Q. If I'm going to make any New Year's resolutions about my health, what would you recommend? With all the hoopla about the new millennium, I've read some stories about the top advances in medicine this century. However, I haven't seen much about taking care of your own health.
A. I have a few tips for staying healthy, and some tips on what to do if you develop a medical condition or illness.
Despite lots of spectacular advances in medical technology, the general principles of staying healthy haven't changed much:
* Don't smoke, and don't use chewing tobacco. When looked at according to what diseases it can cause, smoking is the biggest cause of premature death in the United States.
* Exercise regularly. Exercise not only helps keep you in good health, it can help prevent or delay the development of many common medical problems. It can also help treat many medical conditions once they do develop. If the benefits of exercise could be put in a pill, it would be the most prescribed medicine today.
* Eat healthfully. You don't have to give up everything you like. Just consume in moderation. Eat a diet low in fats and calories, and high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Avoid fad diets.
* Try not to become overweight. If you are overweight, try to get closer to a healthy weight. Even if you don't get all the way there, every pound helps.
* If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation. For most people, this means no more than one or two drinks a day. Avoid binge drinking.
* Always wear your seat belt when in a vehicle, and don't drink and drive. Wear a helmet when riding a bicycle or motorcycle.
* If you keep guns in your home, make sure they are kept in a safe place.
* Practice safe sex. Unsafe sex can cause all sorts of problems, from nuisances such as vaginal discharge to lifelong problems such as genital herpes to life-threatening problems such as cancer of the cervix or AIDS.
* If you're in a physically abusive relationship, get out of it if you can. If you have trouble leaving or need help, get it. For many women, domestic violence is a major threat to physical and mental health.
* Get enough sleep. It will make you feel better and improve your ability to function in everyday activities. Inadequate sleep can contribute to physical symptoms such as muscle aches.
* If you're planning to become pregnant, start your prenatal care beforehand. For example, make sure you're taking folate supplements, or multivitamins that contain folic acid, throughout your childbearing years. These help prevent a serious birth defect called neural tube defects.
* Get regular medical care. This will help make sure you get all appropriate immunizations (including adult immunizations such as flu, hepatitis B and pneumonia shots), screening exams (such as Pap smears and mammograms) and advice about preventive measures such as taking aspirin, estrogen and the like.
If you already have a medical condition, here are some tips on how to stay on top of it:
* Learn what you can about it. Read handouts, articles or books about it. Most bookstores and libraries have informative sections on health and medicine.
* Search the Web. There's lots of information out there. Try to get it from reliable sources. Discuss what you find with your doctor.
* Join a medical organization (such as the American Diabetes Association) or self-help group (such as the National Psoriasis Foundation) that deals with your condition. Learn from others. The nonprofit American Self-Help Clearinghouse publishes a helpful listing of such organizations, The Self-Help Sourcebook: Your Guide to Community and Online Support Groups. Copies can be obtained for $10 (which covers publishing and mailing costs) by calling 1-973-625-3037.
* Work with your doctor to get the best care. Find a good primary care physician who can help guide you through an increasingly complex health care system.
Jay Siwek, chairman of the department of family medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, practices at the Fort Lincoln Family Medicine Center and Providence Hospital in Northeast Washington.
Consultation is a health education column and is not a substitute for medical advice from your physician. Send questions to Consultation, Health Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071. Questions cannot be answered personally.