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This is Your Moment (And You Didn’t Even Know It)

I’m surprised there’s been no mention in the newspapers or on TV of a newly published article from the prestigious American Journal of Medicine. Maybe it’s that we’re all suffering a bit of bad-news fatigue and the media decided to take mercy on us.

Let’s face it. The conclusions from an immense survey (40,000 participants in 89 communities across the US) are not a source of good cheer. Entitled “Adherence to Healthy Lifestyle Habits in US Adults,” the researchers give us a D.

They tracked five healthy habits over a period of 16 years (1988-1994 and again from 2001-2006). Here are the results:

1. Performing vigorous physical activity 12 or more times a month has decreased among men from 57% to 43%, and among women from 49% to 43%.

2. Eating five or more servings of fruits/veggies a day has decreased among both sexes from 45% to 26%.

3. The percentage of smokers among both sexes has remained unchanged.

4. Moderate alcohol intake has increased among both sexes.

5. Obesity has increased among both sexes.

As a result, Americans have measurable increased total numbers for heart disease, including stroke; adult onset diabetes; high blood pressure; and high cholesterol. And, even after being diagnosed with one or more of these conditions, there’s no evidence of people initiating lifestyle changes that might improve their health.

“But,” you’re thinking, “those statistics apply to other people, not to me. I really try to take care of myself.”

If you’re a patient at WholeHealth Chicago, I completely agree. I’ve been in practice for more than 30 years and can say confidently that our patients are the healthiest I’ve ever encountered. Most internists spend their lives tracking the downward spirals of their patients, endlessly adjusting medications until a series of hospitalizations end in a death certificate. Happily, not me. The single most common question I hear: “Is there anything else I should be doing?” The writers of this journal article would have all their gloomy data skewed to goodness if they knew about you guys.

Here are a few happier statistics: We take care of about 2,000 patients at WholeHealth Chicago. This is a larger number than other practices because you are all undeniably healthier, take care of minor problems yourselves, and live lifestyles so health-oriented that most physicians (including unfortunately myself) would find them difficult to match.

If you’re sitting in our lobby and look around, know that virtually all the people you see eat a healthful diet, exercise a lot, don’t smoke, drink modestly, and try to keep their weight under control. (On this last point, some are better than others, but virtually none of you live on junk or fast foods.)

The results? Whereas most internists have two or three patients in the hospital at all times, I have two or three per year, usually for a surgical problem such as appendicitis. Regarding illness triggered by unhealthful lifestyles, in comparison to other practices, I care for a relatively small number of people who have high blood pressure (triggered mainly by genetic issues, rather than lifestyle ones), a mere ten people with diabetes, exactly one patient with emphysema from smoking, and none with alcohol cirrhosis of the liver. Although I would refer any patient who’d had a heart attack to a cardiologist, no one in my practice has had a heart attack or stroke during the past seven years. I seriously doubt if any internal medicine practice in Chicago could match those numbers and I owe these enviable statistics to your collective diligence.

When warning signs start appearing on test results (early diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure), virtually all WholeHealth Chicago patients want to try lifestyle changes first, including a meeting with nutritionist Marla Feingold, an exercise program, or a trial of alternative therapies (herbs, acupuncture, homeopathy). Prescription meds are most often viewed as a last resort. Can these chronic conditions be reversed with lifestyle changes? You bet!

As far as healthy choices and their consequences, you guys get an A. “But,” you may be thinking, “if we’re all so healthy, why is Dr E’s office so crowded?” This is definitely a reasonable question.

The one lifestyle issue the journal article did not address was stress, ad this is because the effects of stress are symptoms rather than actual measurable disease. Here’s a list of the major symptoms that bring people into office, and also account for why the office is busy:

• Fatigue (including adrenal and thyroid fatigue), the single most common symptom, sometimes persistent enough to be classified as chronic fatigue syndrome.
• This is followed by muscle aches and pains, sometimes worsening to fibromyalgia; tension and migraine headaches; digestive symptoms with no apparent flaws in the gastrointestinal system (e.g., irritable bowel syndrome); menstrual disorders, including PMS and menopause symptoms; sleep disturbances; depression; and anxiety with panic attacks. With most of these symptoms, there are no positive test results, so strictly speaking, no actual disease is present.

The overall numbers for each of these diagnoses have been steadily increasing every year–no surprise, considering the state of the world.

So on the one hand, our patients deserve major congratulations for their healthful lifestyle choices, which allow me to thumb my nose at the naysayers in the American Journal of Medicine.

But next, look carefully at your life and work with equal diligence to get stress issues under control. With your good overall health dramatically increasing your odds of living well into your 90s, take some steps now to make all those healthy years happy and stress-free ones as well.

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