Editorial: Healthy approach to a new year

  • Nurse taking a patient's blood pressure using a sphygmomanometer. Closeup view. Lisa F. Young

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

It is midway through January and many of us are thinking, as usual, that it’s time for a fresh start with good habits.

The annual bombardment of advice is in full force from all corners: Eat better, exercise more, drink less. One trending resolution is to do a “dry” January. No alcohol for a month. That’s not a bad idea.

We’ll add to those suggestions by highlighting two new health recommendations that emerged last fall. Pay attention to new high blood pressure guidelines, and, if you’re over 50, get the new shingles vaccine that’s twice as effective as the old one.

The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology now say that if your blood pressure measures 130/80 mm or more, you are considered to have high blood pressure and a higher risk for a heart attack and stroke. Previously, the threshold was 140/90 mm.

The first number (systolic) measures the blood pressure against the artery walls when the heart contracts; the second (diastolic) describes the pressure as the heart relaxes between beats. When the force of the blood is elevated, it makes the heart work harder, which can cause such problems as inflammation in the arteries and scar tissue that can lead to heart failure and other issues.

Using the new guidelines, the American Heart Association reports that the number of people with high blood pressure jumps from 72 million to 103 million. That means a whole lot more of us need to pay closer attention to diet and exercise since eating right and getting the body moving regularly can help keep blood pressure down.

We’ve all heard it before: Eat more fruits, nuts and vegetables. Consume less salt, sugar, saturated fats and carbs. Limit alcohol. And exercise at least 2½ hours a week.

Improving your diet doesn’t mean cutting out everything you like. Moderation is always the way to go and dietitian Fatemeh Giahi of Amherst steers people to the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet promoted by the United States National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. It’s found on the National Institute of Health’s website at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/dash-eating-plan. A good first step would be to check it out. You also will find some tools there to help track your food and exercise habits.

That sounds simple enough, especially when an expert like Dr. Heba Wessis, a cardiologist at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, says she has seen many patients suffer heart attacks and strokes that could have been prevented by lifestyle changes. “There are so many things that can be managed by managing your blood pressure,” she told Gazette reporter Lisa Spear. “Screen yourself. Check it out.”

Wessis points out that it’s easy to find the means to do that. Pharmacies, including those in grocery stores, for example, usually have blood pressure monitors.

Then there is that new shingles vaccine, Shingrix.

Shingles, the disease that attacks the nervous system and can produce a large, oozing, painful rash that often lingers, is serious. So, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta suggests that everybody over 50 who has had chicken pox get the new vaccine, it’s a good idea to do so, even if you’ve had the previous one, Zostavax.

Shingles is a reactivation of the chicken pox virus which sleeps quietly in your nervous system until it awakens, usually when you’re older. Doctors don’t know why the virus suddenly comes to life. Speculation is that immune systems weaken as they age.

Health professionals say Shingrix has a 90 percent to 97 percent rate of effectiveness, compared to Zostavax, which is only half as effective. But you need a prescription for Shingrix, unlike Zostavax that is available simply by walking into a pharmacy.

And you should check your insurance plan to see whether it’s covered. Since Shingrix is so new, area pharmacists, who are just getting their shipments in now, were uncertain when asked about its cost.

There are surely countless other ways to make 2018 a good one for yourself, but taking a few steps to protect your health is a strong start.