No one is born with an instruction manual, so staying alive from conception to 80 or so takes a lot of guesswork and luck.
Nevertheless, some physicians say there are things we can do from start to finish to maintain basic health. The key is to start early.
Doctors call this process screening or preventive medicine. Here are a few things people should do throughout their life to ensure safety:
-Wear seat belts and drive safely.
-Avoid harmful drugs and substances, legal or illegal.
-Avoid family violence and violence with strangers. It's unhealthy on several levels.
"Nobody is invulnerable, and one of the single best health practices is to put seat belts on," said Dr. John Morley, director of geriatric medicine at the St. Louis University School of Medicine.
All physicians, from pediatricians to geriatricians, say exercise remains the single most important element for leading a healthy life. It works for children, adults, older people, sick people and healthy people.
Exercise can even lessen the severity of illnesses passed along the family tree, according to some doctors. This doesn't necessarily mean you have to join a gym or run a marathon. Simply walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week is reported to ward off most illnesses caused by sedentary lifestyles.
Taking meat out of your diet and substituting fish three to four times a week will help keep the bloodstream cleaner and provide the vitamin D you need increasingly as you age. One caveat: Recent studies have found that some fish, eaten in large quantities, contain potentially harmful levels of mercury. Pregnant women and nursing mothers are cautioned to eat no more than 12 ounces of seafood a week.
While getting enough calcium is good advice for everyone, it's especially important for girls and women. Women, especially white women, are at risk for bone problems later in life because inadequate calcium intake in their younger years can result in osteoporosis, a weakening of the skeleton when bone density decreases.
Dr. Thomas De Fer, assistant professor of internal medicine at Washington University, says physicians want girls to have maximum skeletal mass so that when they reach menopause, they start from a higher level.
Adequate calcium and a multiple vitamin with adequate vitamin D - which helps with the absorption of calcium and other minerals - are vital throughout a woman's life, doctors say.
Smoking is the worst thing you can do to your body, other than hurl it into a solid object at high speed (see safety). Smoking causes its own problems, but also worsens other problems.
Drinking has entered a "Twilight Zone" of information. A small amount of alcohol - one to two drinks a day for an adult male, half that for an adult female - may actually be beneficial for non-alcoholics. More than that and drinking can be harmful. Internally, overindulgence rots the organs. Externally, it makes you do stupid things (see safety).
De Fer emphasizes selecting physicians who share your values about life and health. Seeing a physician whose instructions you'll ignore is a waste of time and money, he says.
"We recommend; we cannot force," De Fer says.
When doctor and patient are on the same wavelength, the success rate is higher for health, experts say.
Helpful Web sites:
-Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
-American Cancer Society
-National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute
-American College of Physicians
(c) 2004, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.