If you relate to this description, you are probably a millennial, one of the nearly 80 million Americans born between 1982 and 2003. Millennials have surpassed baby Boomers as the largest generation in history.
Millennials are fortunate in many ways. Modern medicine has eradicated or significantly reduces the incidence of infectious diseases that caused widespread death and disability in previous generations. Science has also made it possible for people with previously limiting health problems to live full and productive lives.
However, as a group, millennials are more sedentary and eat a less healthy diet than any generation before them. These lifestyle trends are causing adults to develop serious, chronic diseases at younger and younger ages.
Top health challenges
Obesity. In the early 1970s, only 8 percent of adults 18 to 29 were obese. Now, approximately 30 percent are. The longer you are obese, the more likely you will eventually develop heart disease and diabetes.
Digital wear and tear. “Text neck” and “gorilla arm” may sound like characters in a superhero movie, but they actually refer to some of the digital-related health issues associated with this generation. Four out of 10 millennials spend at least nine hours a day on “screen time.” As a result, they are increasingly suffering neck, back, arm and wrist pain; nearsightedness; hearing problems; sleep disruptions; even brain shrinkage associated with too much time looking at, and interacting with, digital technology.
Autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases cause your immune system (which is supposed to protect you) to mistakenly attack your body’s cells, damaging joints and organs. There are about 80 types of autoimmune diseases, affecting more than 23 million Americans. Women, especially those of childbearing age, suffer disproportionately from autoimmune diseases, and they are a leading cause of death among young and middle-aged women.
Take charge today for long-term health
The risk factors that cause severe, chronic illnesses generally begin in childhood and early adulthood, so the time to prevent future health problems is now. Here are a few strategies for staying healthy.
Develop a relationship with a primary healthcare provider. Millennials tend to rely heavily on online health resources and social networks for health information, and often skip going to the doctor. However, developing a relationship with a trusted healthcare provider who knows your medical history can help you stay healthy and prevent illnesses as you move through adulthood.
Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity is a chronic disease, not a weakness of character. If you are overweight or obese, talk to your doctor about a successful weight loss plan.
Move. In addition to regular aerobic exercise (shoot for 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity) and twice-weekly strength training, make it a point to move frequently throughout the day. Break up sedentary work and recreational activities with short breaks to stand, stretch and walk around. If you need to lose weight, you’ll be happy to know you burn 30 percent more calories when you stand than when you sit.
Eat a healthy diet. Your doctor or a nutritionist can provide specific guidance, but a healthy diet revolves around primarily plant-based foods and lean protein sources. You don’t have to give up your favorite treats, just eat them less frequently or in smaller portions.
Use technology safely and to improve your health. Take frequent breaks from using electronic devices and learn how to prevent strain and repetitive stress injuries. For example, switch hands when texting and hold your phone in front of your face to reduce the strain on your neck from constantly looking down. Take advantage of apps and wearable devices to track physical activity, diet and other health measurements.
Seek early treatment for autoimmune diseases. Treating autoimmune diseases as soon as possible helps prevent irreversible, long-term damage and slows disease progression. However, vague and overlapping symptoms make autoimmune diseases difficult to diagnose. If you experience fatigue, dizziness or low-grade fever, or other unexplained symptoms, find an autoimmune specialist. Autoimmune diseases also raise your risk for heart disease and osteoporosis.
Get help for depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. These conditions are common and highly treatable. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help.
Don’t smoke or use tobacco products, or if you already do, quit. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. If you won’t quit for yourself, do it for the people you love. Secondhand smoke is harmful to children and can cause heart disease, lung cancer and stroke in nonsmoking adults.
Do you need help finding a primary care doctor? Call UPMC Susquehanna 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 570-321-1000, or visit UPMCSusquehanna.org.