Change of life: New habits can lead to living longer

Change is inevitable. We’re born, we mature, we grow old, we die. Well, some of us mature differently– like Hugh Hefner, who walks around in his pajamas at the age of 160. (Don’t most of us have nightmares of walking in public in our jammies?)

Personally, I fear change. I fear what will happen when a good thing will never be the same. Even bad things that change can be stressful.

Are lifestyle changes difficult?

Smoking, drinking, eating, and exercise are probably the hardest things for people to change. After a heart attack or stroke, you’d think a smoker would quit smoking. However, for quite a few of them, giving up smoking is like giving up breathing— and Lord knows how many patients with lung disease smoke to their dying breath— literally! I’m sure many a smoker’s last words have been, “Got a light?"

I don’t blame smokers who can’t seem to quit. I get frustrated with smokers who don’t want to quit, but if there’s the desire and effort to quit, then what more can I ask? I know tobacco is very addictive, and I see so many smokers struggle to “kick the habit” (or addiction).

Alcohol is everywhere in society. How many restaurants and adult parties don’t offer alcohol? Even my church offers wine! In folks with liver disease, addictions, alcoholism, and on certain medications, giving up alcohol can be a huge challenge. Many patients will give up their doctor before they give up their booze.

Having patients control the amount they drink can be tricky: one drink you take might be equivalent to five drinks for someone else. Some martini glasses can hold up to five shots of vodka, which is equivalent to five beers. (That’s like the cereal commercial that went something like, “You would have to eat 80 bowls of your cereal to equal the nutrition in one bowl of ours." Though I think five drinks = toast, not cereal.)

Overeating is a just one buffet away. Recently, I went to a family birthday party at an all-you-can-eat Korean/Japanese buffet. My stomach did a back flip when I saw all the delicious food. Counting calories, limiting portions, and choosing healthier foods is a very hard job. Telling a person with congestive heart failure to limit sodium to less than two grams a day is practically like telling them to eat food they only find in the wilderness.

For diabetics, limiting carbohydrates to less than 45-60 grams in a meal is like going on vacation to a desserted— er, deserted island. Why does food have to taste so good?

Exercise is a four-letter word to many, so I have replaced it with “physical activity.” About 50 percent of people give up routine exercise after just four months for reasons like catching a cold, getting too busy at work, the dog ate my homework. I hate to exercise most of the time, so I feel everyone’s pain. I also hate to iron and buy groceries. But I still do them. Fitting in time to work out is a change in lifestyle, and yes, it can be tough.

For these major types of life changes, sometimes baby steps are the way to go. Of course there will be setbacks, but even the stock market has an overall trend— hopefully up— and even small lifestyle changes can lead to better health. The direction, not the destination, is something I try to emphasize to my patients. Maybe I could coin the term, “spare change,” to describe this lifestyle modification.
Dr. Hook cracks a joke or two, but he's a renowned physician with an interesting website, Email him with your questions.