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life expectancy

When it comes to being healthy, the U.S. is not a world leader

Do you think that the United States has the best health care in the world? Do you live in fear that someday the United States will have a government-based health care program like those found in Europe or Canada? If so, perhaps it is time for a reality check. The fact is that according to research published in BMJ, life expectancy in the U.S. is lower than 18 other developed countries.

In a paper published in The BMJ, authors Ho and Hendi compared life expectancy trends from 1990 to 2015 in 18 countries commonly used in cross national comparisons. The U.S. was at the bottom of the list. Japan was on top, followed by Switzerland. The average life expectancy in the U.S. was 78.9 years, whereas in Japan it was 84. That is a five-year difference.

Here is the part that really horrified me: In most of the countries that are experiencing declines in life expectancy, the declines occurred mostly in the older age range (≥65 years). Causes of death were related to respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, nervous system disease, and mental disorders. In the United States, the declines in life expectancy were more concentrated at younger ages (0-65 years). Drug overdose is one of the key reasons for this decline. Suicide was the next most significant contributor.

When it comes to being healthy, the United States is not a world leader. Tragically, its people are dying too quickly, too unnecessarily, and too young.


Nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016

What are you doing in the next hour? Whatever it is, note that more than 5 people will die as a result of suicide. Firearms deliver the deadly blow for more than half of all suicides. For every death by suicide, there will be 25 attempts.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and is one of three leading causes that are on the rise. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans are twice as likely as civilians to die by suicide. White males accounted for 7 of 10 suicides in 2016. The suicide rate is highest during middle age, particularly among white males.

I have my own story about suicide. Depression drove me to numerous attempts during my teen and young adult years. My last attempt was over 30 years ago. I nearly died from that attempt.

I used to have a lot of shame about my history of suicide. However, now I use the experience as a way to bring greater awareness to this preventable tragedy. I know that I was sick. I was one of the lucky ones, not only to survive, but to get genuine help for my mental illness.

For the last 30 years, I’ve been making up for lost time. I love being alive. I savor nearly every moment, and when I lose my way, all I have to do is think back to my misery, give thanks for second chances, and relish this life I have.

Last Saturday I participated in a walk to raise awareness about suicide. Sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide, the Walk to Fight Suicide was a huge success. However, I was aware that many of the people who participated were there in memory of those who died. I was so grateful that my family and friends did not have to participate in my memory.

What you can do: Be prepared. Here is information I hope you will never need, but if you do, it’s a good place to start.   Please keep this information on your phone or some other convenient place. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.


Chronically Ill and Looking Good

When you are ill, does it bother you when people say you look good?

Few words are more irritating to someone who has a chronic illness than, “You look good.” During my hepatitis C treatments, I cannot tell you how often I heard, “You look great,” and think, “Yes, the pale pallor of anemia leaves my skin milky white. Would you like to see the rash that seems to be everywhere other than my face and feet? It’s gorgeous.”

Talk to chronically ill people, and ask them if they are bothered by these glowing remarks about their appearance; chances are they will say yes. Although the comments are well-intended, the recipient feels invalidated rather than complimented.

We sometimes hide how we feel. Our society values beauty, strength, and productivity. When we can’t live up to those standards we may conceal our illness.  When asked, “How are you?” we will often reply that we are fine—even if we aren’t.

We may have good reasons for not wanting to admit that we don’t feel well. It may be inappropriate in social or professional situations to be overly honest. President George H.W. Bush probably didn’t tell the prime minister of Japan that he wasn’t feeling well before emptying his stomach contents on the prime minister at a state dinner. We expect our president to be invincible; we don’t want to see him sick, and he is unlikely to admit as such.

Although we aren’t heads of state, we may not want our bosses, neighbors, or casual acquaintances to know when we are sick. We are vulnerable when we are ill and admitting so makes us feel more vulnerable. Acting as if we are fine is a way to exert control in a situation over which we feel powerless.

It takes courage to admit being unwell. Recently a close friend asked me, “How are you?” I told her the truth, and it was more than she wanted to hear. She was just calling to borrow a cup of sugar. With tongue in cheek, she told me she’ll never ask me how I am again.

Perhaps we can’t educate people, or get them to understand how difficult living with a chronic illness is; how their well-meaning remarks hurt, rather than help us. However, what we can do is use our yearning for sympathy and understanding to teach us how to be compassionate. One day I will ask my friend, “How are you?” and she will need me to listen to her answer. If nothing else, my own experience with chronic illness has shown me how to be more sympathetic.


The Flu Shot Debate

Time to get a flu shot

Here are subjects I do not debate:

  • Whether the world is round or flat
  • Whether the earth travels around the sun or the sun around the earth
  • Whether dinosaurs and humans lived together
  • The necessity of immunizations

I have opinions on various issues, but when it comes to scientific proof, I don’t waste my time arguing facts. The earth is round, and it travels around the sun. The only place where humans and dinosaurs coexisted was on the Flintstones. I just got my flu shot.

I know that discussions about immunizations are controversial, but if speaking up means I lose readers but save lives, then it’s a risk worth taking.

When I think about flu shots, my mind goes to World War I, fought from 1914 to 1918. That horrible war took the lives of 16 to 17 million people in the world. More than 20 million were wounded. In the last year of that war, a flu epidemic began. Called the Spanish flu, it raged on for two years. There were 500 million infections, killing between 50 and 100 million people in the world.

People say they never had the flu until they got the shot. That argument doesn’t hold water. Either you got your shot too late, you got a strain of the flu that isn’t covered by the vaccine, or you had a one-day immune response which may make you feel like crap for the day, but isn’t anywhere like having the flu. If you are over 65, high dose flu shots are recommended, and some people feel a bit low and fluish the next day. This is not the flu – it is an immune system reaction.

Those who should not get a flu shot are:

  • Children younger than 6 months of age.
  • Those who have had a severe allergic reaction to chicken eggs or influenza vaccine.
  • People who have a moderate-to-severe illness with a fever should seek medical advice to see if they should wait until they recover to get vaccinated.
  • People with a history of Guillain–Barré Syndrome  should talk to their doctor to help decide whether the vaccine is recommended.

Now is the time to get the shot, assuming it is available in your area. If you have any kind of medical insurance, it should be free. Most chain-store pharmacies and medical clinics offer flu shots. Some communities have free clinics.  My town offers drive-through flu shot clinics; you don’t even have to get out of your car!

Don’t wait too long. The flu is brutal.


Meditation brings balance and health

Let’s face it – health problems can shake us up. A new diagnosis or symptom can start the wheels of worry, causing us to get stuck in a cycle of constant fear, sleeplessness, and imaginary conversations starting with the question, ‘what- if?’.

Eventually, resignation or acceptance begins to replace raw fear. Worry comes and goes, depending on our symptoms. Stress seems to always be lurking. It may reside in the background, but the stress reaction seems ready to pounce at the slightest provocation.

The connection between stress and poor health is well-established. Stress has been studied thoroughly, and we can safely conclude that worry, anxiety, and stress are harmful to the health. However, knowing that stress hurts me just makes me worry more, and that makes me feel worse. How do we stop living with anxiety, especially when it is caused by outside forces, such as insurance companies, medical visits, and relentless symptoms?

How do we cope? Meditation or other mindfulness-based practices are a good place to start. Meditation is an ancient practice of controlling the mind. The benefits are numerous, including greater awareness, peace, focus, etc. In 1975, Harvard professor Herbert Benson, MD, propelled meditation into mainstream medicine. In his bestseller, The Relaxation Response, Benson described the biology of stress, arguing that meditation, prayer and other relaxation techniques could offset the harmful effects of stress.

Research has shown that meditation lowers blood pressure, relieves pain, improves heart disease, and reduces insomnia. It helps patients cope with cancer and the side effects of chemotherapy. Meditation is used for infertility, premenstrual syndrome, and psychological problems.

Using principles by Benson and others, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed an eight-week program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). MSBR uses a menu of practices, including meditation and yoga in order to increase mindfulness. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy is a variation of MSBR developed for people with depression. It includes recognizing thought patterns, and learning how to break them. MBSR programs are offered across the U.S. as well as online. For more information, visit www.mindfullivingprograms.com.

If you want to learn mindfulness in the comfort of your own home, there are many resources. Here are a few to try:

  • Headspace (www.headspace.com) Headspace is a mobile app that offers a variety of programs, depending on your needs. You can try it free, but it is a subscription service. There are ways to reduce the cost, and the monthly fee costs me less than lunch out with a friend.
  • Calm (calm.com) This mobile app is packed with mediation classes aimed at helping with all sorts of issues, including sleep problems. The bedtime stories are my favorite feature. There is a 7-day free trial, followed by an annual fee if you continue with it. The annual fee is significantly less than a single session with a therapist.
  • Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. This book is excellent, and you can download audio meditations, narrated by a man with a relaxing voice. You can get more information and download free meditations at www.franticworld.com

You don’t need a fancy program in order to relax. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Listen to music. It doesn’t even have to be calm music. Your favorite music, even if it is hard rock can transport you past your worries.
  • Get moving. Regular physical activity increases endorphins and other feel-good chemicals in the brain. Plus, it is good for the liver, and every other organ in your body.
  • Share what’s on your mind. Research about cancer patients found that those who talked about their feelings had fewer medical appointments.
  • Help others. Sometimes the best way to get off the thinking treadmill is to help someone else.

Looking for more instruction? Search the web using the word ‘meditate’ or ‘mindfulness’ and explore what the world has to offer. In the meantime, try this: Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat. Repeat.Repeat…


What technology do you use to keep yourself healthy?

Last week I blogged about letting go of happiness apps, web sites and self-help advice. Despite my suggestion to “turn off electronic devices,” let me assure you that I am not anti-technology. In fact, I am a huge fan of technology, just not too much of it.

What bothers me most about modern technology are the interruptions.  As I age, interruptions throw me off track. I read that when interrupted, it takes us an average of 23 minutes to refocus. I couldn’t find the source for this often-quoted information, so I don’t know if it is true or if it applies to people of a certain age. What I do know is that the quality of my writing is better when I am in an uninterrupted flow.

If it were just one interruption, then I’d likely be able to get back to my work, but interruptions seemed near constant, especially if I leave my phone on. While evaluating work habits, expert Gloria Mark (Associate Professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine) found that the average amount of time that people spent on any single event before being interrupted or before switching was three minutes and five seconds, on average. Yikes.

If I didn’t turn off my electronic devices, I’d be constantly interrupted. However, I do use my devices to help me. Here’s how.

  • My Fitbit. This handy luxury is set to tell me to get up and walk every hour. A timer will also work. There are also apps that will send reminders. I like the Fitbit because it signals me with a gentle vibration on my wrist that is hard not to ignore but doesn’t trigger a startle reflex. It also sends me a reminder that it is bedtime. Sometimes I want to argue with it, but then I tell myself that these are my goals, not Fitbit’s.
  • I use two meditation apps: Calm and Headspace. I like both for different reasons, but currently Calm is getting more use. However, Headspace is excellent. Note that both have free trials, but be sure to know the length of the trial should you decide not to purchase the app or a monthly subscription.

Although I’m smitten with technology, I confine my use to daytime hours. Most evenings, I am off the computer and phone. By most Americans’ standards, my TV watching is minimal and I stop an hour before bedtime. Sleep is an important part of my self-care, and I get too stirred up by the content and light coming from electronic devices. I prefer to read or listen to music.

If I sound like a Luddite, let me assure you that I’ve watched my fair share of TV over the years. But too many sleepless nights occurred when I stayed up late. Sleep-deprivation helped me recognize the link. I’d love to binge watch Game of Thrones or The Wire, but I like sleep even more. So, I just skip those shows and have sweet dreams instead.

If you use technology to keep you healthy, what do you use?