How Bad Are Your Past Sins Really?

Partied a lot? Did some extreme tanning? Ate fast food 24-7? How to tell if those old habits affect your health right now-and how to undo any damage.


past-sins
Let's be honest: Many of us-OK, most of us-weren't exactly paragons of health in our youth. And we can't help wondering: Will those margaritas, junk-food binges, forgotten condoms, or even that one bong hit eventually come back to haunt us? 'I cringe when I think of the abuse I heaped on my body when I was younger-smoking, drinking, using tanning beds,' says Stephanie Marchant, 43, a marketing consultant in Woodstock, Georgia. 'I'd like to try to repair the damage, but I wonder how much I can do at this point. Is the damage already done?'

To find out just how worried Marchant and the rest of us should be, we took our fears straight to the people who should know: health experts who've studied the long-term effects of those youthful bad habits. What they say may surprise-and reassure-you.

In your past: You loved to party-with a margarita in your hand.

It's no big deal if...you overdid it once in a while in college or your 20s, but you're a moderate drinker now. One can have a drink every day without dire consequences. The liver has a wonderful ability to regenerate, so unless you inflicted years of damage, you're probably OK.

It might matter if...you used to binge nightly (defined as four or more drinks in about two hours), or you're still having multiple drinks each day. 'Binge drinking can kill neurons in the brain, affecting decisionmaking, learning, and memory. The more you do it, the greater the risk,' says Fulton Crews, PhD, director of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. Plus, because the liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol and clearing it from the body, heavy drinking-more than a few drinks a day for over 10 years-can cause hepatitis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. Experts also say that more than a drink a day increases the risk of breast cancer.

To start fresh:

  • Get an hour of aerobic exercise most days of the week (brisk walking counts). It can help new neurons grow in the brain, which may reverse some damage from past alcohol abuse.

  • Drink in moderation-no more than one a day. 'If you're more saintly now, you've probably started to reverse your cancer risk,' says Joel B. Mason, MD, professor of medicine and nutrition at Tufts University.

  • Eat a healthy diet. If you were a heavy drinker, avoid high-protein diets, which can be especially hard on your liver. Also, get enough B vitamins-such as folate (in leafy greens, beans, and whole grains), which research has shown may lower drinkers' risk of breast cancer.

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Ginny Graves
Last Updated: June 24, 2010

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