Diet and Colorectal Cancer

Diet plays an integral role in keeping us healthy. But beyond strong bones, eyes and teeth, a proper diet also helps prevent or reduce the likelihood of contracting a number of serious illnesses, including many kinds of cancers. One specific example is colon (colorectal) cancer, which kills more than 50,000 men and women a year in the United States alone.

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer.  American Cancer Society estimates for the number of newly diagnosed U.S. colon cancer cases exceeds 103,000 men and women, and another 37,000 will be diagnosed with rectal cancer.

Studies suggest that diet is a key contributor to colon cancer risk. Colon cancer is most prevalent in Westernized societies, where diets are higher in animal products and processed foods and lower in unrefined plant foods.  The cells lining the intestinal tract come into direct contact with what we choose to eat, and the substances contained in our food can have profound effects on these cells and tissues. The protective value of fruits and vegetables has been established by several studies following subjects for years, keeping track of dietary patterns and colon cancer diagnoses.

Our nutritional choices can help prevent colon cancer, especially if our diet includes more vegetables and fruits and less refined and processed foods. Nutritious foods are very rich in fiber, and disease-causing foods are generally fiber-deficient. Several food components that may modulate colon cancer risk have been identified: Fiber, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and certain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals all play a partial role. Red meat and processed meats are the most cancer causing, but all meats and dairy products do not contain any fiber, and are also lacking in anti-oxidants and phytochemicals. Foods made from refined grains (such as white bread, white rice, and pasta) are also not only fiber deficient but void of micronutrients and phytochemicals as well – these foods are also associated with colon and rectal cancers.

Prevention starts with awareness

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and the perfect time to become familiar with risk factors and prevention. Risk factors include:

  • Age 50 or older
  • A family history of cancer of the colon or rectum
  • A personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast
  • History of polyps in the colon
  • A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn’s disease
  • Eating a diet high in fat (especially from red meat)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use

The prognosis and chance of recovery following a colon cancer diagnosis depends on several items, including the stage of the cancer when discovered, damage it may have already caused, blood chemistry and a patient’s general health. If you experience any stomach discomfort, bleeding in your stool, or sudden weight loss, contact your physician immediately.

Beginning at age 50 (age 45 for African Americans), both men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should receive a screening test. These tests are designed to find both early cancer and polyps. There are simple blood and stool tests, and surgical testing such as colonoscopies can be done virtually (using diagnostic imagery) or surgically. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.

People once thought that there was little that they could do to protect themselves against cancer. But we’ve learned more about how the disease develops and what biological and environmental factors increase cancer risk. We now have better weapons for fighting the disease, including more options for diagnosis and treatment, improved therapies and new technologies for early detection.

In a world where so much is beyond our control, it’s nice to know that we can still make smart choices that are likely to improve or maintain our health. Research suggests that up to 35 percent of cancers are related to poor diet. Choosing a diet rich in nutrient-dense plant foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds is a simple step we can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones against colon cancer. And by remaining active and exercising regularly, we can reduce our risk of cancer and other health problems.

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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!

The Truth about Generic Drugs

When you go to the grocery store, you can often buy “brand X” or the store’s own version of a variety of products ranging from potato chips, salsa and packaged or fresh cheese to bread, paper goods, laundry detergent, cosmetics and much more. These “generic” products are of varying quality, sometimes as good as the name-brand items you may have been purchasing for years, sometimes not as good. The price difference, however, is usually significant, and it’s often well worth the savings.

Can the same comparison be made for generic drugs?  Yes – but with a huge caveat:  What makes generic food and paper supplies different from generic drugs and medicines is strict federal oversight. The generic drugs often are being made by the same pharmaceutical companies as their more expensive brand-name cousins, or by other companies once patents on the brand-name drugs have expired. Proven quality, consistency, strength and testing by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assures the consumer that the generic being substituted for the brand-name drug is safe, effective and just what the doctor ordered.

In fact, eight out of 10 brand-name drugs are now available in generic equivalents. Generics are, on average, 80 percent to 85 percent cheaper than brand-name drugs, saving U.S. consumers close to $200 billion annually.

Pharmaceutical companies mark up their proprietary brands to reflect the upfront costs involved in research, testing, clinical trials, manufacturing, distribution and marketing and advertising. Marketing and promotion is a huge expense, which is reflected in the purchase cost of brand-name drugs. Drug manufacturers are allowed to protect that brand for a certain number of years to recoup their investments. Once that patent protection expires, other companies are allowed to produce the product without the costly start-up charges or advertising, and the price drops due to competition.

When a generic drug product is approved, it has met rigorous standards established by the FDA with respect to identity, strength, quality, purity, and potency. However, some variability can and does occur during manufacturing, for both brand-name and generic drugs. When a drug, generic or brand name, is mass-produced, very small variations in purity, size, strength, and other parameters are permitted. FDA limits how much variability is acceptable, and monitors those differences.

Generic drugs are required to have the same active ingredient, strength, dosage form, and route of administration as the brand-name product. Generic drugs do not need to contain the same inactive ingredients as the brand-name product, though.

To ensure quality and performance, the generic drug manufacturer must prove its drug is the same as (or bioequivalent to) the brand-name drug. For example, after the patient takes the generic drug, the amount of drug in the bloodstream is measured.  If the levels of the drug in the bloodstream are the same as the levels found when the brand-name product is used, the generic drug will work the same. Through review of bioequivalence data, FDA ensures that the generic product performs the same as its respective brand-name product. This standard applies to all generic drugs, whether immediate or controlled release.

Additionally, all generic manufacturing, packaging, and testing sites must pass the same quality standards as those of brand-name drugs, and the generic products must meet the same exacting specifications as any brand-name product. In fact, many generic drugs are made in the same manufacturing plants as brand-name drug products.

When to be cautious

With the proliferation and availability of drugs sold online, consumers must be careful that the products they’re buying – especially those created and shipped from other countries – meet the same standards as American generic drugs. It’s one thing to apply an adhesive bandage made abroad, another to ingest a medicine critical to your recovery from an illness, maintenance meds for a chronic condition, or vitamins and supplements that could be harmful or result in death.

The reason for caution is that the FDA often does not regulate, review or test these drugs that come from potentially nefarious sources in India, China, South America and the Far East.  Oftentimes, drugs that are advertised “made in Canada,” for example, actually come from other countries. And manufacturers are expert at using similar-sounding names for better-known drugs to confuse consumers. They also prey on the elderly, less-educated and needy.

The cash price for online drugs might be right, but the physical price could be extremely costly. When in doubt, consumers can visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for safety information, alerts and pharmaceutical product details.

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Heart Health: About Cholesterol and Statins

Every February there’s plenty of talk about hearts – loving hearts, broken hearts, chocolate hearts and tiny candy hearts with heart emoticons and goofy sayings like “text me”– but there’s rarely talk about healthy hearts, and the things we can be doing to help keep them that way.

Coincidentally, February is American Heart Month and a perfect time to remind people of one of the major contributors to cardiovascular disease: Too much bad cholesterol, or not enough good cholesterol. It’s also important to talk about one of the primary medicines millions of Americans consume to help their bodies regulate or offset the negative effects of cholesterol – a widely prescribed class of drugs called statins.

A brief primer on cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in all parts of the body. It is critical to the normal function of all cells. The body needs cholesterol for making hormones, digesting dietary fats, building cell walls, and other important processes. Our body makes all the cholesterol it needs, but cholesterol is also in some of the foods we eat.

When there is too much cholesterol in our blood, it can build up on the walls of the arteries (blood vessels that carry blood from the heart to other parts of the body). This buildup is called plaque. Over time, plaques can cause narrowing or hardening of the arteries – a condition called atherosclerosis – which can clog our arteries and keep our heart from getting the blood it needs.

Keeping our cholesterol levels in check is one of the best ways to keep our hearts healthy, and to lower our chances of getting heart disease or having a stroke. The American Heart Association recommends all adults age 20 or older have their cholesterol, and other traditional risk factors, checked every four to six years. It typically only requires a simple blood test. Our total cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol are among numerous factors our doctors can use to predict our lifetime or 10-year risk for a heart attack or stroke. Other risks include family history, if you are a smoker, your diet, the amount you exercise, and if you have high blood pressure.

With HDL (or “good”) cholesterol, higher levels are better. Low HDL cholesterol puts us at higher risk for heart disease. People with high blood triglycerides usually also have lower HDL cholesterol. Genetic factors, type 2 diabetes, smoking, being overweight and being sedentary can all result in lower HDL cholesterol. A low LDL (“bad”) cholesterol level is considered good for our heart health.

Statin drugs work by blocking the action of the liver enzyme that is responsible for producing cholesterol. Statins lower LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol levels. At the same time, they lower triglycerides and raise HDL cholesterol levels. Triglycerides are another type of fat, and they’re used to store excess energy from our diet. High levels of triglycerides in the blood, which are associated with atherosclerosis, can be caused by being overweight or obese, physical inactivity, cigarette smoking, excess alcohol consumption and a diet very high in carbohydrates (more than 60 percent of total calories).

People with high triglycerides often have a high total cholesterol level, including a high LDL cholesterol (bad) level and a low HDL cholesterol (good) level. Many people with heart disease or diabetes also have high triglyceride levels.

Statins help stabilize plaques in the arteries. Since their arrival on the market, statins have been among the most prescribed drugs in the United States, with about 17 million users. The statin medications that are approved for use in the U.S. include Lipitor, Livalo, Mevacor (or Altocor), Zocor, Pravachol, Lescol and Crestor. There also are generic versions available.

The down side to statins

Most people who take statin drugs tolerate them very well. But some people experience side effects. The most common statin side effects include:

  • Headache
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Flushing of the skin
  • Muscle aches, tenderness, or weakness
  • Drowsiness or dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping, pain, bloating or gas
  • Diarrhea or constipation

Statins also carry warnings that memory loss, mental confusion, high blood sugar, and type 2 diabetes are possible side effects. Due to the possibility of side effects that can damage the liver, patients taking statins are required to have periodic blood tests. It’s important to remember that statins may also interact with other medications.

If you experience any unexplained joint or muscle pain, tenderness, or weakness while taking statins, you should call your doctor immediately. Pregnant women or those with active or chronic liver disease should not use statins. Also, if you take a statin drug, tell your doctor about any over-the-counter or prescription drugs, herbal supplements, and vitamins you are currently taking or plan on taking.

Give yourself the best Valentine’s Day gift possible by keeping your heart and body healthy. Even if your physician recommends you take a statin, maintaining a healthy lifestyle while taking one of these drugs can improve its effectiveness. Be sure to eat a balanced, heart-healthy diet; get regular physical activity; limit alcohol intake; and avoid smoking. Over time – and with sustained healthy weight loss and regular exercise – some patients are able to go off statins, but always speak with your physician before stopping any prescribed medication.

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Got coffee?

When we were little tykes watching our parents drink coffee, they told us we couldn’t have any because the caffeine would stunt our growth. When we got a little older, they poured an ounce of coffee in a cup, filled the rest with milk, loaded in the sugar, and we thought we were big shots.  Later in the day, we may have drunk soda or eaten chocolate — which also have caffeine — but most of us grew up little the worse for the wear.

Adding to the mystery, the health benefits of caffeine often are touted, and myths abound about coffee’s healing properties for headaches, hangovers and as a tonic for keeping us awake. It’s easy to see why we grew up confused about this incredibly popular beverage.  So, is caffeine bad for us, and if so, why?

The answer, like the question, is complicated. But the bottom line is that – as in many things – moderation and information are the keys to healthy caffeine consumption.

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, alleviating fatigue, increasing wakefulness, and improving concentration and focus.  As a stimulant, regular use of caffeine does cause mild physical dependence. But caffeine doesn’t threaten our physical, social, or economic health the way addictive drugs do. For most healthy adults, moderate doses of caffeine – 200 to 300 milligrams (mg), or about two to four cups of brewed coffee a day – aren’t harmful. But some circumstances may warrant limiting or even ending our caffeine routine.

If you drink four or more cups a day, take note. Although moderate caffeine intake isn’t likely to cause harm, too much can lead to some unpleasant effects. Heavy daily caffeine use – more than 500 to 600 mg a day – may cause

  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Stomach upset
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Muscle tremors

Coffee and caffeine in other forms — such as in tea, soda and chocolate — may make us jittery. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than are others. If you’re susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness and sleep problems.

How we react to caffeine may be determined in part by how much caffeine we’re used to drinking. Caffeine content can range from as much as 160 milligrams in some energy drinks to as little as 4 milligrams in a one-ounce serving of chocolate-flavored syrup. Even decaffeinated coffee isn’t completely free of caffeine. People who don’t regularly drink caffeine tend to be more sensitive to its negative effects. Other factors may include body mass, age, medication use and health conditions such as anxiety disorders or heart disease. Research also suggests that men are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine than are women.

Women who are pregnant often are advised to avoid or limit caffeine because some studies have indicated a higher potential incidence of miscarriage. People with high blood pressure should watch their caffeine intake, as it increases the risk of stroke; and because caffeine does act as a mild diuretic, it will cause us to urinate more often. But studies show drinking caffeinated drinks in moderation doesn’t actually cause dehydration, especially if we drink water and other liquids during the day.

And finally, as for stunting childrens’ growth, there’s an irony to that misconception:  The added sugar that children and many adults consume in flavored coffees and caffeinated energy drinks promotes obesity, and caffeine can aggravate anxiety or irritability, in children and in adults.

Caffeine and sleep

Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. But caffeine can interfere with this much-needed sleep. Chronically losing sleep – whether it’s from work, travel, stress or too much caffeine – results in sleep deprivation. Sleep loss is cumulative, and even small nightly decreases can add up and disturb your daytime alertness, overall health and performance.

Our body quickly absorbs caffeine. But it also gets rid of it quickly. Processed mainly through the liver, caffeine has a relatively short half-life. This means it takes about five to seven hours, on average, to eliminate half of it from our body. After eight to 10 hours, 75 percent of the caffeine is gone. For most people, a cup of coffee or two in the morning won’t interfere with sleep at night.

But using caffeine to mask sleep deprivation can create an unwelcome cycle. For example, we drink caffeinated beverages because we have trouble staying awake during the day. But the caffeine keeps us from falling asleep at night, shortening the length of time we sleep. Additionally, certain medications and herbal supplements may interact with caffeine, including some antibiotics and other specialty drugs, and certain herbal supplements like Echinacea, which people take to ward off colds.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether caffeine might affect your medications. He or she can say whether you need to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet.

Curbing our caffeine habit

Whether it’s for one of the reasons above – or because we want to trim spending on pricey coffee drinks – cutting back on caffeine can be challenging. An abrupt decrease in caffeine may cause caffeine withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, irritability and nervousness. Fortunately, these symptoms are usually mild and resolve after a few days.

To change caffeine habits more gradually, try these tips:

  • Note intake. Start paying attention to how much caffeine you’re getting from foods and beverages. It may be more than you think. Read labels carefully. Even then, your estimate may be a little low because not all foods or drinks list caffeine. Chocolate, which has a small amount, doesn’t.
  • Cut back. But do it gradually. For example, drink one fewer can of soda or drink a smaller cup of coffee each day. Or avoid drinking caffeinated beverages late in the day. This will help your body get used to the lower levels of caffeine and lessen potential withdrawal effects.
  • Go decaf. Most decaffeinated beverages look and taste the same as their caffeinated counterparts.
  • Shorten the brew time or go herbal. When making tea, brew it for less time. This cuts down on its caffeine content. Or choose herbal teas that don’t have caffeine.
  • Check the bottle. Some over-the-counter pain relievers contain caffeine – as much as 130 mg of caffeine in one dose. Look for caffeine-free pain relievers instead.

For most adults, caffeine is a part of our daily routine. And most often it doesn’t pose a health problem. But curtailing our caffeine habits can be better for our health – and our wallets!

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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!

 

Understanding thyroid health

The thyroid — a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in our lower neck below our voice box — has enormous responsibility for our body’s metabolic processes. Specifically, our thyroid releases two primary hormones — triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) — that control metabolism.

When working properly, the T3 and T4 hormones travel through our bloodstream and help cells get energy from the food we eat. Thyroid hormones are also responsible for helping to regulate our body temperature and blood calcium levels, helping with growth and development and, during infancy, brain development.

For an estimated 27 million Americans, however, the thyroid produces either too much or too little hormone, which causes an array of health symptoms, some severe. January is Thyroid Awareness Month. Because thyroid disease is often misdiagnosed or simply overlooked, it’s estimated that more than half of affected Americans don’t know they have a problem.

The thyroid constantly releases hormones into the blood, helping to regulate many bodily functions.  Additional hormones are produced when the body needs more energy in certain situations.

Women are much more likely to have thyroid problems than men, and may have up to a one in five chance of developing thyroid problems during their lifetime. The risk increases with age and family history, as well as having an autoimmune disease or a close relative with one; through radiation exposure; by going through menopause or perimenopause; or following childbirth.

Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid) accounts for the majority of thyroid disease cases — up to 80 percent according to some estimates. This condition occurs when our body produces too little thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as fatigue and general sluggishness; unexplained weight gain or increased sensitivity to cold; pain, stiffness or swelling in joints; muscle aches and weakness; heavy menstrual periods; depression; brittle hair and nails; and elevated blood cholesterol.

If left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to obesity, joint pain, infertility, goiter (thyroid enlargement) and heart disease, but because the symptoms can mimic other diseases, or even be attributed to aging, many people do not realize the thyroid connection. Further, the symptoms may be mild at first, becoming increasingly severe only after a number of years, making them easy to overlook.

A blood test that measures our levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is typically used to diagnose hypothyroidism, and treatment usually involves taking a synthetic or natural thyroid hormone daily.

In contrast, hyperthyroidism results from an overactive thyroid. Symptoms include weight loss; nervousness, anxiety and irritability; increased perspiration; racing heart, hand tremors; difficulty sleeping; increased bowel movements; and muscle weakness, especially in the upper arms or thighs.

A TSH blood test can typically diagnose hyperthyroidism, and the condition is usually treated with anti-thyroid drugs that block the gland’s ability to produce thyroid hormone. Other treatments include surgery, or radioactive iodine, which destroys overactive thyroid cells.

Diet and thyroid health

As with virtually every bodily function, our diet plays a role in the health of our thyroid. There are some specific nutrients that the thyroid depends on and it’s important to include them in our diet:

  • Iodine: Our thyroid contains the only cells in our body that absorb iodine, which it uses to make critical hormones. Without sufficient iodine, the thyroid cannot produce adequate hormones to help our body function on an optimal level. Iodine deficiency is not that common in the United States because of the prevalent use of iodized salt. However, according to the CDC, up to 36 percent of women of childbearing age may not get enough iodine from their diets,and it’s thought that iodine deficiency is on a slow but steady rise.
  • Selenium: This mineral is critical for the proper functioning of our thyroid gland, and is used to produce and regulate an important hormone. Selenium can be found in foods such as shrimp, snapper, tuna, cod, halibut, calf’s liver, button and shitake mushrooms and Brazil nuts.
  • Zinc, Iron and Copper: These metals are needed in trace amounts for healthy thyroid function. Low levels of zinc have been linked to low levels of TSH, and iron deficiency has been linked to decreased thyroid efficiency. Copper is also necessary for the production of thyroid hormones.Foods such as calf’s liver, spinach, mushrooms, turnip greens and Swiss chard can help provide these trace metals in our diet.
  • Omega-3 Fats: These essential fats, which are found in fish or fish oil, play an important role in thyroid function, and many help our cells become sensitive to thyroid hormone.
  • Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is made up of mostly medium-chain fatty acids, which may help to increase metabolism and promote weight loss, along with providing other thyroid benefits.This is especially beneficial for those with hypothyroidism.
  • Antioxidants and B Vitamins: The antioxidant vitamins A, C and E can help our body neutralize oxidative stress that may damage the thyroid. In addition, B vitamins help to manufacture thyroid hormone and play an important role in healthy thyroid function.

Finally, there are certain foods that should be avoided to protect our thyroid function. These include:

  • Aspartame: There is concern that the artificial sweetener aspartame, sold under the brand name NutraSweet, may trigger Graves’ disease and other autoimmune disorders in some people. The chemical also may trigger an immune reaction that causes thyroid inflammation and thyroid autoantibody production.
  • Non-fermented Soy: Soy is high in isoflavones, which are goitrogens, or foods that interfere with the function of our thyroid gland. Soy, including soybean oil, soy milk, soy burgers, tofu and other processed soy foods, may lead to decreased thyroid function. Fermented soy products, including miso, natto, tempeh and traditionally brewed soy sauce are safe to eat, as the fermentation process reduces the goitrogenic activity of the isoflavones.
  • Gluten: Gluten is a potential goitrogen and can also trigger autoimmune reactions in people who are sensitive. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley, along with most processed foods.
  • Isothiocyanates found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are goitrogens as well. While large amounts of these vegetables, eaten raw, could interfere with thyroid function, they offer many other health benefits that make the benefits outweigh the risks for most people. If you know you have thyroid disease and want to be especially careful, steaming these vegetables will negate the goitrogenic effect, making them a healthy addition to your diet.

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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!

Still smoking?

Autumn and winter bring special breathing challenges for many Americans. Dry heat from central heating systems aggravates respiratory issues, and the air becomes even drier when homeowners use wood-burning stoves, space heaters, and fireplaces. When you add to this potent mix the negative effects of smoking tobacco products, breathing becomes more intense for smokers and nonsmokers alike, especially when driven indoors where windows in houses, offices and vehicles are closed up.

November is COPD Awareness Month and Lung Cancer Awareness Month. It’s not a coincidence that the two are recognized together. The primary cause of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the inhalation of cigarette smoke. Up to 24 million Americans show impaired lung function, which is common among those with COPD, the third-leading cause of death in the United States. It’s a staggering number — more than 12 million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD, while an estimated 12 million more have it, but have not been diagnosed.

Tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the United States, yet more than 45 million Americans still smoke cigarettes. Half of all smokers who keep smoking will end up dying from a smoking-related illness. In the United States alone, smoking is responsible for nearly one in five deaths, and about 8.6 million people suffer from smoking-related lung and heart diseases.

There also are approximately 13.2 million cigar smokers in the U.S., and 2.2 million who smoke tobacco in pipes. However, more than half of these smokers have attempted to quit for at least one day in the past year.

Still smoking?

Nearly everyone knows that smoking can cause lung cancer, but few people realize it is also linked to a higher risk for many other kinds of cancer too, including cancer of the mouth, nose, sinuses, lip, voice box (larynx), throat (pharynx), esophagus, bladder, kidney, pancreas, ovary, cervix, stomach, colon, rectum, and acute myeloid leukemia.

Smokers are twice as likely to die from heart attacks as non-smokers. Smoking is a major risk factor for peripheral vascular disease, a narrowing of the blood vessels that carry blood to the leg and arm muscles. Smoking also affects the walls of the vessels that carry blood to the brain (carotid arteries), which can cause strokes. Smoking can cause abdominal aortic aneurysm, in which the layered walls of the body’s main artery (the aorta) weaken and separate, often causing sudden death. And men who smoke are more likely to develop erectile dysfunction (impotence) because of blood vessel disease.

Based on data collected in the late 1990s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that adult male smokers lost an average of 13.2 years of life and female smokers lost 14.5 years of life because of smoking.

Each year, smoking causes early deaths of about 443,000 people in the United States. And given the diseases that smoking can cause, it can steal our quality of life long before we die. Smoking-related illness can limit our activities by making it harder to breathe, get around, work, or play.

Why quit now?

No matter how old you are or how long you’ve smoked, quitting can help you live longer and be healthier. People who stop smoking before age 50 cut their risk of dying in the next 15 years in half compared with those who keep smoking. Ex-smokers enjoy a higher quality of life. They have fewer illnesses like colds and the flu, lower rates of bronchitis and pneumonia, and feel healthier than people who still smoke.

If you have any habits at all, you know how hard it is to break cycles, cravings and addictions. Humiliating, shaming or punishing smokers isn’t the answer – we’re all adults here, and like it or not, it’s not illegal to smoke, just to smoke in certain places.

But there are several steps we can take to improve our health and longer-term quality of life. The most important is to quit smoking immediately and keep as physically fit as possible. Keeping active is essential for improved breathing function, and pulmonary rehabilitation can help rebuild strength and reduce shortness of breath.

November 15th is the Great American Smokeout

Mark Twain famously reported: “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it a thousand times!” If you’ve tried to eliminate smoking, you know it isn’t easy. But you’re not alone. The American Cancer Society is marking the 38th Great American Smokeout on November 19th by encouraging smokers to use the date to make a plan to quit, or to plan in advance and quit smoking that day. By doing so, smokers will be taking an important step towards a healthier life — one that can lead to reducing cancer risk.

There are an abundance of programs, many free, to help smokers quit. Physicians can prescribe supportive medical aids as part of a more formal program, there are over-the-counter remedies, and support groups are available in most communities and through local hospitals.

Quitting is hard, but you can increase your chances of success with help. The American Cancer Society can tell you about the steps you can take to quit smoking and provide the resources and support that can increase your chances of quitting successfully. To learn about available tools, call the American Cancer Society at 1-800-227-2345 or visit www.cancer.org. The American Lung Association also has a wealth of information and resources. Reach them at 1-800-LUNG-USA, and find online support at www. lung.org.

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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!

Staying dry isn’t always the best solution

It’s getting cold out there, and we know what that means: Dress in layers, dig into closets and drawers for our gloves and hats, and welcome back chapped lips, dry, itchy skin, hang nails, rashes and a worsening of skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis. Beyond plunging thermometers, the main culprit we’re fighting is lack of moisture. In late fall and winter, the humidity in the outside air drops, and — thanks to indoor heating — we’re dried out by warm air in our house, office, school or workplace.

During flu and cold season, we’re also washing our hands more often than ever, which saps the natural oils in our skin, leaving hands, feet and other body parts dehydrated until they crack, peel and bleed. The skin barrier is a mix of proteins, lipids and oils. It protects our skin, and how good a job it does is largely genetic, but also a measure of environmental conditions. If we have a weak barrier, we’re more prone to symptoms of sensitive skin such as itching, inflammation and eczema. Our hands are also more likely to become very dry in winter if they’re constantly exposed to cold air, water, extreme heat or other environmental factors.

November is National Healthy Skin Month. Dry skin occurs when skin doesn’t retain sufficient moisture — for example, because of frequent bathing, use of harsh soaps, aging, or certain medical conditions. Wintertime poses a special problem because humidity is low both outdoors and indoors, and the water content of the epidermis (the outermost layer of skin) tends to reflect the level of humidity around it. Fortunately, there are many simple and inexpensive things we can do to relieve winter dry skin, also known as winter itch.

Skin moisturizers, which rehydrate the epidermis and seal in the moisture, are the first step in combating dry skin. In general, the thicker and greasier a moisturizer, the more effective it will be. Some of the most effective (and least expensive) are petroleum jelly and moisturizing oils (such as mineral oil), which prevent water loss without clogging pores. Because they contain no water, they’re best used while the skin is still damp from bathing, to seal in the moisture. Other moisturizers contain water as well as oil, in varying proportions. These are less greasy and may be more cosmetically appealing than petroleum jelly or oils.

Dry skin becomes much more common with age — at least 75 percent of people over age 64 have dry skin. Often it’s the cumulative effect of sun exposure; sun damage results in thinner skin that doesn’t retain moisture. The production of natural oils in the skin also slows with age; in women, this may be partly a result of the postmenopausal drop in hormones that stimulate oil and sweat glands. The most vulnerable areas are those that have fewer sebaceous (or oil) glands, such as the arms, legs, hands, and middle of the upper back.

Here are some ways to combat dry skin that are effective if practiced consistently:

  • Use a humidifier in the cold-weather months. Set it to around 60 percent, a level that should be sufficient to replenish the top layer of the epidermis.
  • Limit yourself to one 5- to 10-minute bath or shower daily. Use lukewarm water rather than hot water, which can wash away natural oils.
  • Minimize the use of soaps — replace them with super-fatted, fragrance-free soaps, whether bar or liquid, for cleansing, and moisturizing preparations such as Dove, Olay, and Basis. Also consider soap-free cleansers like Cetaphil, Oilatum-AD, and Aquanil.
  • To reduce the risk of trauma to the skin, avoid bath sponges, scrub brushes, and washcloths.
  • Apply moisturizer immediately after bathing or after washing hands. This helps plug the spaces between our skin cells and seal in moisture while our skin is still damp.
  • Try not to scratch! Most of the time, a moisturizer can control the itch. Also use a cold pack or compress to relieve itchy spots.
  • Use sunscreen in the winter as well as in the summer to prevent photo-aging.
  • When shaving, use a shaving cream or gel and leave it on the skin for several minutes before starting.
  • Wear gloves and hats when you venture outdoors, and latex or rubber gloves when you wash dishes and clothes.
  • Stay hydrated – no matter the season, you need to drink plenty of water, and be careful about caffeine and alcohol products, which dry you out.

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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!

Where the wild thing grows

Wherever we go there is mold. It exists in the air and on many surfaces, and has survived on the Earth for millions of years, growing wherever there is moisture. Mold is found both indoors and outdoors. Mold can enter your home through open doorways, windows, vents, and heating and air conditioning systems. Mold in the air outside can also attach itself to clothing, shoes and bags, and pets can carry mold indoors.

Mold will grow in places with a lot of moisture, such as around leaks in roofs, windows, or pipes, or where there has been flooding. Mold grows well on paper products, cardboard, ceiling tiles, and wood products. Mold can also grow in dust, paints, wallpaper, insulation, drywall, carpet, fabric, upholstery and even in our cars.

Exposure to damp and moldy environments may cause a variety of health effects, especially for people sensitive to molds. For some people, molds can cause nasal stuffiness, throat irritation, coughing or wheezing, eye irritation, or skin irritation. People with mold allergies may have more severe reactions. Immune-compromised people and people with chronic lung illnesses, such as obstructive lung disease, may get serious infections in their lungs when they are exposed to mold. These people should stay away from areas that are likely to have mold, such as compost piles, cut grass and wooded areas, and basements or outdoor sheds and garages.

In 2004 the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found there was sufficient evidence to link indoor exposure to mold with upper respiratory tract symptoms, cough, and wheeze in otherwise healthy people; with asthma symptoms in people with asthma; and with hypersensitivity pneumonitis in individuals susceptible to that immune-mediated condition. The IOM also found suggestive evidence linking indoor mold exposure and respiratory illness in otherwise healthy children.

How to limit or control mold

Inside your home you can control mold growth by:

  • Controlling humidity levels
  • Promptly fixing leaky roofs, windows, and pipes
  • Thoroughly cleaning and drying after flooding
  • Ventilating shower, laundry, and cooking areas.

If mold is growing in your home, you need to clean up the mold and fix the moisture problem. Mold growth can be removed from hard surfaces with commercial products, soap and water, or a bleach solution of no more than one cup of bleach in one gallon of water.

Mold growth, which often looks like spots, can be many different colors, and can smell musty. If you can see or smell mold, a health risk may be present. You do not need to know the type of mold growing in your home, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend or perform routine sampling for molds.

No matter what type of mold is present, you should remove it. Since the effect of mold on people can vary greatly, either because of the amount or type of mold, you can’t rely on sampling and culturing to know your health risk. Also, good sampling for mold can be expensive, and standards for judging what is and what is not an acceptable quantity of mold have not been set. The best practice is to remove the mold and work to prevent future growth.

Here are some basic prevention tips for limiting or controlling mold in your home:

  • Keep humidity levels as low as you can — no higher than 50 percent all day long. An air conditioner or dehumidifier helps achieve this result.
  • Be sure your home has adequate ventilation. Use exhaust fans, if possible, which vent outside the kitchen and bathroom, and make sure your clothes dryer vents outside as well.
  • Fix leaks in your home’s roof, walls or plumbing so mold does not have access to the moisture it needs to grow.
  • Clean up your home thoroughly and quickly after any flooding.
  • Add mold inhibitors to paints before use.
  • Clean bathrooms with mold-killing products.
  • Remove or replace carpets and upholstery that have been soaked and can’t be dried promptly, and avoid using carpets in rooms like bathrooms or basements, where there’s a lot of moisture.

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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!

Spread the word, not the germs

In today’s world, we’re well aware of many deadly viruses, thanks to media, anxious friends and the Internet. This past year Ebola raged in Eastern Africa and even made it to American shores. We’re bombarded almost daily by scary stories about strains of Avian, Swine and Bird flus. And closer to home, many of us are still infected by common contagious culprits such as influenza, measles, chickenpox, tuberculosis and even Whooping Cough.

Many infectious diseases can be largely prevented by vaccines. Frequent and thorough hand-washing also helps protect you from infectious diseases. The easiest way to catch most infectious diseases is by coming in contact with a person or animal that has the infection. Three ways infectious diseases can be spread through direct contact are:

  • Person to person. A common way for infectious diseases to spread is through the direct transfer of bacteria, viruses or other germs from one person to another. This can occur when an individual with the bacterium or virus touches, coughs on or kisses someone who isn’t infected. These germs can also spread through food handling, the exchange of body fluids from sexual contact or a blood transfusion. The person who passes the germ may have no symptoms of the disease, but may simply be a carrier.
  • Animal to person. Being bitten or scratched by an infected animal — even a pet — can make you sick and, in extreme circumstances, can be fatal. Handling animal waste can be hazardous, too. For example, you can acquire a toxoplasmosis infection by scooping your cat’s litter box.
  • Mother to unborn child. A pregnant woman may pass germs that cause infectious diseases to her unborn baby. Some germs can pass through the placenta. Germs in the vagina can be transmitted to the baby during birth.

Disease-causing organisms also can be passed by indirect contact. Many germs can linger on an inanimate object, such as a tabletop, doorknob or faucet handle. When you touch a doorknob handled by someone ill with the flu or a cold, for example, you can pick up the germs he or she left behind. If you then touch your eyes, mouth or nose before washing your hands, you may become infected.

Some germs rely on insect carriers — such as mosquitoes, fleas, lice or ticks — to move from host to host. These carriers are known as vectors. Mosquitoes can carry the malaria parasite or West Nile virus, and deer ticks may carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

Another way disease-causing germs can infect you is through contaminated food and water. This transmission mechanism allows germs to be spread to many people through a single source. E. coli, for example, is a bacterium present in or on certain foods — such as undercooked hamburger or unpasteurized fruit juice. E. coli makes people violently stomach sick and dehydrated, and may require hospitalization.

In Connecticut, cases of Pertussis (Whooping Cough) have reemerged in the western part of the State, due largely to parents who choose to not vaccinate their children. Tuberculosis (TB) also remains stubbornly entrenched in Connecticut.

Understanding TB

Tuberculosis is a potentially serious infectious disease that mainly affects your lungs. The bacteria that cause tuberculosis are spread from one person to another through tiny droplets released into the air via coughs and sneezes.

Once rare in developed countries, tuberculosis infections began increasing in 1985, partly because of the emergence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV weakens a person’s immune system so it can’t fight the TB germs. In the United States, because of stronger control programs, tuberculosis began to decrease again in 1993, but remains a concern and fairly active in most major cities.

Many strains of tuberculosis resist the drugs most used to treat the disease. People with active tuberculosis must take several types of medications for many months to eradicate the infection and prevent development of antibiotic resistance.

Tuberculosis is caused by bacteria that spread from person to person through microscopic droplets released into the air. This can happen when someone with the untreated, active form of tuberculosis coughs, speaks, sneezes, spits, laughs or sings.

Although tuberculosis is contagious, it’s not easy to catch. You’re much more likely to get tuberculosis from someone you live with or work with than from a stranger. Most people with active TB who’ve had appropriate drug treatment for at least two weeks are no longer contagious.

Don’t buy into the myths about vaccines

Earlier this year, hundreds of people contracted measles. “Ground zero,” it turned out, was Disneyland, in Anaheim, California. While there were only 50 reported measles infections in the United States in 2009, there had already been 288 cases in the country this year before the end of May 2015. Most of those cases have been linked to the unvaccinated; a recent study found “substandard vaccination” to have been the cause of the massive measles outbreak at Disneyland.

This month, California passed a mandatory vaccination law requiring children to be fully vaccinated before attending public school or a licensed pre-school program. Vaccinating children poses nearly no risk to their health; choosing not to vaccinate not only puts the child in harm’s way, but also endangers other immunocompromised persons — pregnant women, the elderly, and those who’ve had cancer or organ transplants — that un-vaccinated children come into contact with.

Additionally, adults should verify their own vaccination history. Disease resistance can deteriorate over many years, but your physician can easily search for active antibodies through a simple blood test, and revaccinate you as an adult. This is especially important if you work in healthcare, plan to travel internationally or will be living in communal spaces like college dormitories.

Other than a minuscule population who avoid vaccinations based on religious grounds, most non-conforming parents or individuals worry about contracting autism or other diseases from vaccinations. There are absolutely no scientific or medical grounds for that myth. However, an ingredient commonly found in some vaccinations — thimerosal — does contain trace amounts of mercury. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these extremely low doses of thimerosal pose no risk to humans, except for minor reactions like redness and swelling at the injection site.

While not dangerous, thimerosal has been removed from most vaccines anyway. In fact, there is no thimerosal present in the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella — and there never was.

Follow these tips to decrease your risk of infecting yourself or others:

  • Wash your hands. This is especially important before and after preparing food, before eating and after using the toilet. And try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth with your hands, as that’s a common way germs enter the body.
  • Get vaccinated. Immunization can drastically reduce your chances of contracting or spreading many diseases. Make sure to keep up to date on your recommended vaccinations, as well as your children’s.
  • Stay home. Don’t go to work if you are vomiting, have diarrhea or are running a fever. Don’t send your child to school if he or she has these signs and symptoms, either.
  • Prepare food safely. Keep counters and other kitchen surfaces clean when preparing meals. Cook foods to the proper temperature using a food thermometer to check for doneness. For ground meats, that means at least 160 F (71 C), for poultry, 165 F (74 C), and for most other meat, at least 145 F (63 C). In addition, promptly refrigerate leftovers — don’t let cooked foods remain at room temperature for extended periods of time.
  • Practice safe sex. Always use condoms if you or your partner has a history of sexually transmitted infections or high-risk behavior.
  • Don’t share personal items. Use your own toothbrush, comb and razor. Avoid sharing drinking glasses or dining utensils.
  • Travel wisely. If you’re traveling out of the country, talk to your doctor about any special vaccinations you may need or foods to avoid.

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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!

Keep moving — even when you’re not!

Unless you work in an environment that is physically challenging or potentially dangerous, the worst most of us have to fear at work is eye or ear strain, sore backs or necks, repetitive motion injuries or circulation problems. The latter issue can result from sitting too long at your desk or workstation, in a plane, bus or another vehicle. Repeated inactivity or lack of entire-body movement for extended periods inhibits circulation and can lead to clotting problems.

Two of the more common circulation-related health issues include the risk of developing Deep Vein Thrombosis or a Pulmonary Embolism.

Veins are blood vessels that return blood from the tissues of the body back to the heart. The body has two distinct systems of veins — superficial and deep. The superficial system is made up of veins that are close to the skin. These are the blood vessels we frequently can see on our hands, arms or legs that can become more prominent when we exercise. The deep system comprises veins within the muscles of the body. The two systems are connected by small communicating veins. The body regulates the amount of blood going through both systems as a way of rigidly controlling the body’s central temperature.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a condition where a blood clot forms in a vein of the deep system. DVTs can occur anywhere in the body, but are most frequently found in the deep veins of the legs, thighs, and pelvis. They may infrequently arise from the upper extremities usually because of trauma.

Thrombophlebitis is a condition in which there is both inflammation and a blood clot in a vein. Thrombophlebitis can occur in either superficial or deep veins. Superficial thrombophlebitis occurs in veins close to the skin surface, and usually causes pain, swelling and redness in the area of the vein. Superficial thrombophlebitis usually is treated with heat, elevation of the affected leg or arm, and anti-inflammatory medications.

A thrombosis in a deep vein is a much more serious problem than one in a superficial vein, because a piece of the clot can break off and travel through the deep veins back to the heart, and eventually be pumped by the heart into the arteries of the lung. When this happens, the condition is called pulmonary embolism (PE). Pulmonary embolisms occur in 30 percent of people with DVT, and cause 60,000 deaths annually, many of them unrecognized and labeled incorrectly as heart attacks. Blood clots from DVT can lodge in the legs, heart, kidneys, lungs or brain.

Symptoms of deep vein thrombosis may be difficult to identify. That’s because DVT symptoms are similar to many other health problems. People most at risk from DVT are over 60, smoke, or are overweight. Women on birth control or patches, or people who sit for long periods of time can be at risk as well.

If you or someone you know has any of the DVT symptoms below — especially if they occur suddenly — call your doctor right away:

  • Swelling in one or both legs
  • Pain or tenderness in one or both legs, which may occur only while standing or walking
  • Warmth in theskin of the affected leg
  • Red or discolored skin in the affected leg
  • Visible surface veins
  • Leg fatigue

If a blood clot breaks free and travels to your lungs, it’s called a pulmonary embolism, and it can be fatal. Pulmonary embolism may not cause symptoms, but if you ever suffer sudden coughing, which may bring up blood; sharp chest pain; rapid breathing or shortness of breath; or severe lightheadedness, call 911 or go to an emergency room immediately.

How to improve your circulation and avoid potential clots

About 350,000 Americans are diagnosed with DVT and pulmonary embolism each year, although it is estimated that some 300,000 more adults have undiagnosed DVT/PT. The condition has a 6 percent to 12 percent mortality rate.

If you’re at risk, there is much you can do to prevent DVT. Here are 10 tips to help avoid circulation-related clotting or related problems:

  • Eat a healthy diet, maintain an active lifestyle andexercise regularly — daily, if possible. Walking, swimming, and bicycling are all great activities.
  • If you smoke, quit! Nicotine therapy (in patches, gums, or sprays) and support groups can make this easier to do.
  • Getyour blood pressure checked regularly; take steps to lower it, if necessary, and report any family or personal history of blood-clotting problems to your doctor.
  • Discuss alternatives tobirth control pills or hormone-replacement therapy with your doctor.
  • If you are on an airplane for more than four hours, walk when possible and while awaiting connecting flights, or do leg stretches in your seat.
  • Stay well-hydrated and avoid alcohol and caffeine consumption – both contribute to dehydration, which cause blood to thicken and the veins to narrow.
  • In the workplace, stretch, move around regularly, and walk as often as possible, even if to the lunch room, bathrooms or outside during breaks.
  • Avoid wearing short, tight socks or crossing your legs for long periods.
  • When traveling by car, stop once every hour or two to walk around and stretch.
  • Consider purchasing compression stockings at a medical supply store and wearing them during your travels to help reduce swelling.

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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!