These proactive steps can help you manage the risk of common serious conditions
For 10 years, Sun Life has published an annual research report focused on the highest cost health insurance claims. The data in the report is drawn from Sun Life’s stop loss claims, a type of insurance employers who self-fund their health insurance plan purchase to protect against the financial impact of very high cost health insurance claims.
Dr. Miles Varn, CEO of PinnacleCare, a Sun Life company, shared his insights about steps you can take to better manage your risk of the top five conditions on Sun Life’s list—solid tumor cancer, blood cancers, cardiovascular disease, orthopedic and musculoskeletal conditions, and conditions that affect newborns and infants.
Pinnacle Care (PC): What should people know about cancer and blood cancers?
Miles Varn (MV): They first need to understand their personal risk. They should look into their family history and consider discussing genomic testing to help stratify the risks if they do have a family history of cancer. There are proven steps that need to be taken to detect cancers early, including screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies. However, people who have an increased risk need to be more aggressive with their screening. If they don’t know their risk, they lose the opportunity to screen more aggressively. There are also risk reduction strategies like HPV vaccines.
PC: If you are at an increased risk, should you build a relationship with a cancer specialist sooner?
MV: There are multi-disciplinary clinics that focus on screenings and counselling for high-risk patients. These clinics provide access to genetic counselors in combination with academic institutions and experts that are looking at detection of cancers in high-risk patients.
PC: Are blood cancers primarily genetic?
MV: Some are. There are syndromes, such as Lynch syndrome and LFS, which are familial genetic syndromes that increase the risk of a number of cancers. There may also be environmental factors that increase cancer risk and may be able to be mitigated. Childhood cancer treatment may increase the risk of blood cancer as an adult.
PC: What should people do to screen for and prevent cardiovascular disease?
MV: Choose a diet that’s less inflammatory and get exercise. If there’s a strong family history of cardiovascular disease, for example a father, mother, brother or sister who had a heart attack or stroke at a younger age, get screened at an earlier age using either a stress test, cholesterol measurements, or a cardiac calcium score. And manage cardiovascular risk factors aggressively.
In particular, if you have diabetes, it’s very important to control your blood sugar over time because diabetes leads to a significant risk for vascular disease (conditions that affect the circulatory system and blood vessels and can increase the risk of a range of health problems including kidney damage, stroke, blood clots, aneurysms, and more).
These choices—a less inflammatory diet and regular exercise—are involved in longevity as well. However, it’s easy for me to tell you to exercise, eat and sleep well, and control your stress because these all reduce inflammation and reduce risk of vascular disease. But a commitment to making these changes is not easy: embracing support and ongoing assistance from a health advisor can be an important part of your success.
PC: What are some strategies to get and keep yourself on track when it comes to these lifestyle changes?
MV: Start slowly. You don’t have to run a marathon to get exercise. Exercise can take the form of three ten minute walks a day or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Think simple to start and don’t try to climb the mountain all at once. Start with hills and, once you feel better, then you can expand it to more difficult tasks if you want. Exercise should always feel as much of a pleasant time of the day than a burden. Take the same approach to nutrition and weight management. Some people are motivated by competition, so exercising or losing weight in conjunction with a friend group can make the process easier.
PC: What steps can people take to limit the risk of musculoskeletal disorders, like chronic back pain?
MV: Design your exercise plan with strength, core, and balance work. Those types of exercise help prevent injuries. It’s also important not to overdo exercise routines to help prevent injuries in the long term. A diversity of sports rather than a single sport can prevent overuse syndromes.
PC: If people have musculoskeletal issues, what should be their first steps to help manage those issues?
MV: There are certain exercises that help. Flexibility and stretching can help protect against an injury.
Back pain tends to come and go in acute waves. If, during the off cycles, you’re protecting your back, you’re less likely to have those painful cycles in the future. Even if you do have those painful cycles, they’re less likely to be as severe if you keep up with flexibility exercises and stretching when you’re not in an acute pain episode. The same is true with knees and hips.
PC: Aside from recommended prenatal care and screenings, what steps can people take to lower the risk of their infant or newborn facing the problems associated with premature birth and maternal health problems?
MV: Know your risks and confront those risks very aggressively. If a parent falls into a high-risk category, it’s important for them to complete recommended screenings early and more frequently. With proper screening, there are interventions that can be done in utero that can correct problems that would otherwise be fairly devastating.
PC: Are there certain issues that put people at higher risk beyond being an older mother?
MV: Gestations of twins or triplets, blood disorders, genetic conditions, and conditions like polycystic ovary disease all put patients at a higher risk of complications for themselves and their babies.