Best Doctors 2012: 15 pieces of wisdom for a healthier lifestyle

Chocolate, Winning

It's not like you need a reason to love chocolate. But here's one anyway: Post-menopausal women who ate a serving of dark chocolate more than once a week decreased their risk of heart trouble, according to a 2012 study. "If you consumed chocolate once or more a week, you had less hospital admission or death from cardiovascular events," says Dr. Betul Hatipoglu, a staff endocrinologist at the Cleveland Clinic. Plus, the darker you go, the more heart-healthy flavanoids you'll get and the less likely you are to eat the whole bar.

A Season of Change

Think twice before eating those Doritos. "Seventy-five percent of the salt we take in comes from processed foods," says Dr. Michael C. Smith, University Hospitals division of nephrology and hypertension. Avoiding just one or two processed foods each day could make a big difference, according to a 2010 New England Journal of Medicine study. By cutting out just 3 grams of salt per day, we could eliminate between 32,000 and 66,000 strokes per year and between 54,000 to 99,000 heart attacks per year.

Good Humor

As silly as it sounds, a 2011 University of Maryland study concluded that laughter really is some of the best medicine. Test subjects who watched a gory 15-minute clip from Saving Private Ryan experienced up to 50 percent blood vessel constriction, while those who watched portions of the comedies There's Something About Mary and Kingpin were observed to have blood vessel dilation that lasted an hour. "Fun and funny can help the heart," says Dr. Sanjay Gandhi, MetroHealth's director of endovascular cardiology. "Studies like this show laughter has a biological effect."

Age Assessment

conditions such as memory loss and depression don't have to be an unavoidable part of the aging process. "There are a lot of false assumptions by older adults and their family members," says Dr. Nancy A. Istenes, medical director of long-term and transitional care services at Summa. Studies show that a geriatric assessment, which typically involves a geriatrician, a nurse and a social worker, can reduce the likelihood of functional declines by 36 percent. "We review [the patient's] condition, medications, home life and what resources or support they have," Istenes says, "and come up with a care plan for them."

Snooze to Lose

Getting a few extra hours of sleep can pay off when it comes to your waistline. A 2011 study found that in two groups of men on restrictive diets, those who slept for 7 1/2 hours lost significantly more weight than those who slept for 5 1/2 hours. "Sleep is like nutrition and exercise," says Dr. Robert Truax, a family medicine physician at University Hospitals. "It is not something you do one night to make up for many nights of poor sleep." He says some people find a light snack before bed can help bring on the Z's.

Cell Theory

Although studies have yet to find a link between mobile phone use and brain tumors, proceed with caution, says Dr. Lisa Rogers, medical director of the neuro-oncology program at University Hospitals and staff member at the Seidman Cancer Center. "There's less radiation exposure if you're in an area with good reception," she says. "If you're in a moving car, or an elevator, your phone has to work harder and it gives off more radiation."

Tummy Time

The effects of probiotics are being lauded in yogurts and vitamins. But do they really make a difference? "Some people might notice an improvement, but it's difficult to tell which [probiotic] is going to help," says Dr. Aaron Brzezinski, staff gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic Digestive Disease Institute. A 2011 study in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology found that irritable bowel syndrome patients who took the probiotic S. boulardii had a quality-of-life improvement of 15 percent compared to 7 percent in a placebo group. The theory is good, says Brzezinski, but the data is just not strong yet. "It's likely that probiotics do have a beneficial effect," he says, "but it varies from patient to patient."

Bone Bank

Running a 5k might be just as important as your 401(k) when thinking about your retirement. A 2012 study published by Osteoporosis International, which compared 25-year-old Swedish women, found that frequent high-impact exercise — such as jogging or spinning — increased a subject's bone mineral density in her hip by up to 8.5 percent. Dr. Nora Singer, director of rheumatology at MetroHealth, says it's crucial for everyone, especially women, to build bone strength while they're young. "Women have an increase in bone loss just around and after menopause," she says. "If they start with higher bone mass, it takes longer to get to a lower bone mass when they are at higher risk for fracture."

Skin Sin

Embrace your pasty skin. A 2011 study from Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that using a tanning bed even one time per year during high school or college increased the risk of basal cell skin cancer by 10 percent, says Dr. Allison Vidimos, chairman of the department of dermatology at the Cleveland Clinic. Those who tanned six or more times in one year had an 82 percent higher risk of the disease. Tanning beds don't offer vitamin D benefits. "The light that you get is mainly UVA," she says. "That's not the right wavelength to activate the vitamin D in your skin."

Baby Steps

Indulging in those pregnancy cravings can add extra pounds, so women should think twice before eating that second bowl of ice cream. Obesity is one of the leading causes for gestational diabetes, which can lead to a higher rate of cesarean section. Dr. Vivian von Gruenigen, chair of the OB-GYN department at Summa Akron City Hospital, recommends women keep track of calories and physical activity every day. "Get 10,000 steps in a day," she suggests. "Research tells us that moderate-intensity exercise also has a benefit in elevating your heart rate to a point where [it will] have a significant effect."

Stretch Goal

Yoga does more than just relieve the stress in your life; it can relieve the stress on your back. A 2011 National Institutes of Health study found that participants with low back pain who took a weekly yoga class (and stretched on their own for 20 minutes every other day) reported taking less pain medication during follow-up visits six weeks, three months and six months later. Some even reported their back pain was completely gone. "I encourage every patient to exhaust all nonoperative treatment — lifestyle modification, physical therapy, massage, yoga, medications and injections — before considering surgery," says Dr. Timothy A. Moore, a member of the MetroHealth orthopedic spine team.

Screen Analysis

While it's much easier to let your kids watch that Phineas & Ferb marathon than get them outside to play, studies have shown that watching more than four hours of TV a day increases a child's chances of obesity. Dr. Molly Shaw, a general pediatrician at Akron Children's Hospital, says overweight children have a higher rate of carrying their weight issues into adulthood. She recommends annual checkups to keep the child and the parent on the right track. "It's hard to realize a child is overweight just by looking at them," she says. "We [can talk about] recommendations for eating and exercise."

Internal Info

Colonoscopies may not be fun, but they can be lifesaving. A recent study found that a colonoscopy can significantly reduce the risk of death from colon cancer by finding lesions on the left side of the colon. "Colon cancer is a very curable disease," says Dr. Smitha Krishnamurthi, gastrointestinal disease team leader for University Hospitals' Seidman Cancer Center. "So that is an advantage of a colonoscopy — it can visualize the polyp, and in the same procedure you can have the polyp removed."

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