The 5280 Guide to: The 5 Biggest Health Risks for Men
From heart health to prostate cancer screening to that most common of Colorado maladies—the adventure-sports accident (yes, it’s true!)—we examine the latest research, treatments, and controversies in men’s health.
How a cardiac scare forced me to consider arresting my unhealthy—and immature—ways. By luc hatlestad
Last december, shortly before my 44th birthday, as my girlfriend Dana slept soundly nearby, I thought to myself, You’ve got to be kidding me. I can’t believe this is how I’m going down.
I’d awakened in the wee hours with tightness under my sternum and shortness of breath, and so I did what just about any rational man would do these days: I clicked away on Google, anxious but not quite panicked, trying to self-diagnose. Why yes, my jaw does seem tight. And is that my left arm tingling? The next few hours were a surreal middle-of-the-night blur as my sensible and stubborn sides debated what to do. Although something out of the ordinary was happening, it definitely didn’t feel like an elephant was standing on my chest—one of the reddest of red flags for a heart attack. I was temporarily placated, so I simply returned to bed. I felt better the next morning (though Dana was alarmed and irritated that I hadn’t woken her up). I scheduled an overdue physical, just to make sure everything was really OK.
The three-week wait for that appointment set me up for a holiday season full of even more existential contemplation than usual. Whatever might be going on with my heart, even if it was nothing, forced me to consider topics I’d long avoided: not only aging and mortality, but also simply growing up.
My forties have been kind so far. People thrive during this decade, personally and professionally, and I’m no exception. The age grants you wisdom and gravitas, yet you still possess, at least theoretically, a lingering vigor that older folks miss and regret not nurturing more. The forties are also the time when people, usually men, begin to suddenly drop dead, when the loaded term “natural causes” first becomes a reasonable explanation for an unexpected plunge down the terminal drain.
Still: I have sound, youthful genes. I don’t drink or smoke cigarettes. I work out regularly and play basketball with guys much younger than I am—sometimes with guys whose fathers are probably younger than I am. However, I eat like a teenager: No breakfast, too few vegetables, too many snacks. My friends celebrate and lampoon my Falstaffian appetite for goodies like cookies and cheese steaks, and I have a sweet tooth that would make Willy Wonka repent.
After my physical, my doctor referred me to a cardiologist whose tests showed an irregular heartbeat, and a more detailed examination revealed the probable culprit of my scare to be some combination of anxiety and acid reflux. I haven’t had any episodes since that initial flare-up, and my blood work looked good.
Now that I have a little distance from the crisis, I’m beginning to realize that my poor dietary choices aren’t merely bad habits; they’ve been a way to dodge real life, the level-headed decisions adults must make to be mature rather than merely old. I know changing my nutritional ways won’t be easy. (To wit: Although I’ve ramped up my salad intake lately, I’m writing this while enjoying a cupcake.) Four-plus decades of shoddy eating won’t be quickly undone, and I don’t have kids to provide a daily motivator to live longer.
What I do have is a reasonably clean bill of health and marching orders for maintaining it. And I have Dana, who’s young, lovely, intelligent, and—for some reason—adores me. She’s embraced the role of nutritional traffic cop—How many sodas is that? Dessert? Really?—and helped me understand that while having a strong heart is crucial, all that really matters is having the heart to make the kind of choices that will enable me to not just survive, but to thrive.
According to the American Heart Association, more than one in three men has cardiovascular disease (CVD). It is the leading cause of death among males in this country, and the second most common cause of death in Colorado. But heart disease is preventable. Dr. Brett Fenster, a cardiologist at National Jewish Health, recommends three dietary tips for a healthy ticker.
Cut Carbs Everyone knows that carbohydrates, especially simple carbs like refined sugar, are major culprits when it comes to weight gain. “What has been underappreciated is that carbs—heavily processed and refined sugars, like high-fructose corn syrup—may be playing a bigger role in heart disease than we originally thought,” Fenster says. QUICK TIP: Men should keep their sugar intake to 36 grams per day. Your heart—and your waistline—will thank you.
Decrease Sodium The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommends keeping your daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams; for most people, sodium intake should be closer to 1,500 milligrams. “That’s difficult to do,” Fenster says. But following the guidelines has a big payoff: Lowering sodium intake—and combining that with exercise and a healthy diet—acts like a blood pressure–lowering medication. QUICK TIP: Substitute strong flavors such as garlic, oregano, and lemon for salt.
Increase Fiber A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggested a high-fiber diet could decrease overall mortality by about 22 percent; not only is fiber good for your heart, but it’s also helpful in lowering cholesterol and preventing death from infectious and respiratory diseases. QUICK TIP: “The closer you get to natural sources of fiber, the better it is for you,” Fenster says. Getting fiber from pizza crust—bad idea. Go for green, leafy vegetables; oatmeal; brown rice; and apples.