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My View: Healthier living helps us beat the odds

By Linda Militello

What are the odds? What are you willing to bet for health and a longer life?

From 3 months old, when Nonie and Papa brought me home from the hospital, I heard conversations about odds, predictions and chance. Like any language, first you learn the sound, then the meaning.

Nonie read a tattered old paperback to find the number connected to her dreams to bet in the daily numbers racket. Papa consistently bet the same three numbers, figuring that improved his odds of winning.

For 30 years, a fellow named Shifty collected Nonie and Papa’s quarter to bet their numbers every day. Shifty would “run the numbers” somewhere. The winning numbers might be the closing last three numbers of the stock exchange or the treasury market, or horse race numbers that were fixed to benefit the runners and leaders of the racket.

Betting numbers, like lottery ticket buying today, was a losing game. Papa warned me, “The odds of winning are very small, so never bet anything you don’t want to lose.” Papa understood the odds and risk, but liked betting with his tips from cab driving.
We would watch “You Bet Your Life!” on television. Like “Jeopardy” today, contestants had to bet on an unknown question. Fortunately, contestants lost only money, not their life as the title would imply.

In 48 years as a registered nurse, I’ve watched patients, friends and relatives gamble with their health. The scientific journal Nature published an analysis proving that 60 to 70 percent of all cancers are connected to behavioral choices and environmental surroundings, not luck or genes. Positive choices decrease our odds of getting diseases like cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Once, I heard a stroke patient admonishing her doctor, “You told me that smoking could cause lung cancer and heart disease, not a stroke!” The doctor asked, “Would a heart attack or cancer be better than a stroke?”

Hundreds of scientific tables list the perils of drinking too much alcohol. Many driving adults know how much they can drink before driving, but not how much alcohol causes disease or death. The National Institutes of Health notes that drinking to intoxication is associated with injury from falls, fights and accidents. Everyone knows someone who beat the alcohol and smoking odds. They are the outliers, long shots, the ends of the bell curve.

Seventy-eight organs and over 37 trillion cells work simultaneously to keep us alive. Most functions occur without our awareness, but every function needs nutrition, clean air, water and sunshine to perform optimally. Third graders can recite the needs of a plant, but few are taught that the body needs at least those basics.

Most adults maintain their cars better than their bodies. We can buy a faster car with a smoother engine if we neglect our car, but cannot purchase a new body, the most intricate machine on the planet.
Actuarial tables predict the likelihood of living healthy by using math and probability.

Today, average 65-year-olds can live to 85, sick or well. Some of us will die tomorrow, some will beat 100. You can spend $20 a week on lottery tickets and increase your odds of winning to 20 out of millions, or you can save it and guarantee it will be there if needed.

We can avoid exercise, eat more than we need, smoke or drink to excess and beat the proven scientific odds of illness and early demise. Thanks to Papa’s teaching and based on scientific predictions, I wouldn’t bet my life on it!

Linda Militello, a licensed registered nurse and medical librarian, is a lifelong teacher.
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