7 diseases that strike younger than you think

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Published April 27, 2012

| Prevention Magazine

What you can do now to delay—or prevent—problems later.

“When we’re young, we think we’re invincible,” says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “But we’re not.”  

And increasingly, diseases we commonly associate with people in their 60s and 70s are hitting two, three, or even four decades earlier. Why? Better screening and early detection are part of the picture, but lifestyle factors such as poor diet and the fact that we’re living more sedentary lives are to blame as well. Here, 7 diseases you can do something about today—to make sure you feel better, longer.

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Melanoma
Typical age of diagnosis: 50s and beyond 

But it can hit as early as: Late teens and early twenties 

What you can do now: Steer clear of tanning salons—even occasional trips to the tanning bed can triple your chances of developing melanoma, according to the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

Avoiding the sun altogether is next to impossible, so use a daily moisturizer with at least SPF 15—but many experts think SPF 30 is preferable. Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen if you’re going to be outside, and avoid going out between 10 a.m.-2 p.m., when the rays are most intense, says Dr. Thomas S. Kupper, professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. There’s also some evidence that a daily vitamin D supplement can help keep melanoma at bay, he adds.

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Osteoporosis
Typical Age of Diagnosis: 65 and beyond But it can hit as early as: 50s 

What you can do now: Don’t wait! “It’s vital to strengthen bones early with vitamin D supplements and calcium,” says Dr. Kathryn Diemer, clinical director of the Bone Health Program at Washington University School of Medicine. Do regular exercises that build muscle and strengthen your skeleton—such as jogging, walking, or climbing stairs. 

“Smoking and alcohol are really toxic to the bones,” says Diemer. Stick to one glass a day for women, two for men, and ditch smoking. Finally, avoid cola: Its high phosphoric acid content can leach calcium from your bones.

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Stroke
Typical age of diagnosis: Over 65 

But it can hit as early as: 20s or 30s 

What you can do now: If you smoke cigarettes even occasionally, now’s the time to quit because smoking doubles your chance of stroke. Something else that ratchets up risk? Health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol. 

“Diseases that increase risk should be treated early—and be controlled,” explains Dr. Shazam Hussain, section head of the Cleveland Clinic Stroke Program. Hussain also recommends reducing your salt and trans fat intake, eating fish twice a week, and exercising. “Even if it’s 30 minutes of walking a day, it will make a difference,” he says.

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Breast Cancer
Typical age of diagnosis: 45 and above 

But it can hit as early as: Teens 

What you can do now: For most women, exercising regularly, staying slim, and restricting alcohol to one glass of wine a day can help reduce risk, says Dr. Ann Partridge, director of the Program for Young Women with Breast Cancer at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. 

But if there is a clear hereditary predisposition, says Partridge, there are more drastic options for prevention, such as prescription drugs or—if risk is high—double mastectomy.

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Alzheimer’s
Typical age of diagnosis: Over 65 

But it can hit as early as: 40s 

What you can do now: Work your mental muscle! “We can prime our bodies and minds to lower our susceptibility to the problem,” says Dr. Gustavo Alva, distinguished fellow of the American Board of Psychiatry. Using parts of the brain that are infrequently exercised—by picking up a new language or learning to play a musical instrument—will help to counter cognitive decline. 

“What’s good for the heart is also good for the brain,” adds Alva, “so it’s important to maintain low cholesterol, keep blood pressure down, and stay in shape.”

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Type 2 Diabetes
Typical age of diagnosis: 40s and 50s But it can hit as early as: Childhood What you can do now: Food is your medicine here. “The increase of young people with type 2 diabetes is largely due to how they’re eating and a sedentary lifestyle,” says Dr. Michelle F. Magee, director of the MedStar Diabetes Institute. Most people are overweight when diagnosed, and excess weight—especially around the waist—increases risk. Be sure to avoid high glycemic, low-fiber foods—and you might want to add nitrates to the don’t-eat list. A 2009 study found a connection between the disease and exposure to nitrates, nitrites and nitrosamines through processed and preserved foods.

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Gout
Typical age of diagnosis: 50s and 60s 

But it can hit as early as: 30s 

What you can do now: While gout is common in older adults, it’s becoming increasingly common in 30-somethings, too—and that can be prevented by laying off the booze and keeping your weight in check. “Obesity and binge drinking are mostly to blame for younger adults developing gout,” says Dr. E. Robert Harris, of the Arthritis Foundation. “But rapid weight loss from crash diets also results in elevated levels of uric acid—which causes attacks.”
 

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