Good health is something most of us take for granted. When it fails, it is often for reasons that could have been avoided. Protecting your health is mainly a matter of understanding what causes disease and other problems so that you can take appropriate steps to avoid them. Modern techniques of immunization and screening offer protection against a wide range of illnesses. By taking advantage of these and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, you can safeguard your health not only for the present but for the future as well.
Feeling healthy involves more than simply being free from disease; it also involves a general sense of wellbeing. Your health and wellbeing depend in part on factors that are often beyond your control, such as the amount of pollution in your environment and the security of your employment. However, there are many aspects of your lifestyle that you can change or adapt to improve your physical and mental health, which will reduce your chance of becoming ill. This part of the guide explores a number of strategies that can help you to take control of your own health. It also includes information about national screening programmes that help to identify potential health problems at an early stage.
What determines health?
Your health is partly determined by your genes, but it is also inextricably linked with your environment and lifestyle. Your chance of developing many diseases is determined at the moment of conception by the mix of genetic material that you inherit from your parents. Sometimes, you inherit a specific faulty gene, such as the gene that causes cystic fibrosis, this will inevitably lead to the development of a disease. However, it is more common for a person’s genetic inheritance merely to predispose him or her to a disease or disorder that may develop later in life, such as diabetes mellitus.
Even if you are genetically susceptible to a disease, your chance of developing it can be influenced by a number of other factors, many of which are related to the way you live. For example, lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption are important determinants of health. If you adopt a healthy lifestyle and have appropriate screening tests, you may be able to reduce your risk of developing the diseases that are common in your family.
The environment you live in can have an influence on both your general health and your susceptibility to particular diseases. For example, high levels of pollution in the atmosphere, such as airborne particles of soot and smoke, may exacerbate the symptoms of respiratory diseases such as asthma. Many environmental effects are more pronounced in children, as their bodies are still developing.
Other determining factors of health include age, gender, ethnicity, and occupation. For example, the risk of developing heart disease increases with age and is more common in men, Asian people, and people who have sedentary jobs.
Assessing your health
To understand your inheritance and reduce your risk of disease, you need to know about conditions that run in your family. There may be certain disorders, especially types of cancer or heart disease, that have occurred in several family members under the age of 50. You can create a family medical tree of disorders and discuss them with your doctor. He or she will check your state of health and advise you about lifestyle changes, such as cutting down on fatty foods or taking exercise, that could reduce your risk of developing these diseases.
At certain times in your life, particularly as you get older, you will be offered screening tests for early signs of diseases, such as breast cancer or glaucoma. Depending on your family medical history, your doctor may suggest extra, or earlier, screening to pick up on any signs of disorders that run in your family at the earliest stage possible.
Choosing a healthy lifestyle
In recent years, there has been clear evidence that people can reduce their susceptibility to disease by targeting unhealthy aspects of their lifestyle. The fall in the numbers of deaths before the age of 65 from stroke, coronary artery disease, and certain types of cancer in the past 25 years has been largely attributed to a fall in the number of smokers and a better understanding of what makes a healthy diet. By contrast, the strains of modern living, such as the break-up of relationships, long working hours in stressful jobs, and loss of contact with family and friends, can affect mental and physical wellbeing.
Nearly everyone is aware of the features that make up a healthy lifestyle, but too few people manage to act on this information. By adopting a healthy diet, taking regular exercise, not smoking, and limiting your alcohol consumption, you can bring about an almost instant improvement in your general health. In the longer term, you will benefit from a reduced risk of developing diseases in the future.
Unhealthy habits can be hard to break, especially if they do not seem to cause immediate damage to your health. Committing yourself to long-term changes such as giving up smoking or losing weight takes considerable willpower; you may find it easier if you seek support from family and friends.
From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.
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