Damage limitation: how to address health issues caused by past bad habits

Health correspondent

Who's sorry now? Smoking, drinking, tottering around on stilettos - most of us took some risks with our health when young. But It's never too late to take steps to reduce your chances of problems developing later in life.

You lived in high heels

"High heels force the leg, ankle and foot into unnatural positions, straining your muscles and tendons," explains podiatric surgeon Barry Francis. "They also push your feet forward, which can squash toes leading to corns and bunions," he adds.

Limit the damage

If your feet ache when you wear flat shoes your calf muscles and Achilles tendon could have shortened. See a physio about calf stretching exercises. Wear supportive shoes such as trainers to help improve muscle function. A podiatrist will be able to advise on corns and bunions. Save high heels for special occasions and wear gel-based insoles to make feet more comfortable. Find out more at www.feetforlife.org

You were a smoker

Smoking impairs your lungs' ability to absorb oxygen and eliminate carbon dioxide, increasing your risk of heart disease, lung cancer, stroke and osteoporosis. And the longer you smoked the greater your risk, but stopping will always bring health benefits, however late you've left it.

"There will always be some residual risk," says Amanda Sandford, research manager at Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), but within two to 12 weeks after giving up your circulation and skin health improve, and as lung function gets better so do coughs, breathing and wheezing problems.

Your risk of coronary heart disease drops by 50 per cent a year after quitting but sadly this is not the case with lung cancer. "When you give up your risk does not go down - it just stops going up, which is why it so important you quit as soon as possible," says Sandford.

Limit the damage

Eat plenty of antioxidant-rich fruit and veg such as broccoli, peppers and citrus fruits, which can help protect against free radicals - rogue molecules which can damage cells. Take at least 30 minutes' brisk exercise a day to help improve heart function.

Don't be tempted. Just one puff could get you hooked again. Find out more at www.ash.org.uk

You were a sun worshipper

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun alters DNA, which can lead to skin damage, premature ageing and skin cancer. And the more exposure you had, especially in your childhood, the higher the risk. Studies indicate that "sunburn during childhood can double your risk of skin cancer" explains Genevieve Frisby, Cancer Research UK's SunSmart campaign manager.

Limit the damage

Stay in the shade between 11am and 3pm when the sun is at its peak. Cover up in loose clothing and a hat and don't forget the sunglasses. Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 15. Look out for any new moles or ones that change shape and get them checked as soon as possible by your GP. Find out more at www.sunsmart.org.uk

You yo-yo dieted

If you are now eating sensibly you don't have to worry too much about your past. "There is no good evidence that yo-yo dieting 'winds down' your metabolic rate or that it leads to heart problems" says registered dietitian Lyndel Costain. "Other studies have shown no link to increased risk of type 2 diabetes or poor bone health," she adds.

A recent study from the University of Washington Medical Centre in Seattle, however, suggests yo-yo dieting may affect long-term immune function, especially the NK killer cells that have a key role in protecting against viruses.

Limit the damage

"Regular exercise can help offset any potential negative effects," says Costain. Keep your weight in check long term by following a healthy balanced eating plan rather than going on extreme diets. Find out more at www.bdaweightwise.com

You drank too much

"We all react to alcohol differently," says Dr Guy Ratcliffe, Medical Director of the Medical Council on Alcoholism. "The odd binge is unlikely to cause any damage, but moderate to heavy drinking -that is more than 14 units a week for women and 21 for men -over 10 to 15 years can increase your chance of liver problems such as alcoholic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver) and cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) by as much as 20 per cent," he adds. "It can also increase the risk of breast cancer in women," says Cancer Research UK.

"Initially, fatty changes in the liver induced by alcohol are reversible if you stop drinking, as is alcoholic hepatitis. But your chances of recovering from cirrhosis are less good," says Ratcliffe.

Limit the damage

Stick to no more than two to three units of alcohol a day for women and three to four for men (14 and 21 units a week respectively) and have at least one alcohol-free day a week. Alcohol depletes the body's stores of vitamins and minerals so top up your levels of calcium (milk and cheese), magnesium (wholegrains and nuts) and zinc (meat and shellfish). Go on a course of the herbal remedy milk thistle, which studies show, may help regenerate the liver. Find out more at www.alcoholconcern.org

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