Given how sick Americans seem, you might think disease is waiting for you on every doorknob, urinal, handshake and hamburger—one of life’s inevitabilities. But in actuality, many diseases can be prevented. Past data has shown up to 40 percent of the 900,000 deaths in America every year didn’t even need to happen.
While you can’t control everything, some of the most common culprits behind these health issues—including heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and stroke—can be halted simply by making some positive changes in your life.
To ensure you stay healthy for years to come, take some advice from the health experts who know best. From doctors to registered dietitians, these are the best ways to fight off disease.
Getting additional tests done while you’re at the doctor isn’t the most fun thing in the world. What it is, though, is life-saving.
“Get preventative tests, as well as tests that show you what imbalances you may have internally that you may not even know about. These tests show information that traditional medical lab draws do not, like nutrient balance, metabolism rate, detailed hormonal pathways, gastrointestinal status for proper gut health, and heavy metal toxicity,” says Maggie Berghoff, FNP-C, a family nurse practitioner. “When you know this information, you can heal and rewire the body to perform at optimal function, preventing any disease or nagging symptoms. These tests are specialty functional medicine tests and include blood draws or at-home collections of stool, saliva, or hair. You can reach out to a functional medicine practitioner to have them ordered and interpreted.”
There’s no better time than now to add probiotics into your life. The “good” bacteria—which you can get from fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, kombucha, and sauerkraut or supplements—give your gut health a boost, better helping you digest food. The Cleveland Clinic says they can also help prevent or treat certain diseases, including inflammatory bowel diseases, like Crohn’s.
When you were younger, you challenged your mind every day. As an adult, when’s the last time you did something that really got your brain working? According to Harvard Medical School, there’s some evidence that doing cognitively stimulating activities can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. So grab that crossword puzzle or a new book on a subject you’ve always been curious about. It will do your mind good.
If you can’t remember the last time you got your blood pressure, BMI, or cholesterol checked, it’s time to head to the doctor and fix that.
“We often see disease as complicated, but simply put, you will prevent 80% of all illnesses by adhering to three goals: Have a blood pressure under 130, have a BMI of 25 or less, and keep your cholesterol under 200,” says Steven Lamm, MD, clinical professor of medicine and director of the Tisch Center for Men’s Health at NYU Langone Health. “These three base parameters will lead to a healthier overall lifestyle for anyone.”
Having people around you for love and support does more than make you feel great in the moment. It’s also incredibly important for your health and well-being down the line. “Having a good work-life balance and a good support system is one way to increase your chances of staying healthy after 40,” says Navya Mysore, MD, primary care at One Medical in New York City. “Spend more time with loved ones, like family and friends.” When you have all those positive people around you to go to, you’ll better cope with stress and keep your mood lifted.
What your put in your body can greatly affect your ability to fight off disease. By making sure your diet is healthy and well-rounded, you’ll be setting yourself up for a long, happy life.
“Our Western diet, containing a high percentage of processed foods, can unbeknownst to people cause a pro-inflammatory environment in their bodies. Diets that are high in sugars and fats and low in fruits and vegetables can increase inflammation in the body and place one at risk for the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, and even cancers,” says Adam Kreitenberg, MD, board-certified rheumatologist with 1MD. “Focus on diets that are high in fruits and vegetables, nuts, berries, and fatty fish like salmon, which contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Foods to avoid are sugary soft drinks, red meat, white flour, and fried or fatty foods.”
We get it—it’s really tempting to park in that spot right in front of the grocery store. But by simply parking further away—and rethinking some of your other habits, too!—you’ll set yourself up for a healthier future.
“Any form of increased activity is beneficial. Even parking at the end of the parking lot and walking to the store, mall, or whatever destination helps,” says Michael Fenster, MD, board-certified cardiologist with 1MD. “A little each day really adds up. Recent research suggests as little as 10 minutes a day of activity can yield substantial benefits.”
You know that bright yellow powder sitting on your spice rack? You might want to start incorporating it into more of your meals. Turmeric has been used for centuries for its natural anti-inflammatory properties, and the Mayo Clinic says it could have a positive effect on many different diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. If you start keeping your inflammation at bay now, you’ll stay healthier in the future.
Weight-lifting is still primarily thought of as a man’s thing. Luckily, that stereotype is changing, and that’s a good thing: According to cardiologist Barbara Roberts, MD, it’s not only great for men, but also one of the best things women can do to stay healthy as they age.
“After the age of 40, the average woman loses about a half an inch of height per decade due mainly to osteoporosis. After age 70, height loss is even more rapid. That’s why it’s important for women to start weight lifting by age 40,” she says. “Weight training has been shown to increase bone density by putting stress on bones. A recent study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed that even light weights—about 20% of the maximum they could lift—were effective in increasing bone density in women, as long as they did at least 100 repetitions of the exercise in one hour.”
Have your pants been fitting a little tighter lately? Take that as a sign to start putting a better focus on your health.
“A massive study of the impact of health habits on life expectancy, which included over 120,000 participants, 34 years of data for women, and 28 years of data for men—showed us how important our diet, physical activity, body weight, smoking, and alcohol consumption can be,” says Monique Tello, MD, MPH, internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, instructor at Harvard Medical School, and author of Healthy Habits for Your Heart. “Healthy body weight, as defined as a normal body mass index (BMI), is between 18.5 and 24.9.”
You’ve been told to eat your veggies since you were a kid, and now it’s really time to listen to that life-saving advice.
“Veggies and fruit are loaded with antioxidants that fight off free radicals in our bodies that contribute to diseases and illnesses. Doubling, or even tripling, up on your veggie intake will seriously help up your longevity, as well as boost your energy and mental cognition,” says Brigitte Zeitlin, RD, owner of BZ Nutrition in NYC. “Fruit and vegetables are also high in fiber, which will help to lower cholesterol, improve gut health, maintain a healthy weight, prevent diabetes, and fight inflammation. Aim to have 1 cup of berries at breakfast with oatmeal or plain Greek yogurt, a salad at lunch loaded with a variety of colorful veggies, and a vegetable stir-fry for dinner.”
Instead of loading up on processed junk, clean out your pantry and fill your fridge with produce. “By eating a diet that’s focused on vegetables, healthy sources of protein, and whole grains rather than processed sugars, you can prevent many health problems,” says Nate Favini, MD, chief medical lead at Forward. That includes heart disease, diabetes, and different types of cancer.
For many people, anti-inflammatory health coach Jenny Carr, author of Peace of Cake: The Secret to an Anti-Inflammatory Diet, says experiencing an increase in fatigue, hormonal imbalance, weight gain, brain fog, or subtle digestive disorders, among other symptoms, are due to one culprit: the build-up of inflammation in your body. Unfortunately, not addressing these issues could lead to something worse down the line. Chronic inflammation has been linked to many life-threatening problems.
“Over time these subtle low-lying symptoms can turn into major life-altering illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and more,” Carr says. “The key to living disease free after 40, or any age for that matter, is to melt away the inflammation. By doing so, you can begin to reverse symptoms in your body that impact you from living day to day life of your dreams.” Heal your gut, prevent disease, and slow aging with a book like The 14-Day Anti-Inflammatory Diet.
Sure, eating a healthy diet is important in fighting off disease. One thing most people don’t realize is just as important, though, is reducing the things that don’t bring you joy and instead focusing on your happiness.
“Find ways to reduce stress in life. Delete the things that cause tension and stress and increase those things that bring happiness,” says Brian Greenberg, MD, board-certified allergist/immunologist with 1MD. “Spend as much time as possible doing the things you love and being with the people you love. Keep your big dreams alive and pursue them with vigor. Stay vital and useful.”
As delicious as white flour, white bread, pastries, and white pasta are, it’s time to cut down on refined carbs once and for all. “It’s increasingly clear that refined carbs and sugars drive many chronic diseases. They cause us to gain weight, which leads to elevations in blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease,” Dr. Favini says. When you replace the refined junk with vegetables, fruit, and other wholesome options, you’ll feel better and be healthier.
Cooking with oil is a given. How can you not when it makes everything taste better? When you do use it, just make sure you’re choosing the right kind. While trans fats and oils high in saturated fat like coconut, palm kernel, and cottonseed oil are no-gos, the Cleveland Clinic says using plant-based oils that contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats in moderation—like extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, flaxseed oil, and walnut oil—can help reduce heart disease.
How often do you eat a meal without watching your favorite TV show? The next time you make yourself dinner, ditch the couch and remote and instead sit at the table. It’s a small change, but it can make a big difference in your well-being.
“More and more we’re learning that how we eat affects our health—not just what we eat,” Dr. Fenster says. “Another recent study demonstrated that people perceive food as tasting better—and lower their inflammatory markers—when they take a moment to appreciate their food with whatever means or ritual they prefer.”
Most of the times, the things you need to do to prevent disease involve a lot of work. But sleeping does wonders for your body and it hardly requires any effort at all.
“Sleep affects our health in so many ways,” Zeitlin says. “There are two main ways it helps fight diseases. First, it’s how our body naturally combats stress and anxiety by reducing our levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), which contributes to inflammation. Second, getting enough sleep helps you maintain a healthy weight. People who are overweight or obese have added stress on their bodies, which puts them at greater risk for heart disease and diabetes. Aim to get at least 7 hours of sleep a night to help boost your long-term health.”
One thing to keep in mind is that it’s easier to take the steps to stay healthy and disease-free now than it is trying to get better once you’re already sick. To stay feeling your best, Dr. Lamm says to prioritize your well-being sooner than later.
“Wellness is not the absence of illness. You should be actively managing your wellness, not just reacting to illness,” he says. “The keys to wellness are sleep, stress management, exercise, and nutrition. By managing these, you’ll achieve the base parameters of health.”
Your teeth don’t seem like they would have a lot to do with your overall health, but they do. According to Harvard Medical School, those with gum disease have two to three times the risk of having heart issues, whether that’s a heart attack, stroke, or another life-threatening event. The thought is that gum disease increases inflammation in the body, leading to other health problems. Even though more research still needs to be done, it’s only going to benefit you in the long run to brush and floss every day.
While it’s important to get in the recommended amount of exercise each week, Dr. Kreitenberg says that doesn’t always have to involve going to the gym. Your 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise can also be things you wouldn’t typically think of as exercise.
“An active lifestyle is crucial in maintaining proper health and wellbeing,” he says. “Examples of moderate intensity exercise include light biking, gardening, and brisk walking. Even light aerobic activity—such as casual walking—is better than a sedentary lifestyle. Physical exercise is important to maintain not only cardiovascular health, but also joint health. It’s important, however, to increase the intensity of your exercise over time to avoid injury.”
This is certainly a doctor-approved recommendation to cheers to. If you don’t currently drink alcohol, Fenster says not to start now for health reasons. “But if you currently imbibe, 1 to 2 glasses per day appears to confer a wide range of health benefits,” he notes. The antioxidants in red wine could even help prevent coronary artery disease.
Water isn’t just important for fueling your body and helping you stay energized throughout your day. It’s also key to eliminating inflammation that can cause multiple different health issues.
“Eliminating inflammation may sound like a simple solution, but knowing what steps to take in order to help your cells regenerate as you grow young instead of old—one of the benefits of anti-inflammatory living—can be confusing,” Carr says. “Start with water. Drink loads of it—up to a gallon per day for adults—as the fastest method to push inflammation from your body.”
A glass of wine here and there is one thing. But if you find yourself getting buzzed on the regular, it’s time to put down the booze and reach for a glass of water instead.
“Stick to a moderate intake of alcohol, which—in past research—was measured as between 5 and 15 grams per day for women, and 5 to 30 grams per day for men,” Dr. Tello says. Generally, one drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. That’s 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.”
Stress comes from all different sources, and none of it’s good on your body. By taking a little extra time every day to focus on fighting it off, you’ll notice a change in the way you feel. Especially since letting it build up has been linked to everything from heart disease and cancer to depression and anxiety.
“Individuals that are able to manage their stress tend to be happier and healthier,” Kreitenberg says. “Stress not only affects one’s mood, but also can have profound health ramifications. Stress can lead to poor sleep, weight gain, heart disease and an impaired immune system. Steps one can take to reduce and better manage their stress includes: eating right, regular exercise, meditation, proper sleep and maintaining a positive outlook on life.
With technology, these days you probably talk to your friends through text or messaging more than you actually do in person. Make it your goal to start being a little more extroverted and taking those conversations into real life.
“Talk to people,” Fenster says. “The Harvard Happiness study confirms that the single most important variable in determining the length of our lives and the quality of our health is the quality of our relationships with each other. A lot of Instagram likes is no substitute for a real human relationship. A loving relationship remains the best health investment.”
Sugar isn’t always the enemy: fruit has plenty of it, but it’s a wholesome source. The white stuff you buy on store shelves, on the other hand, isn’t in the slightest.
“Eating too much sugar has been linked to almost every disease that your diet can play a role in, so keeping it in check is crucial for healthy living,” Zeitlin says. “Be mindful of how frequently you are indulging in those cookies, donuts, cupcakes, muffins, and other baked goods, plus the pastas, bagels, cold cereals, and candy. And ditch those sneaky sugars like juices, sodas, bottled dressings, and fat-free foods that are high in sugar to make up for the flavor.”
There’s no reason to pass up eating chocolate as dessert. You just need to choose the right kind. If you ditch sugar-packed milk chocolate and instead go for dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao, you’ll get some heart-helping antioxidants in every bite. An 11-year-long study of nearly 21,000 people published in the journal Heart found those who ate the most dark chocolate had lower rates of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who didn’t eat it at all.
If you’re not currently hitting up the gym or an exercise class on a regular basis, start adding some sessions into your schedule. And don’t be afraid to switch things up. According to Favini, getting a mix of aerobic exercise, high-intensity interval training, and anaerobic exercise is a great way to fight off disease.
“Getting your exercise makes a huge difference. Regular exercise in your 40s continues to have benefits into your golden years, even if you aren’t still exercising when you hit 70,” he says. “Try to get 150 minutes per week of aerobic exercise or high-intensity interval training and spend at least one day’s effort on something that improves your strength, balance and flexibility, like yoga or Pilates.”
If you’re struggling with eating healthy, there’s one main thing to keep in mind: Stick to mostly plants and you’ll be just fine.
“Research shows that a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy protein and low in refined grains, added sugars, and red and processed meats is associated with a lower risk of both heart disease and cancer,” Tello says. “The American Cancer Society’s nutrition guidelines for cancer prevention and the American Heart Association’s nutrition guidelines for heart disease prevention are essentially the same. Eat mostly plants (meaning fruits and vegetables), aim for plant proteins (like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds), and eat whole grains (like brown rice, quinoa, and corn) instead of refined grains.”
If there’s one way to stay disease-free that every expert ever will agree on, it’s to avoid smoking. And if you already do smoke, quit immediately. No nicotine rush is worth risking your life for.
“Individuals that smoke die nearly 10 years earlier than non-smokers with nearly 7 million people worldwide dying from tobacco-related deaths yearly,” Kreitenberg says. “Smoking increases one’s risk for cardiovascular disease—such as heart attack and stroke—as well as chronic lung diseases, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It’s also a significant health risk for many types of cancer, including lung, bladder, and mouth and throat, among others. With regard to vaping, in my expert opinion, it’s also not recommended—we’re not clear on its long-term risks. We’re fortunate today to have many interventions to assist in smoking cessation, such as nicotine patches, medications, and support groups.”
In your 40s and beyond, it becomes increasingly important to know your family history and to provide your doctor with all the information you can. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), having a history of chronic disease in your family could increase your risk of developing it too, whether that’s cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, or heart disease. If your doctor knows, they can not only watch out for any signs and symptoms, but also give you the tools you need to stay healthy and prevent them the best you can.
You know sugar is bad for you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still have some sweet stuff here and there. The key is to make healthier swaps—especially when it comes to some of the top inflammatory foods that can wreak havoc on your body. Sugar included.
“Begin to swap out some of the top inflammatory foods for options that taste similar but don’t inflame,” Carr says. “For example, swapping out processed sugar for raw honey, unrefined coconut sugar, pure maple syrup, or raw agave are food swaps that not only taste great, but allow you to remove the number one most inflammatory food from your diet: processed sugar.” To make the right food choice every time, visit Eat This, Not That!
Meditation isn’t some trend, or hippie hoo-haa. It’s been proven time and time again to be a simple way to expand your lifespan by fighting off disease in the future, not to mention make you feel like your best self right now.
“Meditation has been scientifically linked to lower levels of stress and higher levels of mental performance and happiness,” Favini says. “Staying healthy in your 40s and beyond typically requires balancing work and home life, family, friends, and financial stress. Having a regular meditation or mindfulness practice can be invaluable in staying on track with your health and may even help you realize more meaning in your day-to-day life.”
Yep, you read that correctly. Spending more time in the bedroom has been shown to do your health some good. A study from the American Journal of Cardiology found an active sex life could help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. That’s all the more reason to make sure you’re spending alone time with your partner as often as possible.
There’s a good chance you’re overdoing it on sodium, and that could seriously harm your health. The American Heart Association recommends adults stick to a maximum of 2,300 mg of sodium a day, yet most Americans eat more than 3,400 mg a day. Not just from using the salt-shaker—also from all the sodium that’s found in packaged foods and in restaurant dishes. In fact, a 2014 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found reducing sodium intake to the recommended levels could prevent 10 percent of the deaths caused by cardiovascular disease.
You get plenty of body-boosting vitamins and nutrients when you eat by yourself, but when you meet up with friends, you’re also getting some feel-good hormones that fight off disease and benefit your mental health.
“Eat with friends. Community and connection are key to sustaining a long healthy life,” Zeitlin says. “Time with the people who make us laugh and feel good releases feel-good hormones like serotonin, which is crucial in combating inflammation by suppressing cortisol. So spend time with the people who make you laugh and feel good over a (vegetable-packed) meal!”
There are many health problems you can avoid by ditching butter and fatty meat for good, from diabetes to heart disease. Especially when it comes to preventing dementia, where research shows your diet and lifestyle choices make all the difference.
“Dementia is a progressive, heartbreaking deterioration of brain functioning associated with aging. While there are different causes, the most common—Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia—are now thought to be closely related to, and greatly impacted by, diet and lifestyle factors,” Tello says. “The World Health Organization recommends avoiding toxic, inflammatory foods like processed grains (white flour, white rice), added sugar, sodium, and saturated fats like butter and fatty meat,” Tello says. “Instead, eating a plant-based diet is crucial. There is substantial research evidence showing that eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and seafood is associated with a significantly lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia. This approach to eating is often referred to as the Mediterranean-style diet, but it can be adapted to any culture or cuisine.”
If you’re feeling healthy, you might not think there’s a reason to head to your annual physical. But after 40, it’s especially important to keep up with those appointments.
“Establishing care with a general practitioner or primary care physician is an integral part in maintaining yourself disease-free,” Kreitenberg says. “A general practitioner is the so-called quarterback or coordinator of your overall medical health. From vaccines to routine health maintenance—such as laboratory testing, guidance on nutrition, physical activity, and cancer screening—they’re trained to provide non-emergency care and help prevent a small issue from progressing to something more serious. I recommend all my patients, at the very least, have a physical with their general practitioner yearly.”
Unfortunately, it’s not just smoking yourself that can get you in trouble—it’s also secondhand smoke. According to the American Lung Association, secondhand smoke causes more than 41,000 deaths every year—some from lung cancer, and others from heart disease. That’s why it’s crucial to steer clear the best you can—especially since even short-term exposure could increase your risk of having a heart attack.
To learn more about how you can better protect yourself—and your body—don’t miss these 101 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.