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Lifestyle and Health Overview

Your health is influenced by two major factors: your genetic make-up, which determines your predisposition to disease, and your lifestyle. You cannot change inherited factors, but you can adapt your behaviour to control your risk of disease or injury. You have some control over what you eat and drink and whether you smoke, exercise, or practise safe sex. Your lifestyle choices affect your present and future health.

In the developed world, life expectancy has risen greatly over the last century due to improvements in public health. However, in England and Wales in 2008, more than 88,000 people died before the age of 65, often from long-term diseases such as cancer or heart disease. You can reduce your risk of developing some of these diseases by adopting a healthy lifestyle. All aspects of life, including work, travel, home, and leisure, carry risks and benefits to health. You need to balance these risks and benefits by lifestyle choices that enable you to enjoy your life while staying healthy.

Understanding the risks

It is important to be aware of the lifestyle factors associated with certain diseases so that you can make informed choices. For example, tobacco smoking is a critical factor in a third of all deaths from cancer. Several lifestyle factors, including a high-fat diet, are known to contribute to the development of heart disease and cancer. Many people enjoy drinking alcohol as part of social activity. However, regularly drinking to excess can severely damage your liver, brain, and heart, and drinking during pregnancy may harm your developing baby.

In order to make informed decisions about your health priorities, you need to take into account your individual circumstances. Your doctor can help you to do this. Your age is one of the most important factors and greatly influences the lifestyle decisions that you need to make. For example, young adults are statistically more likely to experience illness or injury associated with risk-taking behaviour, such as sexually transmitted infections or reactions to recreational drugs, than to suffer from ill health due to long-term disease. Another consideration is work: if you have a dangerous occupation, such as construction work, paying close attention to safety could be the most important factor in protecting your health in the short term. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that some lifestyle choices, such as tobacco smoking, do not carry an immediate and obvious threat but have a cumulative effect and can ultimately cause serious damage to your health.

Liver cirrhosis

This light micrograph of liver tissue shows that scar tissue (green) has developed around the liver lobules and fat deposits (yellow-white) have built up as a result of heavy alcohol use.

Making lifestyle choices

Activities that take place in the home, such as eating, sleeping, and being with your family, have a major influence on physical and mental health. A balanced diet is vital for good health. Age, sex, activity levels, and pregnancy all affect the amount and type of food you need to include in your daily diet. Sleep helps you to stay healthy and improves mental skills. Regular exercise improves fitness and builds muscle, but you should tailor programmes to your own needs. You should also consider the benefits and risks of different leisure activities. Sports, hobbies, and social activities can all benefit your physical and mental health, although some, such as sunbathing or listening to loud music, may carry a risk of injury or harm.

Healthy heart

Lifestyle factors such as diet can affect the coronary arteries and thus the health of your heart.

Making lifestyle changes

Most health habits, such as food choices and taking exercise, are formed in our families when we are children. Giving children a healthy lifestyle from birth maximizes their chances of growing into healthy adults and establishes habits that they may find easier to maintain in later life. Some families may find it difficult to make healthy lifestyle choices. For example, they may not be able to afford good food or housing. However, everyone can do something to improve health.

The first step towards a healthier lifestyle is to identify activities that pose significant risks to your health. It is easier to change these activities if you can see immediate benefits. Some activities, such as hang-gliding, are clearly dangerous and carry a significant risk every time you do them. For other types of behaviour, the risks to health may not be as obvious but tend to be cumulative; they are likely to damage your health only if carried out repeatedly over a period of time. Eating one high-fat meal does not damage your health, but consistently including too much fat in your diet may increase your risk of developing heart disease over time. Long-term changes, such as giving up smoking, increasing the amount of exercise that you take, or changing your diet, are often more difficult to make and maintain, especially if they involve overcoming social pressure. You may need to seek support from family, friends, and health professionals.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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