Assessing Your Health Overview

Wouldn't it be nice if there were one universal home diagnostic test kit that could determine how healthy you are, warn you about potential problems, and offer suggestions on how to head off problems before they ever come to the surface?

Unfortunately, an infinite number of variables intertwine to form the mosaic of an individual's health and well-being. Some of these factors are handed down through generations of a family. Some of them might result from drugs a mother took when she was pregnant or a father's workplace exposure to toxic chemicals. Still others relate to the way an individual has lived his or her life. 

Evaluating the state of your health, then, is a complex issue, rife with approximations, theories, and guesses. This article will describe the interplay of several important factors that you should be aware of because they can influence your health. Here's a preview.

  • How to Make a Family Medical HistoryTracing your family history can give you clues about the diseases you might be susceptible to. Learning about illnesses in your family and the circumstances of family members' deaths might help you spot early warning signs and prevent life-threatening illnesses. Unfortunately, the information you find in your family tree might not always give you clear answers about your personal health.
  • How to Assess Your LifestyleYour lifestyle, including diet, activity level, alcohol intake, and tobacco use, can have a profound effect on your health. Many life-threatening diseases can be prevented through lifestyle changes, such as cutting back on alcoholic beverages or quitting that smoking habit. Exercise alone can make profound improvements to your overall health.
  • Your Health Report CardOur ten-question quiz can help you determine what your risk factors might be. You can use your score to evaluate your overall health risk. Talk to your doctor about potential changes you can make to your lifestyle to improve your health.

There are many things you can do, and many more things you can avoid, to keep yourself in tip-top health. Vist the links below for more information.

  • A good way to spot early warning signs and potential problems is to perform regular self diagnostics. Learn more in How to Administer Self-Exams.
  • Secondhand smoke can be hazardous to your health. To learn about the risks, visit How Secondhand Smoke Works.
  • Excessive alcohol intake can cause liver damage, ulcers, high blood pressure, and other long-term ailments. Learn more in How Alcohol Works.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

©2007 Publications International, Ltd. Knowing your family's medical history gives you a better idea about what your health risks might be.

How to Make a Family Medical History

Genealogy used to be an exercise in simple curiosity -- tracing your family tree to learn where your clan came from and how they lived. Increasingly, the search for identity and family has taken on the goal of revealing a medical legacy. Instead of mere curiosity about whom the father of Aunt Flo's children was, the goal becomes finding out how old your uncle was when he died, and -- perhaps more importantly -- whether he died of any illnesses that might have been passed along to you and yours.

What does your family history say about your health? Research is increasingly linking diseases and conditions -- from lactose intolerance to depression to premature heart disease -- to the genes you inherited. If your father and all of his brothers developed coronary blockages in their 40s, chances are, your risk is higher than that of the general population. Knowing this gives you the power to take preventive measures early in life, possibly heading off an early heart attack.

Likewise, researchers have discovered that a woman with two immediate relatives with breast cancer is far more likely to develop the disease than a woman without breast cancer in her family. Knowing this, she might opt to get an early start on a program of annual mammograms.

The problem is getting the truth about a family's medical history. For a variety of reasons (often embarrassment), a family may hide or disguise the real cause of a relative's death. Also, in previous generations, when diagnostic technology was not as effective as it is now, physicians may not have known the real cause of death. 

To find out the truth about your own family's medical history, you may have to ask your relatives some very tough questions. You may also have to be somewhat of a detective, piecing together anecdotes and stories to get to the heart of the matter. 

Be aware, however, that even if several members of your family suffered from a particular illness or health condition, you are not automatically condemned to the same fate. First of all, families pass on habits to each other, as well as genes. Many risk factors for disease are environmental -- meaning that they are affected by chemicals in the environment, diet, activity, stress levels, and so on. People in the same family may suffer from the same diseases because they live their lives in similar ways. 

Also, you may not have been born with the same genes that caused an illness in a relative. Your genes come equally from both of your parents. For this reason, your personal characteristics (eye color, hair color, tendency to develop a particular illness, and so on) are a merger of your parents' individual characteristics. Some genes -- such as the gene for brown eyes -- are dominant, meaning that it only takes one gene from one parent to produce the trait in the offspring. Other genes -- such as the gene for blue or green eyes -- are recessive, meaning that one must be passed on from each parent to produce the trait in the offspring.

Some diseases, such as Tay-Sachs and sickle-cell disease, tend to run in particular ethnic groups. However, if an individual marries outside of that ethnic group, the chances are lower that both parents will carry the gene for an inherited disease. For example, if a woman of Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, Jewish descent has children with a man who is not of Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, Jewish descent, the chances that her children will develop Tay-Sachs are much lower than if she had married an Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, Jewish man. Hence, even though a disease may run in your family, your particular genetic makeup may spare you from developing it. 

Also, some genetic tendencies skip a generation or are linked to the sex of the offspring. For example, the gene for baldness seems to be handed down from the maternal grandfather. 

The bottom line is that while you should pay close attention to your family's medical history, the interpretation of what that history means to you might not always be clear. A genetic counselor may be able to clarify your risk factors. The important thing is to be aware of the legacy that has been handed you by your ancestors.

Your diet, alcohol intake, exercise routine, and tobacco use all have an impact on your health. On the next page, learn about assessing your lifestyle to pinpoint potential problem areas.

There are many things you can do, and many more things you can avoid, to keep yourself in tip-top health. Vist the links below for more information.

  • A good way to spot early warning signs and potential problems is to perform regular self diagnostics. Learn more in How to Administer Self-Exams.
  • Secondhand smoke can be hazardous to your health. To learn about the risks, visit How Secondhand Smoke Works.
  • Excessive alcohol intake can cause liver damage, ulcers, high blood pressure, and other long-term ailments. Learn more in How Alcohol Works.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

©2007 Publications International, Ltd. Many life-threatening illnesses are linked to lifesyle factors.

How to Assess Your Lifestyle

You are free to live your life in the style you choose. You can eat what you want, drink what you like, live where you want to live, work wherever they'll hire you. (After all, the pursuit of happiness is the American way.) However, although your lifestyle choices may not affect anyone else, you may (consciously or unconsciously) be writing the conclusion to your own life. 

Many life-threatening diseases -- including heart disease, emphysema, stroke, and certain forms of cancer -- are linked to lifestyle factors. In other words, these illnesses are partly caused by poor eating habits, tobacco use, a lack of physical activity, and so on. 

These diseases are largely preventable. You play a large role in reducing your risk of developing them. If you really want to keep tabs on your health, start by taking stock of your lifestyle. Are any of the following habits part of your routine?

Smoking. Perhaps the most damaging lifestyle choice you can make is to smoke cigarettes. Smoking is the most preventable cause of illness and death in the United States. 

Aside from commonly known health repercussions of smoking (lung cancer, emphysema, and other respiratory diseases), cigarette smoking or second-hand smoke has also been implicated in skin cancer, ulcers, bronchitis, sudden infant death syndrome, ear infections, and strokes. 

Smoking also affects your health in more indirect ways. For example, heavy smokers often have a hard time breathing deeply. For this reason, they may engage in less physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to other problems, including osteoporosis, obesity, low energy, and an impaired immune system. 

Of the 4,000 or so chemicals in tobacco smoke, 200 are known to be poisonous to human beings. Carbon monoxide, tar, and nicotine are the three most dangerous. Carbon monoxide decreases the amount of oxygen that your red blood cells can carry. Tar coats and clogs up the lungs and carries known carcinogens. Nicotine -- the addictive agent in cigarette smoke -- affects the cardiovascular and nervous systems.

Alcohol abuse. The most popular and accepted drug in America is alcohol. Its abuse can affect almost every system in the body. As a result, heavy drinkers often begin a gradual downward cycle, in which their bodies begin to degenerate slowly. 

The liver, of course, is most vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Cirrhosis -- or chronic inflammation -- of the liver occurs in about 20 percent of all heavy drinkers. Heavy drinking is also thought to contribute to high blood pressure, which is a leading risk factor for strokes. Other possible physical manifestations of alcohol abuse include trembling hands, chronic gastrointestinal problems, and easy bruising. 

Heavy drinking and alcoholism can also take a toll on your emotional health and your relationships. Many people, when drunk, become physically or verbally abusive and are not in control of their actions.

Alcoholism is an illness. In fact, like heart disease or diabetes, alcoholism tends to run in families. For this reason, if your mother, father, grandparents, or aunts and uncles suffered from alcoholism, it would be wise for you to be very prudent about your own drinking.

How much drinking is considered "heavy"? Since everyone has a different tolerance to the effects of alcohol, there is no real answer to this question. In general, it is advised that males have no more than two drinks per day and females and persons over age 65 have no more than one drink per day.

Risky sexual behavior. It's gotten enough publicity that you're probably aware of it, but it never hurts to restate the obvious: Having unprotected sex with an individual who carries a sexually transmitted infection or disease (such as hepatitis B or HIV) can be fatal. 

What is unprotected sex? Sexual or genital-to-genital contact without a latex or polyurethane condom or barrier, such as a dental dam. This includes traditional sexual intercourse, anal intercourse, oral contact with the sexual organs or anus, or any activity that brings an individual in contact with an open sore or lesion (such as a genital wart or cold sore). 

How do you know if you're with an infected individual? Frankly, you don't. Viruses and other organisms that cause sexually transmitted infections are not selective, and anyone who has had sex can be infected. In other words, moral convictions and personal habits aside, the only way to know if you have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection is to get tested. Early detection will allow you to get early treatment. Also, early detection will help you protect those you love.

Your activity level. Regular exercise confers many health benefits:

  • Building lean body mass (which helps prevent obesity)
  • Preserving bone density (which helps stave off osteoporosis)
  • Improving the ratio of "bad" low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) to "good" high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) in the blood (which can help prevent heart disease)
  • Reducing blood pressure
  • Reducing resting heart rate
  • Increasing energy and vigor
  • Improving sleep
  • Alleviating mild stress or depression

How much exercise do you need to stay healthy? In general, you should engage in at least 30 minutes of a moderately intense physical activity, such as a brisk walk, on most days of the week. To help manage weight and prevent gradual, unhealthy weight gain in adulthood, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommends 60 minutes of moderately to vigorously intense physical activity while not exceeding your caloric intake needs.

©2007 Publications International, Ltd.Your diet is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to maintaining good health.

Your diet. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 offer the following recommendations:

  • Consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages within and among the basic food groups while choosing foods that limit the intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, and alcohol.
  • Find your balance between the calories you get from foods and beverages and the calories you expend each day. Meet recommended intakes within energy needs by adopting a balanced eating plan, such as a custom one for you from MyPyramid.gov -- Steps to a Healthier You or the DASH Eating Plan. For more information about eating plans, visit www.mypyramid.gov.
  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. Select from all five vegetable subgroups (dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables) several times a week.
  • Eat three or more ounce-equivalents of whole-grain products per day.
  • When selecting and preparing meat, poultry, and dry beans, make choices that are lean, low fat, or fat free.
  • Consume about three cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products per day.
  • Keep total fat intake between 20 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
  • Moderate your intake of salt, sugar, and processed foods. 

There are many things you can do, and many more things you can avoid, to keep yourself in tip-top health. Vist the links below for more information.

  • A good way to spot early warning signs and potential problems is to perform regular self diagnostics. Learn more in How to Administer Self-Exams.
  • Secondhand smoke can be hazardous to your health. To learn about the risks, visit How Secondhand Smoke Works.
  • Excessive alcohol intake can cause liver damage, ulcers, high blood pressure, and other long-term ailments. Learn more in How Alcohol Works.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

©2007 Publications International, Ltd. Knowing about the important factors that influence your health can help you make sensible improvements to your lifestyle.

Your Health Report Card

Now that you have an idea of the most important factors that can influence an individual's overall health, here is an opportunity to rate your own. The following quiz is not meant to be a substitute for a doctor's assessment. However, it may serve as a useful starting point for a discussion with your physician. In addition, your score may prompt you to make some sensible improvements to your lifestyle. 

Answer the following questions:

  1. Is there a history of heart disease, cancer, stroke, or other inherited illnesses in your family?
  2. Do you smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products? 
  3. Do you drink more than two alcoholic beverages daily? 
  4. Do you use illegal drugs? 
  5. Have you engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse? 
  6. Do you drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs? 
  7. Do you always wear your seat belt? 
  8. Do you engage in a program of regular exercise? 
  9. Do you eat a healthy diet? 
  10. Are you within five pounds of your recommended weight for your height and age?

For questions 1-6, give yourself 10 points for each "no" answer. For questions 7-10, give yourself 10 points for every "yes." Add up your score, and grade yourself on a traditional scale:

  • 90-100 = A
  • 80-90 = B
  • 70-80 = C
  • 60-70 = D
  • below 60 = F (a failing grade)

Remember, honesty is the best policy. If you cheat, you're only cheating yourself.  Once you know where you stand you can reassess how your lifestyle is affecting your health. If your score is not where you would like it to be, what changes can you make to improve it? Which categories need the most work? Use this report card as a starting place to discuss your overall health with your physician and to make necessary lifestyle changes.There are many things you can do, and many more things you can avoid, to keep yourself in tip-top health. Vist the links below for more information.

  • A good way to spot early warning signs and potential problems is to perform regular self diagnostics. Learn more in How to Administer Self-Exams.
  • Secondhand smoke can be hazardous to your health. To learn about the risks, visit How Secondhand Smoke Works.
  • Excessive alcohol intake can cause liver damage, ulcers, high blood pressure, and other long-term ailments. Learn more in How Alcohol Works.

Brianna Politzer is a freelance writer specializing in health, fitness, nutrition, and technology. She has contributed to many consumer publications, including The Home Remedies Handbook, Women's Home Remedies Health Guide, and The Medical Book of Health Hints and Tips.  This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.