From Sunburns to Binge Drinking: Will Past Health Mistakes Haunt You?

Sunburns, smoking, partying—we've all got regrets. Here's how to atone for them.

Raise your hand if you once believed in getting a base tan. Or if you used to sneak cigs under the bleachers. Or yo-yo-dieted your way through your 20s. Really, who didn’t make some poor choices back in the day? But now that you’ve reformed your ways, you may worry about the long-term effects of those less-than-wise decisions. Here, a look at the potential harm caused by six former habits, plus how you can help your body recover.

Smoking cigarettes

“As soon as you quit, your lungs start to heal,” says Norman H. Edelman, MD, senior scientific adviser to the American Lung Association. Canadian researchers even found that people who quit before 40 lived nearly as long as those who’d never lit up. “The bottom line is that the sooner you quit, the better,” says Dr. Edelman.

Bounce back stronger: The chemicals in tobacco harm the lining of your veins and arteries, causing them to narrow, which raises your blood pressure. One of the best ways to keep your blood pressure in check? You guessed it—breaking a sweat on the reg. Working out can really improve your heart function, says Dr. Edelman.

Yo-yo dieting

Maybe you dabbled with cleanses—or gained and lost the same 10 pounds again and again. Yo-yoing can take a real toll on your heart. Recent research has linked it to a higher risk of death from sudden cardiac arrest and coronary heart disease. The best thing you can do? Put an end to the cycle of losing and gaining.

Get some guidance: Long-term weight loss is a slow and steady process. But years of chronic dieting can warp your expectations, says Rachel Fortune, MD, an eating disorder specialist at Newport Academy, a teen mental health treatment facility. If you’re working to slim down, she suggests talking to your doctor or a nutritionist to make sure your diet is healthy, and one you can stick to.

Soaking up UV rays

Even if you’ve never suffered a blistering sunburn, the UV damage from tanning—in a salon or at the beach—and everyday sunlight “really adds up,” says Lance H. Brown, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine.

Be vigilant: When caught early, skin cancer is usually treatable. Go for an annual full-body check, says Dr. Brown, and call your derm ASAP if you notice any suspicious moles. He also recommends wearing SPF 30 every day on all sun-exposed areas (yes, even when it’s cloudy).

Rocking out

Ever hear a ringing in your ears? That’s called tinnitus—and it could be a sign of hearing damage from one too many rock concerts, says Amanda Lauer, PhD, assistant professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Center for Hearing and Balance.

Protect your ears: You can’t undo hearing damage. But you can take steps to prevent more damage. That means wearing earplugs whenever you’re exposed to loud sounds, says Lauer, even while vacuuming and mowing the lawn. And keep the volume on your speakers, TV, and headphones (typically safer than ear buds) turned down low. “If it feels like it might be too loud, then it’s too loud,” says Lauer.

Binge drinking

Beer pong, flip cup, drunk Jenga—these games seem harmless when you’re 21 (aside from the wicked hangovers). But even at a young age, binge drinking— that’s four or more drinks in two hours for women—may up your risk for heart disease, according to a 2017 study.

Embrace moderation: As long as you’ve cut way back since your college days, it’s possible that booze might help your heart now. Moderate drinking—that’s one drink per day, no more—has been tied to reduced risk of cardiovascular issues for some people. And new research suggests it may ward off dementia, too. Cheers to that.

Hate your tattoo?

You adored your ink at 19. Now, not so much. You can probably erase it with laser treatments. But they’re not cheap—you might pay up to $9,000 for six to 10 sessions—and boy, can they hurt. “Swelling, bleeding, and blisters are common side effects,” says Lance H. Brown, MD. And keep your expectations measured: “Some tattoos only partially fade, leave a ghost image, or even permanent raised scarring,” says Dr. Brown. He suggests interviewing several dermatological surgeons who specialize in tattoo removal before you schedule the procedure.

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