Top 10 tips to save your life – or at least prolong it

Back pain is one of the main reasons why people take time off work but we now know that staying off work is unhelpful for back pain

What started off as a light look at preventing illness has ended up as a virtual guide to living healthily. So, if you believe your health is your wealth, read on . . .

Jim Crowley, consultant cardiologist at University Hospital Galway and medical director of Croi Heart and Stroke Centre, Galway

“If you experience central chest pain (tightness and pressure) with or without pain radiating down your left arm, you should see a doctor quickly. Every minute counts and when someone is seen and treated within an hour, the risk of dying from a heart attack reduces by 30-40 per cent.

"Everyone – particularly those over 40 – should have their blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked to know if they are at risk of having a heart attack. If so, managing the risk involves managing blood pressure, cholesterol levels and weight, taking 30 minutes exercise a day, eating healthily and not smoking.”


Prof Jim Lucey, Psychiatrist, Medical Director of St Patrick's University Hospital, Dublin and author of 'The Life Well Lived'

"Minding our mental health is the key to living life well. So to save yourself psychologically speaking, you have to protect your wellbeing . . . We need to be sober, mindful, and to exercise, but we can do more, by taking notice of the good in each other, believing in our future and our world.

"Share hopefulness, be kind. Kindness is good for us. When we need therapeutic help, we need to reach out, we need to look for that help and take it without doubt or shame. Everyone should have a right to live a mentally healthy life. Each of us will need help sometime. Believe in your right to recovery.”

Dr Emer Kelly, respiratory physician at St Vincent’s University Hospital, Dublin

"Firstly, anyone who is coughing up blood while also suffering from weight loss and a hoarse voice should go to their GP quickly as these are red flag symptoms for lung cancer. Almost 20 per cent of adults in Ireland smoke so quitting smoking – or not smoking in the first place is important. Get support if you're quitting cigarettes and try and try again if you don't succeed at first. We have one of the highest rates of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in Europe but we now know that aerobic exercises can help prevent further infections for those with emphysema, bronchitis or other chronic lung diseases."

Prof Sabina Brennan, co-director of the Neuro-Enhancement for Independent Lives research programme at the Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity College Dublin.

“Keeping your brain active is one of the best ways to prevent a decline in brain function in later life. Many of the tips for brain health are similar to those for general health such as being physically active, managing stress and not skimping on sleep. But, a healthy brain also needs social engagement and opportunities to learn new things – whether that’s through informal learning or more formal, academic learning. Also, by looking after your heart – managing blood pressure, keeping a healthy weight and not smoking – you will also by default keep your brain more healthy. Embrace challenge: doing things that are slightly beyond your comfort zone is a great way to keep your brain stimulated and alive.”

Kieran O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer in Physiotherapy at University of Limerick, currently on sabbatical at Aspetar Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Hospital, Qatar

“To save your back, don’t be safe and don’t over-protect it. Back pain is one of the main reasons why people take time off work but we now know that staying off work is unhelpful for back pain.

"Protecting your back is not the best way to recover – in fact, exercise is more important. Medication and surgery aren’t the best solutions either and a lot of research points to over-diagnosis and over-treatment of back pain. So, to mind your back, focus on your overall health (exercise, sleep, weight, mental health and work-life balance) and not just your back.”

Psychotherapist and ‘Irish Times’ columnist, Trish Murphy

“If you are tethering on the edge of conflict – leave the room for 20 minutes and you will come back a sane person. When people are angry at you they really, really want you to listen, so listen to what they are trying to tell you. When we get together in groups, emotions become exaggerated, so know this and don’t take everything so seriously.

"Be generous with your attention, it is the time of year for it and it will have a good effect on your wellbeing (and reputation). If a serious conversation needs to be had, organise it for 11am over coffee – to avoid it escalating into a row. Finally, if you are feeling sad, lonely or isolated, don’t be afraid to ask for a hug. It works and people generally like being asked.”

Donal Buggy, Head of Services and Advocacy at the Irish Cancer Society

“Become aware of any changes in your body and talk to your doctor if you notice anything unusual such as exceptional weight loss, pain – particularly in your stomach – which doesn’t go away after three to four weeks. Also talk to your doctor if you have difficulty swallowing, indigestion, heartburn or a mouth/tongue ulcer that lasts. Unusual bowel habits (prolonged constipation or diarrhoea), blood in the urine or problems passing urine should also be checked out.

"It might be something innocuous but if it’s a cancer and it’s caught early, the treatments are less harsh and the prognosis is much better.”

Prof Donal O’Shea, consultant endocrinologist at St Vincent’s University Hospital and HSE Clinical Lead on Obesity

“We could save many more lives by facing up to and dealing with the toxic environment we have created in our society. So, for example, we should make it much more difficult for young people to buy alcohol and prevent the incessant marketing of unhealthy foods to children. We need to look carefully at the introduction of the wellbeing module in the Junior Certificate and make sure the Active Schools initiative in secondary schools is evaluated as it is brought into secondary schools in Ireland. We also need a system that gives GPs the skills, tools and time to manage chronic disease in the community so that people can be looked after better in their own homes rather than in hospitals.

Prof Matthew Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and author of 'Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams'

“Seven to eight hours sleep a night is the best way to maintain brain and body health. Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubles your risk of cancer, disrupts blood sugar levels, increasing your risk of diabetes and increases the likelihood of blocked arteries, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke. Sleep fights malignancy, prevents infection, fine-tunes the balance of insulin and circulating glucose, regulates our appetite and maintains a flourishing microbiome in your gut. It also improves our ability to learn, memorise, make logical decisions and rebalance our emotional brain circuits.”

Mary Ananda Shakti, founder of Laughter Yoga Ireland

“Stress is the biggest killer of all and laughter really is the best medicine for prevention of many illnesses like anxiety, stress and depression. Laughter lowers stress hormones in the blood and fosters a positive and hopeful attitude. Laughter Yoga combines unconditional laughter with yogic breathing in a series of playful physical exercises designed to move and stretch the body and quieten the mind. It’s the playfulness that leads to spontaneous laughter which is very contagious in a group. This leads to a total de-stress of body, mind and spirit. Laugh more often and you’ll simply feel lighter and happier for no reason at all.”

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
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- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson

Sylvia Thompson, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, heritage and the environment