Navigating the Health Care System

Advice Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy

AHRQ Director Carolyn Clancy, M.D., has prepared brief, easy-to-understand advice columns for consumers to help navigate the health care system. They will address important issues such as how to recognize high-quality health care, how to be an informed health care consumer, and how to choose a hospital, doctor, and health plan. Check back regularly for new columns.

Taking good care of your health is no longer a topic that just interests women. Walk through any fitness club and you will see a lot of men working out and staying fit.

Staying in good physical condition can help men live longer and have a better quality of life. And these days, men are living longer—an average of 75.2 years in 2007. That's compared to 73.4 years in 1997, according to Federal Government data. By contrast, women lived an average of 79.9 years in 2007, up slightly from 79.4 years a decade earlier.

Of course, there's no guarantee that staying fit equals living longer. But following some proven steps can go a long way toward staying healthy and lowering the risk of developing some diseases. These steps are outlined in a checklist for men to stay healthy at any age developed by my Agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

The checklist is based on advice from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (Task Force). This panel of experts in primary care and prevention reviews medical evidence to find out which tests and medicines have been proven to work. It is an independent group, and its advice is considered the "gold standard" in health care. Its findings are not influenced by insurers, drug makers, the government, or other groups.

Men of all ages can greatly improve their health and reduce their chance of developing diseases by following these five steps, which are included in the checklist:

  1. Don't smoke.
  2. Exercise.
  3. Eat a healthy diet.
  4. Stay at a healthy weight.
  5. If you drink alcohol, limit the amount you drink.

I won't call these steps simple, because for some people quitting smoking or losing weight is not easy. But these steps have been proven to improve your health and lower your risk of developing some diseases. If you have to change your behavior to follow these steps, it will be worth it in the long run.

Another way that you can stay healthy is to get the screening tests recommended for your age and medical condition. Screening tests can find diseases at an early stage when they are easiest to treat. Talk to your doctor about which ones you need and how often you should be tested.

Here are some conditions that affect men and for which good screening tests are available. /p>

  • High blood pressure: Have your blood pressure checked at least every 2 years. High blood pressure is 140/90 or higher.
  • High cholesterol: Have your cholesterol checked regularly starting at age 35. If you are younger than age 35, talk to your doctor about whether to have your cholesterol checked if:
    • You have diabetes.
    • You have high blood pressure.
    • Heart disease runs in your family.
    • You smoke.
  • Colorectal cancer: Have a test for colorectal cancer starting at age 50. Your doctor can help you decide which test is right for you. If you have a family history of colorectal cancer, you may need to be screened earlier.
  • Diabetes: Have a test for diabetes if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm: If you are between the ages of 65 and 75 and have ever smoked (100 or more cigarettes in your lifetime) you need to be screened once for this condition, which is an abnormally large or swollen blood vessel in the abdomen.

Some men take medicines to prevent disease without first talking to their doctor. I advise against that. All drugs, even over-the-counter medications, have side effects and can hurt you if they're not used properly.

Keep this advice from the Task Force in mind about taking medicine to prevent disease:

  • Aspirin: Ask your doctor about taking aspiring to prevent heart disease if you are:
    • Older than 45.
    • Younger than 45 and:
      • Have high blood pressure.
      • Have high cholesterol.
      • Have diabetes.
      • Smoke.
  • Immunizations: Stay up-to-date with your immunizations. Have a flu shot every year starting at age 50. Have a pneumonia shot once after you turn 65.

It takes some effort to maintain your health, but the payoff is worth it in the long run. Our checklist can help you track your journey.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that's my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

More Information

AHRQ Podcast
Tips for Men on Staying Healthy  (Transcript)

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Men: Stay Healthy at Any Age—Your Checklist for Health
http://www.ahrq.gov/ppip/healthymen.htm

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
Be Prepared for Medical Appointments
http://www.ahrq.gov/qual/beprepared.htm

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force
About the Task Force and Recommendations
http://www.ahrq.gov/clinic/uspstfix.htm

Social Security Administration
2008 Trustees Report
http://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/TR/TR08/V_demographic.html

Current as of October 2008
Internet Citation: Checklist Helps Men Keep on Track to Good Health. October 2008. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/100708.html