Reasons to get a Flu Shot

Alas, there are still lots of people who don’t get a flu shot every year which is something I simply don’t understand in large part because the potential downside seems to be so terrifically small.

So, unless someone one day clearly shows that getting a flu vaccine can impact your health negatively in an important way – like for example, making you more likely to get some type of flu in following flu seasons (this potential problem is being vigorously studied, by the way) – the positives that we do know from getting a flu shot every year have won the day in a large way.

Why do I say that?

For a start, the flu can be a severe infection with huge potential complications such as pneumonia and death so it’s important to remind flu-shot doubters that every year the flu kills thousands of North Americans, usually the very young, the very old, and those with diminished immunity or who have certain chronic illnesses, but some seasons flu also kills the healthy and vigorous in large numbers.

And then there’s this key reason: Herd immunity, meaning that the more people who are immunized against the flu, the more protection the vulnerable have against the flu.

And finally, every year, we learn more advantages from an annual flu vaccine, such as this recent study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in San Francisco which found that even though the overall flu vaccine effectiveness was only 52 % in the recent flu season, young kids who got a flu vaccine had half the rate of being hospitalized with flu-related illness compared to kids who didn’t get a flu shot.

This fall, do yourself – and the rest of us – a favour and get a flu shot.

And try to convince those around you to get one too.

Fat and fit

So if you are overweight but you are also fit, do you erase the added risk of heart disease that carrying extra weight is said to add to your life?

No, according to a study from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health and published in the August 14 issue of the European Heart Journal.  

In this study that covered participants from several different European countries for more than 12 years follow-up, researchers compared 10,000 people who didn’t have heart problems with slightly more than 7600 people who had known cardiovascular disease, and the researchers concluded that excess weight is a problem for your heart no matter how fit you think you are.

In other words, no matter how many or how few risk factors these study participants had for heart disease – they had high blood pressure, for example, or abnormal cholesterol levels, or diabetes, and so on – those people who were overweight had a higher chance of suffering a heart attack or dying suddenly from a heart problem than people with similar cardiac risks but who were also thin or at normal weight.

Bottom line: although some studies have claimed to show that if you are fat you are still OK in terms of your heart – so long as you also maintain a good level of cardiovascular fitness – this study found that is likely not true.

Drug Dosages for Kids

For a parent or a caregiver with a sick kid who requires some type of medication, the best advice I can give you is: make absolutely sure you know what dose of that drug to give your child.

Unfortunately, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, too many parents don’t heed that warning.

So, in this study of 491 parents of children under the age of 8, the researchers found that 5 in 6 parents (83%) parents made at least one “dosing error”, that is, a mistake in how much of a particular drug to give a child.

However, when given available tools to help them accurately measure the right dose, far fewer parents made dosage errors.

Two key considerations to always keep in mind if you’re in charge of a child’s medications.

  1. Drug doses in kids often depend on a child’s weight, so the dose of a drug that you give your 10-year-old is rarely the same dose you’d give your 4-year-old
  2. You should not rely on household do-it-yourself measuring devices, so a teaspoon from your cutlery tray is not a good way to figure out how much of a 5 ml dose of a drug your child requires – get the exact measuring tools that your child’s drugs require you to use.

And as, your pharmacist can be a terrific help if you’re at all unsure of how much of a drug your child needs.

Alcohol Abuse

Although other substances get much more attention both from the media and the public, a report just out from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) starkly reminds us that the most problematic and costly substance in our culture is without any question alcohol.

Among the many near-term dangerous problems associated with alcohol abuse, there are these obvious ones: much higher levels of being involved in homicides, suicides, accidents (in the workplace, at home, and of course, on the road), poor judgement decisions (unsafe sex, and use of other dangerous substances, for example), mood changes, and a host of others.

As for the long-term costs of alcohol abuse, the huge list includes outstanding ones such as much higher levels of cardiovascular disease, psychological changes, liver disease, sleep disorders, and cancer since alcohol use (even at low and moderate intake levels) has been linked to a higher risk of a host of cancers including esophageal cancer and breast cancer.

And those long-term consequences don’t even address the other awful long-term negative effects that alcohol abuse delivers to a drinker’s family, workplace, community, and country (the incredible cost of dealing with alcohol abuse).

Bottom line: a little bit of alcohol might lead to some positive health effects and might improve some social situations (I can’t really picture going to certain parties unless I could nurse a glass of wine throughout) but anything beyond that carries potential significant health risks.

Sun Exposure

I know, I know, I know: Like most of you, I too wake up some days thinking summer will never arrive in western Canada again.

But smarter people than me assure me that this is wrong: Summer will eventually arrive and when it does, if you’re anything like me, you will rush outside to spend some time bathing in that big, beautiful, hot sun.

So let me play my standard role of parent and warn you all ahead of time that while some time in the sun is necessary for good health – sunshine acting on our skin helps our bodies produce vitamin D which we all very much need – too much sun is clearly linked to poorer health both in the short term which leads to problems such as sunburns and sunstrokes, and especially in the long-term through much higher risks of skin cancer, especially the most serious form known as malignant melanoma.

So here’s the advice that you really need to heed in the coming months: 10-20 minutes of sun exposure several days a week is OK but

  • Try to avoid being out there at the peak-sun times of day
  • Cover yourself and especially your kids with sun-protective clothing while outdoors
  • Wear a hat even if like me, you think that a hat makes you look nerdy: No one really notices, believe me
  • Slather on sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30 (and it’s a very good idea to carry extra tubes in your car, just in case)
  • Don’t forget to protect your eyes – sunlight exposure is said to raise the risk of cataracts
  • And remember that just being outside is linked to better health so a walk in the park in the shade is probably better for you overall than 2 hours spent on the beach.

Check out our full selection of suncare solutions here.

Living a healthy lifestyle

When it comes to trying to convince people to be more active to lower their health risks, one of the most frustrating things for doctors is that the people who tend to listen to this advice most are usually those people who are already somewhat active, not those who are most sedentary.

But the studies show over and over and over again that the biggest gains from making a bit of a positive adjustment in activity level actually come to those who are the least active to start with.

For example, in a huge study which was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, researchers set out to examine the effect that genes confer on heart health and whether or not living a healthy lifestyle could offset any negative contribution to life expectancy from inheriting “bad” genes.

And their happy conclusion is that yes, healthy living can indeed offset “bad” genes.

More encouragingly, perhaps, even if you inherited a higher risk of heart disease from your ungenerous parents, you don’t have to do all that much in terms of trying to live a healthy lifestyle to counter the effect of those genes.

In this study, the researchers concluded that even a small upward tick in healthy living – some exercise but not necessarily 5 times a week and not necessarily very vigorous workouts, eating some veggies and fruit but not necessarily 10 servings a day, maintaining a decent body weight even in the mild overweight category – significantly lowered the risk of dying from heart disease that “bad” genes confer.

Or to put this in the words of the study’s authors, “the biggest protective effect by far (on life expectancy in this study) came from going from a terrible lifestyle to one that was moderately good.”

In other words, the people who are likely to gain the most benefit are those who manage to finally get off the couch, even if it’s only to walk around the block to start, not those who go from jogging a half-hour a day to running faster and longer.

So the great news is that genes are not destiny.

The bad (sort of) news is that you do have to do something about it, however.

Sticking To Resolutions

If you’re like me (‘heaven forbid”, I think I heard a few people cry out), then you often have trouble sticking to hard schedules especially ones that involve resolutions, and particularly, of course, resolutions about improving your health.

I mean, I cannot begin to count the many times I’ve vowed to eat less of some of the things I eat too much of such as salami and pickles and a list of others too long to mention in a brief blog post.

I invariably resolve to eat less of these foods just after I pigged out on them late on December 31 – I celebrate the new year by eating stuff I know I shouldn’t eat – and I can usually manage to stick to my resolve until the next time I see these items again when I re-open the fridge early on January 1.

OK, so that’s a slight exaggeration – some years I manage to hold out till January 2 – but you know what I mean: lifestyle resolutions are exceedingly hard to stick to.

For example, some studies have estimated that the average smoker makes 8 or so attempts to quit before he’s finally able to succeed at not smoking.

And the reason they call it yo-yo dieting is that the vast majority of people who want to lose weight go on and off diets regularly because diets are so very hard to stick to.

So my advice at this late point in January is this: if you resolved to do something on that artificial deadline of January 1 and like the vast majority of us, you did not succeed to hold out this long, please don’t be hard on yourself: that’s just how tough lifestyle change can be.

And even more important, don’t take any failure to be a signal to give up: remember those average smokers I mentioned earlier – even though they fail most times they try to quit, a great proportion of them, perhaps as many as half, do eventually succeed.

Bottom line: it’s never too late to make a positive health change even if you’re well into your senior years.

And there’s no reason not to pick another totally artificial deadline date – say February 1, or February 3, or whatever – to try to make that change.

Check out the London Drugs Health & Wellness Library for more information on health conditions, natural health products and healthy living.

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