An HIV diagnosis was once a death sentence, but that is no longer the case for those who stay healthy. In fact, the average positive person today is expected to live to be nearly 80, roughly on par with the general population. As more and more people reach the century mark, here’s a list of the best things you can do — besides adhering to your medication regimen — to ensure you'll have a long, healthy, happy life.
1. Get married…or at least partnered
OK, singletons, don’t hate us for saying this, but a good marriage will extend your life (a bad marriage, one with violence or emotional upheaval, will not, of course, so it has to be a good, solid relationship). A widely reported Harvard University study found that married women were 20 percent less likely than single women to die of stress-related health problems, including cirrhosis of the liver, suicide, and heart disease. And married men were 100 to 200 percent less likely than unmarried men to do so. If that doesn’t convince you, researchers Corinne Reczek and Hui Liu, of the University of Cincinnati and Michigan State University, respectively, analyzed national health data for nearly 200,000 people over a seven-year span and found that the rate of mortality among men in cohabiting relationships dropped by 80 percent, while the rate dropped 59 percent for women. According to Karen Sherman, author of Marriage Magic! Find It, Keep It, & Make It Last, when a happily married person undergoes heart bypass surgery, he or she is three times more likely than a single person to still be alive 15 years later. She told Utah’s Deseret News that additional studies have indicated that married couples experience lower levels of heart disease, cancers, flu, Alzheimer’s, depression, and stress.
2. Beat Back the Blues
Even when things don’t seem like they’re going your way, looking at things with a positive attitude may be enough to help you get through a tough situation, and even live longer. One study indicated that people in their 20s who used mostly positive, affirmative words to describe themselves were more likely to live into their 80s than those with negative outlooks. Additionally, people with a more positive view of life tend to have fewer strokes, coronary problems, injuries, and colds, and positive-thinking women have healthier pregnancies.
The lymphoid tissues in a person’s stomach are filled with T cells. Because HIV affects T cells, many people with HIV have gastrointestinal problems, but a healthy GI tract is crucial to proper absorption of antiretroviral medication. Some HIV meds need to be taken with food to assure this absorption and avoid potential side effects such as diarrhea. Many HIV-positive folks could also benefit from probiotics and a high-fiber diet, says Brian Risley, the manager for treatment education at AIDS Project Los Angeles.
Exercise helps control your weight, fights cardiovascular disease, and lets you look fantastic in an old pair of jeans, but it can also help boost your T cells. APLA’s Risley says some studies have shown that moderate activity, even in short bursts, spurs an uptick in T-cell counts, even when it doesn’t have a serious effect on viral load.
Exercise can also help you feel better between your ears. Says psychotherapist Melissa Lopez: “Exercise is beneficial because we produce hormones that help calm us down when we exercise.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, most people should aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. “Walk, go to the gym, dance around your house,” Lopez adds. “Anything is good, as long as it makes you feel good.”
Loss of brain function is often a difficult side effect of both HIV and aging. Galina Mindlin, MD, coauthor of Your Playlist Can Change Your Life, has created Brain Music Therapy, a method of converting a person’s brain waves into music to help them concentrate, sleep, and deal with stress or depression. But, says Mindlin, your medulla oblongata doesn’t need to be the next Mozart to benefit from music. Any song from your playlist that calms you, be it Kanye West, Ozzy Osbourne, or Native American flute solos, can help you rewire your brain and change your behavior in as little as two weeks if you play it twice a day for five minutes.
6. Keep Getting in the Action
Orgasms can be wonder drugs in themselves: They help you sleep, boost your immunoglobulin levels (which fight infections), and reduce stress and depression. So get it on once or twice a week, just don’t forget to play safe.
Smartphones can be lifesavers, and with most of us glued to ours, it’s not easy to imagine leaving it off for a whole day. The same for social media. But experts argue that when you see work-related emails on your phone during off hours, it causes higher levels of stress. Moreover, in a MeQuilibrium study, over 60 percent of those surveyed reported feeling jealous, depressed, or even annoyed after checking social media updates, and three out of five people admitted to spending more of their free time on their computers than with their significant others. But if you turn that all off, you’re excising that external stress from your life, at least for the day. If that’s not incentive enough, some doctors still argue that carrying your mobile near your body raises your risk of some cancers because of the radiation it emits (limited studies have found some association, but more research is needed, according to the National Cancer Institute).
“Most of us have no idea that cell phones are small microwave radios that should not be kept directly on the body,” epidemiologist Devra Davis wrote in a commentary piece for the Environmental Health Trust’s website. She further noted, “The iPhone 4 manual, for example, says that if the phone is kept in the pocket, ‘FCC guidelines for safe exposure can be exceeded,’ and that ‘users are responsible for protecting themselves.’ ” For safe usage, carry your phone off your person, especially in the case of pregnant women or young children, and use a speaker or wireless handset for calls.
8. Make Friends — Not Just the Online Kind
Having strong relationships with other people can be a matter of life or death. A review by Brigham Young University of existing research on the topic found that people with weak social connections were 50 percent more likely to die in the research’s follow-up period (an average of 7.5 years) than their peers with strong social bonds. To fight feelings of loneliness, Lopez encourages joining support groups for people with HIV or finding friends or family members you can depend on to let you vent to every once in a while. “Do not isolate yourself, and don’t make [HIV] a secret,” she says. “I always think that clients, no matter how long they’ve been living with HIV, should find other people to talk to.”
9. Kick the Habit for Good
It’s common knowledge that cigarettes are bad for everyone, but an estimated 60 percent of deaths among people with HIV are associated with smoking.
‘“In the beginning, when people had an AIDS diagnosis and they were given eight to 16 months to live, we overlooked their smoking habit,” Risley says. As people are living longer, it’s important to remember that smoking may cause mitochondrial infections; mitochondria are an energy-producing feature of human cells. Also, some people with HIV have a heightened susceptibility to cardiovascular disease, and smoking compounds that risk. Plus, of course, there’s smoking’s association with lung cancer.
10. Take Your Vitamins and Minerals, Especially Zinc
Many doctors recommend their patients take a general multivitamin to supplement their diet, but people with HIV can also benefit from supplements like zinc, a mineral that can get used up and lost in the urine if a person has chronic infections or inflammation. Jacob Teitelbaum, author of The Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Solution, says zinc deficiency is often so severe in people with AIDS that it can “account for many, if not most, of the immune dysfunction seen early in the illness.”
Other helpful supplements include selenium, which has been shown to boost immunity in people with HIV while suppressing the level of virus in the body, vitamin D and calcium for bone health, and iron to fight anemia, especially for menstruating women. Still, those with HIV should also be wary of some supplements that might have adverse interactions with antiretroviral treatment. Risley notes that Saint-John’s-wort, for example, does not mix well with antiretrovirals or some other drugs, like statins, which lower one’s cholesterol. Talk with your doctor, then take your Flintstones.
People tend to experience a drop in testosterone levels once they advance past the age of 50, but HIV can also lead to a sharper drop in the hormone. Constant fatigue can be an indication that the virus is affecting your testosterone. While some doctors may write you off as just being tired from having the virus, Risley says both men and women should insist on being tested for chronic testosterone loss if fatigue is a persistent problem. If your levels are low, you and your doctor may want to consider testosterone replacement therapy to help you stay alert.
When your T-cell count goes below 200, you become more susceptible to bacterial infections. Risley suggests avoiding raw foods like sushi or oysters, which may contain fungi or bacteria. You should also avoid soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk (Brie, Camembert) and any with mold (Roquefort or other blue cheeses). All meats should be well cooked, and leftovers should be refrigerated immediately or tossed out. Risley also suggests the same cooking method for those who use medicinal marijuana.
‘‘I’ve heard a few doctors who tell their patients who smoke marijuana to nuke it in the microwave for 30 seconds,’’ he says. ‘‘That kills a lot of the trace bacteria or fungus that may remain on the plant.’’
You can even consider a neutropenic diet, often prescribed to anyone with a weakened immune system to help reduce the risk of infection by protecting you from bacteria and other harmful organisms found in some food and drinks. Epicure With the Chef MDs, the award-winning Web series hosted by former Food Network star Marc Silverstein, pairs Washington, D.C.’s famous chefs with specialists and physicians from the George Washington Medical Faculty Associates to create simple, healthy recipes. In a recent episode, David Guas, host of Travel Channel’s American Grilled and chef-owner of Bayou Bakery, a New Orleans-inspired bakery and café in downtown Arlington, Va., and Lauren Mauro, hematologist and oncologist at GW, gave a good intro to a neutropenic diet with some guidelines. Download their cookbook, aimed in part at people with HIV here: http://bit.ly/105AugM.
Even if thinking about all the hands that have touched your produce from the farm to your table doesn’t give you the willies, Risley suggests using a fruit- and vegetable-specific spray to clean raw produce. Even better, you can make your own veggie wash, one part vinegar to three parts water. Guas advises that you wash fruits and veggies in cold, clean tap water — what could be simpler? Don’t forget Guas’s other tip: Chilling meat on ice while preparing your meal can deter unwanted bacterial growth.
14. Build Your Own Dream Team
Not everyone can afford a team of celebrity doctors, personal chefs, and expensive therapists, but most folks with HIV have access to qualified professionals at local HIV clinics and organizations. Consider talking to a nutritionist to find out which foods are right for your needs as well as seeing a qualified counselor to determine a plan to strengthen your mental health. While professionals at private practices may be unaffordable for some people, many offer a sliding fee scale, with the fee based on what you can afford to pay. Don’t be afraid to ask.
15. Consider Personalized Meds
One of the burgeoning trends in the medical field is personalized medicine for a patient based on their demographic information and genes. ‘‘We’re going to have a lot more genetic tests for people to specifically tailor medication,’’ Risley says. ‘‘We just assume that if you take this one particular medication, your body will absorb it, but not everyone has the same absorption capabilities.’’ While genetically tailored treatment is not widespread, it may be soon. Talk to your doctor about developments regarding ailments such as depression, colorectal cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Depression, stress, and anxiety are tough for people to overcome, but these conditions can also harm your immune system. Lopez works with her HIV-positive patients to develop a plan once their moods start to sour.
‘‘When you’re already working with a compromised immune system, pre-depression or anxiety can bring on a lack of motivation,’’ she says, which can lead to people slacking off on their meds. Lopez suggests finding a professional counselor, especially when you’re first diagnosed with HIV, to form a plan to deal with anxiety, depression, or other negative feelings.
“Know the symptoms of depression, know the symptoms of anxiety, so you know what’s happening to you,’’ she says. ‘‘You have to be proactive to prevent another, deeper cycle of depression.’’
Lopez also suggests doing some research to assure that a potential therapist has some understanding of HIV and AIDS, and any community or culture that you may also identify with, like Asian, African-American, Latino, or LGBT.
17. Have a Little Faith
No matter if you worship in a cathedral, a temple, a teepee, or on the sofa, most physicians believe that some form of spirituality can help people better cope with their health problems. Religion can also help you build their social circle and feel generally more positive. Don’t believe in a higher power?
They’re cute and cuddly and cost a lot less than having a baby with only two legs. Even better, people who have pets have been shown to have less stress and anxiety, lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, fewer sick days, and longer lives. For people disabled by HIV, dogs (and cats — really, any pet, though we have a soft spot for dogs) can help you feel less alone in the world, at a time when you may feel especially lonely, and it comes in a furry package of unconditional love. According to Labdoor, one study showed that patients experienced a 37 percent reduction in anxiety if they spent time with animals before having medical procedures, so consider cuddling up with Fido before your next trip to the doc.
Yes, drinking to excess is bad for you, and if you have substance issues, by all means, don’t pick up that bottle. But for the rest of us, drinking one glass of red wine each day has a health benefit that can indeed help you live longer. (Just ask the family of Jeanne Calment, once on record as the oldest living woman — she died at age 122. Turns out, ol’ Jeanne drank exactly one glass of wine daily all her adult life.) How does it help? Red wine contains polyphenols, antioxidants that also help maintain the elasticity of your artery walls, making for a healthier heart.
Go to comedy clubs, watch TV sitcoms, pop in a funny movie — any of it helps manage your stress and improves your health, according to research studies. One such study indicated that people who had watched a funny movie had lower levels of the salivary endocrinological stress marker chromogranin A (CgA). Researchers Masahiro Toda and Hiroe Ichikawa report that salivary CgA measurement is becoming an established means of evaluating stress: “Since fibers of the parasympathetic nervous system also innervate the salivary glands and stimulate salivary flow rates, it has also been suggested that salivary flow rates may reflect stress reactions.” The subjects in their study also reported a “feeling of being uplifted and fulfilled.” What’s it all mean? According to spit science, if you have a good laugh, you will have less stress and possibly be fulfilled and uplifted.
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