According to the CDC’s 2015 health report, the top ten leading causes of death among Americans are as follows:
Heart disease: 614,348 reported deaths in 2014
Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 147,101
Accidents (unintentional injuries): 136,053
Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 133,103
Alzheimer’s disease: 93,541
Influenza and pneumonia: 55,227
Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis (kidney diseases): 48,146
Intentional self-harm (suicide): 42,773
If you separate out deaths due to auto accident, those add up to 30,800, the largest portion of the accidents group.
So why am I bringing you these grim statistics?
First of all, virtually all of these causes of death are preventable through simple means. While many of these diseases can’t be completely stopped, there are a lot of simple things you can do to reduce your chances of being among the more than a million Americans who die from those causes each year.
Second, even if these causes aren’t fatal, they can result in significant life expenses. There are many, many people who suffer from these conditions without dying, but that experience results in an enormous financial cost, big enough to bankrupt many people.
Taking simple actions to prevent or reduce the impact of these diseases is one of the best investments you can make in terms of the reduction in health care costs over the length of your life – let alone the improvement in quality of life that comes from minimizing or entirely avoiding these diseases.
Here are twenty three such steps. Many of these are absolutely free – they just amount to minor changes in lifestyle. Others have a tiny cost involved.
Taken altogether, they add up to some of the best investments you can make due to the huge financial costs they’ll help you avoid.
These first eight strategies are ones that apply to many of the conditions on that list at once. If you’re going to apply any of the strategies from this article, these are the ones to use.
Don’t smoke. The health benefits of not smoking are tremendous. Avoiding smoking not only provides better outcomes for most of the diseases on this list, but it also improves quality of life even outside of diseases. Add on top of that the fact that smoking is an expensive habit and the case for dumping it is clear.
If you’ve never smoked, don’t start. If you’re currently a smoker, do everything in your power to stop. Many health insurance packages offer a lot of benefits geared toward helping people to quit smoking, so take advantage of them!
Don’t consume non-prescribed drugs or over-the-counter drugs beyond their recommended usage. Drugs of all kinds can have untold effects on your health, both in the short term and over the long term. Many drugs are habit-forming and the addiction can be incredibly hard to break – and they tend to be expensive as well. Self-medication is a temporary fix to a longer-term problem and you’re far better off seeking solutions to whatever drove you to self-medicate.
There are lots of resources available to help you overcome an addiction to drugs. Overcoming that addiction will have a profound positive effect on your finances, your long-term health outcomes, your professional life, and your personal life to boot. It’s well worth kicking the habit if you have one (and it’s a smart idea to never pick up such a habit, either).
Eat a plant-centric healthy diet. Almost every dietary recommendation out there tends to point to the same type of diet, one that’s centered around fruits and vegetables rather than meats, dairy products, and grains. Not only are the health benefits tremendous (it helps you to lose weight and helps you to keep your blood sugar levels in line), it can actually be substantially less expensive than a diet focused on meat or dairy products.
You don’t have to become a vegan or a vegetarian, either. Just strive to fill at least half of your plate with unprocessed fruits and vegetables every time you eat. For most Americans, that’s a reasonable switch, but it’s one that will have huge health benefits and will probably save some money to boot.
Get regular exercise. Regular moderate exercise yields surprisingly large benefits in almost every aspect of personal health, from disease prevention to sleep quality, from weight management to energy improvement. Moderate exercise – the kind that gets you breathing a little heavy but isn’t killing you – done a few times a week offers benefits in all of those categories and it costs virtually nothing to do.
Go take a brisk walk at a speed that’s high enough to get you breathing a little heavy. Watch an exercise video and follow the routine. Go for a swim at the local public pool. Carry some heavy things around the garage. Walk up a steep incline. Do some yoga poses. Play soccer with your son. All of those things qualify as moderate exercise, all of them cost nothing, and all of them have wonderful health outcomes.
Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is one of the biggest factors for increasing your likelihood of many of the diseases on this list. Maintaining a healthy weight pays dividends in a bunch of different dimensions – your appearance, your confidence, your mobility, your energy level – but it makes a huge difference in your health outcomes.
The most powerful tool you have for maintaining a healthy weight is portion control – making sure you don’t eat too much. Put less food on your plate and put less food in your mouth and you’ve already taken a huge step toward maintaining a healthy weight.
Limit alcohol intake. Alcohol consumption isn’t a bad thing and has been shown to have some health benefits in very small amounts, but once you move beyond a drink or two a day, not only are you bumping up your caloric intake (which can challenge your weight control) but you’re also putting a great deal of stress on many of your organs. You’re also impairing your ability to drive and to interact with those around you.
The best solution when it comes to alcohol is to either avoid drinking entirely or limit yourself to at most two drinks a day. Anything beyond that has significant health consequences, in terms of the direct effect on your body, your impairment, and your long term health, too.
Manage stress. A high level of stress has many negative effects on the body, both short term and long term. Many of the long term effects contribute greatly to the life-threatening conditions listed in this article, both in terms of causing them and in terms of making the symptoms worse.
There are many things you can do to de-stress, from getting regular exercise and getting plenty of sleep to simply enjoying music or other personal hobbies. Meditation and prayer also tend to be great remedies for life stress.
Get your flu shots. While influenza is one of the causes of death on that list, simply getting the flu can exacerbate many of the other conditions on this list as well, causing further complications and even accelerating the disease.
One of the best responses any of us have to the risk of getting influenza is to simply get an annual flu shot in the fall. While this isn’t a perfect protection, it does go a long way toward keeping yourself from getting influenza, which is a pretty nasty illness that can really tax your system.
Wash your hands frequently. Washing your hands frequently can prevent many common illnesses, such as the common cold, minor digestive illnesses, and even influenza. While those illnesses typically aren’t life threatening, they absolutely can work in concert with other conditions to become life threatening. For example, a person with a heart condition or a lower respiratory condition can exacerbate it with a cold.
Simply washing your hands thoroughly several times a day can make all the difference in the world by greatly reducing your chances of picking up an illness.
Cancer is the number one killer in America and, as with most of the other conditions on this list, has no known cure for most of its varieties. However, along with the general strategies listed above, there are a few things you can do to help prevent it and increase your chances of surviving it.
Wear sunscreen when out in the sun for any significant length of time. One of the leading factors in developing melanoma, one of the most common forms of skin cancer, is prolonged sun exposure. That can be a problem if you enjoy outdoor activities.
Thus, one of the best strategies for avoiding melanoma is to restrict your outdoor time under direct sunlight and, when you choose to go out there, apply liberal amounts of sunscreen to your exposed skin, preferably sunscreen with a high SPF rating. While it won’t eliminate risk, it will definitely reduce it.
Get regular cancer screenings from your doctor. Don’t be afraid to go to your doctor for every routine cancer screening available to you. Many cancers can be detected early, and when you detect a cancer early, it’s usually very treatable.
Just schedule an appointment with your general practitioner / primary care physician and talk about cancer screenings that are appropriate for your age. Doing this is covered under most flavors of health insurance (as this is far cheaper for the insurer than cancer treatment), so the cost won’t be too high for you.
Driving a car is an act with a lot of risk, even though most drivers don’t perceive that risk on a daily basis. The vast majority of the time, nothing goes awry, but when something bad happens, it’s often devastating. Here are some simple things everyone should be doing to reduce the risk of auto accidents, both for their own sake and for the sake of those around them.
Obey traffic laws. Traffic laws are almost universally designed to keep traffic flowing and keep the roadways as clear as possible, which means that the goal is often to minimize accidents. As long as you follow those laws, you’re doing your part to minimize accidents as well.
Just follow the traffic laws. Keep your speed at the speed limit, follow the directions on the signs, know how to appropriately signal what you’re doing (and do so – your turn signal is there for a reason), turn on headlights when it’s dim outside, don’t gun it when the light has been yellow for a while, and just generally be aware of what’s happening around you.
Wear your seat belt. I’m separating this out into its own strategy simply because it’s so important and also because I still sometimes see people without their belts on while driving around.
Seat belts save lives, period. They keep you from being thrown about the car in the case of an accident. Things like slamming forward into the windshield are prevented by having a seat belt on, and it’s so easy to do. Most people have trained themselves to do this automatically – if you haven’t, do so. Not doing so is both a health risk and a financial risk.
Don’t text or make calls while driving. The less attention you’re paying to the road, the more likely it is that you’re going to get into a serious accident along the way. Texting is a huge distraction while driving, but so is making a phone call.
While you’re driving, just set your phone to auto-respond with a text saying that you’re driving and you’ll respond when you get there and then ignore the calls and texts. Or, better yet, just turn your phone off entirely and give that battery a rest.
Don’t drive when tired or intoxicated. This is similar to the logic behind not texting or calling when driving. When you’re tired or intoxicated, you’re not as focused on the road as you should be and your reaction times are slowed, which drastically increases the odds of an accident.
If you’re tired or intoxicated, ask someone to drive you home and pay for them to get an Uber ride back to their destination… or else just get an Uber or taxi ride yourself. Don’t get behind the wheel, because the cost of doing so can be quite high.
Lower Respiratory Disease
Lower respiratory diseases are typically the result of lung damage due to a number of causes, usually long-term exposure to pollutants or a history of smoking. Such diseases can seriously impair breathing and cause undue stress on other bodily systems.
Avoid pollutants. While washing your hands is vital, simply avoiding pollutants in the air is another useful tactic. Try to avoid areas with a high degree of air pollution, particularly during humid periods.
Having known several people with lower respiratory illnesses, visiting areas with high pollution can be a real problem for them, as can humidity. You’re almost always better off just avoiding such situations entirely by avoiding smog and staying inside on really humid days.
Alzheimer’s disease is a horrible illness that strips away many aspects of your personality along the way. It’s hard to treat, but there is one thing that seems to be universally recognized as a good prevention tool.
Give yourself mental stimulation through cognitively challenging hobbies. Exercise your mind as much as your body. Try to take on cognitively challenging hobbies, particularly ones that stretch your mind in different ways than your job does.
Read books, particularly on challenging subjects. Solve puzzles. Play games that force your mind to work. These things, if done regularly, can keep Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions at bay.
A stroke is something that can strike at any moment, causing a wide range of long-term and short-term effects. It’s a condition that is partially prevented by many of the general tactics listed above, but there’s one more that can help with stroke risk.
Lower – but don’t eliminate – your salt intake. High salt intake is linked to stroke risk, so simply lowering your salt intake lowers your stroke risk.
At the same time, one does need at least a little bit of sodium in their diet, so a purely salt-free diet using only raw vegetables and meats isn’t a perfect solution, either. However, most modern Americans get plenty of salt in their diet from even eating out occasionally, so there’s really no reason to be adding additional salt to your dishes at home.
Diabetes is a subtle killer, bringing on an array of negative health effects that can lead to death. Again, most of the general strategies listed above are great responses to diabetes, but there are a couple more things you can do.
Eat more whole grain bread and cereals. This tip should almost be in the “general” section above. There’s a strong link between reducing the risk of diabetes by switching to whole grain bread and cereals, but there is some evidence that doing so can help with heart disease and even some forms of cancer as well.
It’s really a simple switch. Stop eating white bread and white pasta and substitute whole grain versions of those items. It’s a flavor and texture change, sure, but once you’re used to the change, you won’t want to go back.
Consume less soda and sweets. Refined sugar is another major cause of diabetes in our diet, so simply eliminating the biggest sources of refined sugars – sodas and sweets – can really help out.
One technique that really works for many people in reducing their refined sugar intake is to switch to eating fruits to sate their sweet tooth. Instead of gobbling down candy bars, eat bananas and apples and cherries and raspberries.
Many people harm themselves in response to internal challenges and difficult situations, sometimes even ending their own life. While such conditions can be difficult to handle, there are things that you can do if you’re driven to self-harm.
Cultivate strong relationships with friends or family that you can trust in difficult moments. This can seem difficult or even impossible. Many people who self-harm don’t want to cultivate relationships in the short term.
However, having friends and family who will help you and stand by you in your low moments can make a huge amount of difference. They can provide an ear when you need to have someone to talk to. They can be a person nearby when you’re really struggling. They can be a shoulder to cry on or a person to hug or even someone to help make you a meal during a down moment. (But never forget that relationships are a two way street – it’s about “giving” as well as “getting.”)
Find different outlets for your strong emotions such as punching a pillow. If you find that you harm yourself in response to an extreme emotion, seek out other ways to channel that emotion.
Punch a pillow. Cry your eyes out. Take a kickboxing class. Run sprints. Tend a garden. There are many things that can serve as an alternative emotional outlet. Explore them.
Remove items from your environment that you may use for self-harm. Many people who self-harm gravitate toward certain things to cause that harm. Knives. Pills. You get the idea.
One way that you can reduce the opportunity for self-harm is to remove those items from your local environment. Just get all of the knives out of your home. If you have pills in the cupboard, get rid of them. Whatever it is that you use for self-harm, get rid of it.
The strategies in this article won’t guarantee victory over every kind of ailment or bad situation that can take your life or cause severe illness. However, all of these strategies can significantly reduce the chances of those adverse affects – and most of these strategies are free and some even save you money.
There’s little reason not to adopt these strategies into your life. They extend your lifespan, improve your quality of life, and can save you a ton of money along the way.