Better Health for Pennies a Day

Here are six cheap and easy ways to cut your future medical bills dramatically.

NOTHING IS MORE precious to people than their health.

Yet, as medical costs soar, many Americans fear that maintaining good health will become prohibitively expensive before too long.

Some good news: According to medical experts, there are several simple and inexpensive things people can do right now to fight everything from heart disease to hip fractures in the future. The best news: Some of these preventative measures cost just pennies a day.

1. Aspirin
If Dr. Mark Fendrick, professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, could take only one drug with him to a desert island, he would grab a bottle of aspirin. In his opinion, it's a miracle pill. According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent panel of experts convened by the U.S. Public Health Service, adults who take 81 milligrams of aspirin a day (the equivalent of a baby aspirin) reduce their risk of coronary heart disease by 28%. Aspirin therapy has also been linked with decreasing strokes, cancer, dementia and cataracts. "If aspirin were 1/10th as good, 500 times more expensive and supported by a branded marketing campaign, every American would be on it," Fendrick says.

Doctors recommend aspirin therapy for people with an increased risk of heart disease. Since regular aspirin usage could have side effects, including gastrointestinal bleeding, make sure you speak with a doctor before beginning this therapy.

Cost: Four cents a day ($4.99 for 120 pills of Rite Aid Aspirin, Adult Low Strength).*

2. Fish Oil
It might not sound sexy, but fish oil contains omega-3 trans fatty acids, a crucial anti-inflamatory that's lacking in most Americans' diets, says Dr. David Katz, author of "The Way to Eat" and director of preventive research at the Yale School of Medicine. Fish oil's main benefit is that it reduces the risk of heart attack and other problems related to heart and blood vessel disease in people who already have these conditions, as well as their overall risk of death, according to the U.S. government's Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. So convincing is the research, in fact, that the FDA recently agreed to allow a qualified health claim for reduced risk of coronary heart disease on foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and tuna. There is also some evidence, Katz says, that fish oil can reduce the risk of some cancers, auto-immune disease and dementia. Beware, though, that there are concerns about the mercury levels in some oily fish. The most reliable way to get contaminate-free fish oil is to take a supplement.

Cost: Three cents a day ($4.99 for 175 capsules of Rite Aid Fish Oil).*

3. Red Wine
Here's some good news for oenophiles: There's impressive evidence that a glass or two of wine a day is good for your health, especially in preventing cardiovascular-adverse events, says University of Michigan's Fendrick. There's also evidence that people who drink moderately have lower rates of cancer, strokes, hip fractures and overall mortality. The benefits of alcohol are strongest among men who consume up to two servings a day -- including other forms, such as beer. Enjoying a fine burgundy is likely to help women too, but most of the tests so far have been on men.

Cost: $3 a glass based on a moderately priced bottle of red wine; less for the cheap stuff.

4. Flossing
Brushing your teeth and visiting your dentist twice a year aren't enough. If you want to maintain a healthy mouth and reduce your dental bills, you also need to floss regularly. We know it's a nuisance, but think of the alternative. If you don't floss, you're increasing your chances of tooth decay, which can lead to cavities, root canal and dental crowns, says Dr. Michael Sinkin, a New York-based dentist. Aside from the fear most people have of any dental procedure requiring Novocain, tooth decay is especially worrisome given that many employers don't offer dental insurance, and many of those that do are likely thinking about dropping it as a benefit.

"The presence of an oral infection can also lead to other problems," warns Sinkin. Research shows that diseased gums allow high levels of harmful bacterial components to enter the bloodstream, and people with deep periodontal pockets have an increased risk for electrocardiographic abnormalities (ECG), according to findings published in the Journal of Periodontology. If heart disease isn't enough to scare you into flossing, the American Academy of Periodontology says severe gum disease is also linked to diabetes and low-birth-weight babies.

Cost: $1.79 for 55 yards of Reach Dental Floss Fluoride, enough to last more than five months.*

5. Calcium
By 2010, the National Osteoporosis Foundation estimates, 52 million women and men over the age of 50 will be affected by osteoporosis and low bone mass. The easiest way to prevent this is to get enough calcium -- something few manage to do through diet. If you aren't getting at least 1,000 milligrams a day, or 1,200 a day for women over 50, consider taking a supplement with Vitamin D. Not only will it preserve bone mass, but it could also lower your blood pressure and possibly improve mood disorders, says Dr. Anthony Komaroff, editor-in-chief of Harvard Health Publications. There's also some evidence that calcium, especially when consumed through dairy products, helps maintain lean muscle.

Cost: 10 cents a day based on $12.99 for 120 tablets, Caltrate 600+D.*

6. A Healthy Lifestyle
Despite recent medical advances, there's no drug or supplement that's as effective in promoting good heath as diet and exercise, says Harvard's Komaroff. Simply walking 30 minutes a day, five times a week, can dramatically lower blood pressure, cholesterol and the risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, colon cancer and dementia. If that's not enough, it can also prevent more annoying ailments such as back, neck and leg aches. "If someone had a pill for you that could do all those things, how much would you pay?" Komaroff asks.

Maintaining a healthy weight offers many of the same benefits, plus a reduction in the risk of developing other cancers and sleep apnea. Fortunately, there's a wide range when we talk about healthy weight. A 5' 6" woman, for example, could weigh anywhere from 115 pounds to 150 pounds and still be considered in good physical shape. The best way to measure your weight it is to calculate your body mass index and work toward staying within the 18.5-25 range, says Yale's Katz.

Cost: Free

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