GratiTuesday: Flu Vaccinations

The last time I had the flu was over 15 years ago. I experienced a combination of feeling like I was going to die… and thinking that dying might be a better alternative to how horrible I felt. After going through that pain and misery, I swore that I would never miss getting my flu shot again… and I haven’t.

I was shocked to read recently the over 80,000 Americans died of flu last winter… and that was a “normal” – although severe – flu season. A vast majority of those deaths – over 90 percent – were people over 65.

According to a 2015 NPR-Truven Health Analytics Health Poll, 62 percent of people either had been or intended to be vaccinated for the flu that year. Those who didn’t plan to be immunized cited a variety of reasons, including:

• 48 percent believed that a flu shot was unnecessary for them
• 16 percent were concerned about side effects or risks
• 14 percent worried that the vaccine could infect them with the flu
• 8 percent believed that the vaccination was ineffective

Each February, vaccine manufacturers make their best guess about what strains of flu will be most prevalent the following winter. Because of this, the vaccines that are shipped out in September aren’t perfect. They have ranged from a high of 60 percent effective (in 2010-11) to a low of 19 percent (2014-15). But even imperfect vaccines are better than none at all. The strains identified back in February may not be 100 percent accurate but getting vaccinated could still lessen the impact of the influenza that infects you or a loved one.

Last year, flu-related complications sent about 200,000 people to the hospital. I’m not sure how many of these people had been vaccinated but my guess is the percentage is low. Studies have shown that flu vaccinations reduce children’s risk of pediatric intensive care unit admission by 74 percent, and adults of all ages by 71 percent.

It didn’t hurt a bit!

If you or your loved one is among the almost 40 percent of those who are reluctant to get vaccinated, I hope you will reconsider. Even if the flu has never made you particularly ill, it is possible to pass it on to someone who could experience much more severe symptoms. I’ve had those symptoms. I would be most grateful never to have them again.

GratiTuesday: My health

On each of the four Tuesdays in December, I am highlighting what I am most grateful for in 2017.

As I look back on 2017, I am very grateful to have enjoyed good health throughout the year. I may have had a cold or two, but no health challenges and nothing that slowed me down significantly.

Before I left the work-world, I read a lot of books, articles, and blogs about making the most of retirement. Emphasized over and over was the importance of maintaining one’s health. Eat a healthy diet and maintain a good weight. Get plenty of exercise and avoid being too sedentary. Minimize stress and negativity. I think I have been able to do these things for the most part, but I know I can do better.

I am lucky to be a generally healthy person. Over the years, I have experienced a few bumps in the road, but they are now in my rear-view mirror. I don’t have any chronic conditions or ongoing issues that require regular medical attention. I know that isn’t true for everyone, especially as we get older and our natural defenses are reduced. So far, anyway, I’ve reaped the benefits of inheriting healthy DNA.

Now, I look in the mirror and see the gray hairs starting to appear, wrinkles lining my face, and I notice that my body is shifting and softening, and settling in different areas. What I can’t see is what is happening inside, but I know things are changing there too. No matter how much I’d like to deny the inevitable, the inevitable is just that… inevitable. I want to ensure that I’m giving my body the tools that it needs to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

As I focus on maintaining – and improving – my health so I can continue to age well, I am grateful that I have access to healthy food and safe places to exercise. I am grateful that I am healthy now and look forward to an even healthier 2018.

Fasting to lose weight and gain health

The job I had before I retired involved food. Lots of it. Not only did I work with restaurant owners, managers, and chefs to promote energy efficiency in commercial food service, my office was located in an educational facility that regularly provided catered food to those attending our workshops. If there wasn’t something fabulous cooking in the kitchen, there was probably something yummy being served in one of the seminar rooms. I tried to avoid temptation as much as possible, but I’m only human. A little bit here, a little bit there adds up to a lot of bits… and a few more pounds than I was comfortable carrying.

Like a lot of people, I have periodically put on – then tried to lose – five or ten pounds throughout my adult life. I’ve been on various fad diets, unhealthy extreme diets, and mainstream programs like Weight Watchers. They all worked for a while but none offered a long-term solution that I was able to maintain. What I wanted was a healthy way of eating that I could stick with and not feel too deprived.

Enter Public Television. I realize that it’s an unusual place to get diet advice, but it happened when my husband and I watched a three-part BBC series on how the body works and improving ones health. One episode was titled The Truth About Exercise, one was Guts (how our stomachs work), and the third one was Eat, Fast, and Live Longer. The first two were fascinating, but the third one really caught my attention.

In that episode, the series’ host, Dr. Michael Mosley, shared own health journey. He was overweight and had been recently diagnosed with diabetes and high cholesterol and was looking for a path back to health that didn’t involve drugs. His research led him to the concept of intermittent fasting (IF). After testing different forms of IF, he developed what he called the 5:2 diet, which required him to restrict his calories two days a week and eat normally the other five days.

What interested me about the premise of IF as a weight-loss/weight-management program was two-fold: I felt that it was a regime I could follow over a long period of time and there appeared to be some real health benefits beyond just the weight loss. Scientific trials have shown that intermittent fasting could reduce the risk of a range of diseases from diabetes to heart disease and cancer. Other studies indicate it might even protect against strokes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

It’s now been three years since I began fasting weekly. At first I fasted two days a week and slowly lost the ten pounds that I had gained. Once I reached my desired weight, I settled into a one-day-a-week maintenance routine.

Broths and other soups are a big part of my fasting days
Broths and other soups are a big part of my fasting days

When I retired, I wondered if I could stay with the regime but it hasn’t been a problem at all. I typically fast on my busiest day each week so I have plenty of distractions and I never choose a day when an event or a party would make me feel deprived. If I’m traveling or have another reason I can’t fast one week, I don’t. But, out of the 52 weeks each year, there are probably only two or three in which I don’t fast. If I see my weight creeping up, I return to fasting two days a week until it comes off.

There is a lot of information – both pluses and minuses – regarding intermittent fasting and the 5:2 diet. A recent New York Times article, Fasting Diets Are Gaining Acceptance, outlined the history and science of IF and highlighted different ways it can be done. The three-part PBS/BBC series that started me going is fascinating and can be found online. Dr. Mosley has written several books based on his findings, including the best-selling FastDiet and a few about managing diabetes.

I realize that IF is not for everyone. I’m not the most disciplined person in the world, but it works for me. I think knowing it is just one day (or two, when I want to lose a few), and that I’ll go back to my normal eating the next day, makes the fasting day doable. I don’t have to eat weird food, I don’t have to keep track of points, and, best of all, I don’t have to say “no” every day… just the day that I choose to fast. The weight loss and easy maintenance is great, but the possible health benefits make this lifestyle choice a good one for me.