the focus health topic at weekly or monthly meetings, and consider internal competitions to make it more fun and engaging. Involve employees’ families, as well, so the benefits cascade and are carried home. Set and post goals and measure progress for all to see. Also, fund targeted efforts through small incentives like gift cards and education materials, or by hosting a small recognition event after goals have been met.

Additionally, many local health organizations and hospitals are happy to send in a speaker to address your employees and to disperse materials. The bottom line IS your bottom line: By leading these efforts, you reinforce your commitment to your employees’ health and wellness, boost teamwork, and enhance workplace productivity.

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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!