Health & Fitness

Holidays can be tough on your teeth

The last few weeks before New Year's Eve can be a perilous time for your teeth, thanks to "last chance" syndrome. You know: "Hey, it's my last chance to indulge before my diet, so why not go for it now?"

Desserts can be especially dangerous. There's new evidence that the combination of sugar and starch — think holiday pies, cakes, cookies and breakfast treats — is worse for your teeth than either alone. The sugar-starch combo kicks a potent mouth bacteria called S. mutans into high gear. It creates a kind of superplaque that is up to five times harder, stickier and more acidic than the gunk made without much starch.

Worse, staying up late to party with pals or watch the ball drop gives those bacteria extra hours to pile up plaque, especially if you're so whipped when you get home that you decide it won't matter if you don't brush just this once (for the third time this week). How to protect your teeth from last-chance syndrome?

Wash dessert down with cranberry juice. A molecule in cranberries cuts acid production of certain bacteria by 70 percent and keeps them from sticking to teeth.

Avoid fizzy beverages. They tend to be acidic, which helps erode tooth enamel.

Chew sugarless gum. Specifically, gum sweetened with xylitol. Chewing stimulates saliva, your body's natural mouth rinse, and xylitol curbs bacteria.

Put your toothbrush and floss on your pillow. That way, no matter how wiped you are, you'll safeguard that smile.

Get a good night's sleep

You can't live without it and you love it when you get it. Good sleep is a vital key to living younger and longer.

People who get an optimal amount — 6.5 to 7.5 hours — live longest. Regularly getting enough can make your RealAge up to three years younger. But getting too little or too much can mean trouble's brewing.

If you routinely log more than nine hours a night, all that sack time could shorten your lifetime. (Why isn't totally clear.) If you average less than six hours, you're prone to high C-reactive protein, a marker of aging inflammation that threatens your heart, brain and arteries, and invites cancer, arthritis and diabetes. Still staying up for late movies? Watch out: Lack of sleep stimulates your appetite, meaning you're likely to become tired and flabby.

Help yourself get a good night's sleep:

* Don't sit around. Being physically active during the day helps you sleep better at night. Just leave about two hours between gym time and bedtime.

* Lose a little. Shedding excess pounds shrinks your risk of sleep apnea — the snorting, gasping, snoring condition that's one of the great rest wreckers (yours and your partner's). That's important because, to feel fully restored, you need stretches of at least 1.5 hours of uninterrupted zzzs.

* Reserve your bedroom for sleep. Clear out TVs, cell phones, work. Meditate a little. If deep breathing turns to heavy breathing, you'll sleep even better.

The lowdown on holiday highballs

Booze and celebrations go hand in hand. So do alcohol and a healthy heart, as long as you're smart about the "dose." For healthy folks, a drink or two — by which we mean one for women, two for men — can give your heart a lift. The ethanol in booze in all its forms (wine, beer, harder stuff) increases good cholesterol, discourages blood clots and keeps your arteries young.

Women who enjoy a regular cocktail are less likely to have a heart attack or stroke than women who abstain. A couple of drinks help even men who've had bypass surgery — it can cut your risk of later heart attacks, strokes and death by 25 percent.

But as soon as you toss back more than one (women) or two (men), the benefits disappear fast. For women, just two drinks a day raise your risk of breast cancer by 32 percent; three drinks, by a sobering 50 percent. And male bypass patients who have six a day are twice as likely to die as nondrinkers.

So here's the bottom line: If you don't drink, don't start. If you do, don't lowball your consumption: one drink equals 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces (one shot) of 80-proof spirits.

Stick to that and, of course, designate a driver if you're off to a holiday party.

Why wait on weights?

Why does aerobic exercise get all the love? Don't get us wrong. We don't let a couple of days go by without somehow getting our body parts and hearts moving fast for 30 minutes.

But if you're not already including strength-training in your workouts, you're missing more than feeling strong. Muscle work — using free weights, elastic bands, machines or your own body (think push-ups) —increases blood flow and keeps your system clog-free. That's not all.

Pumping iron also provides an instant energy boost, and who couldn't use that? Just 10 minutes a day, three times a week will make you feel more peppy than a toddler in Toys 'R' Us. What's more, flexing your muscles can help you fight off health bullies ranging from arthritis and diabetes to osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke and depression.

It's best to start resistance work before aerobics — fewer injuries that way. And don't give up weights for aerobics. Put them together and they'll work as much magic as Penn and Teller. They make belly fat disappear, inches vanish and tight clothes fit again far faster than aerobics alone. You'll lose more weight, too, even while doing absolutely nothing. That's because weight-work builds muscles, which take more calories to maintain. Compare: A pound of fat burns one to three calories per day; a pound of muscle incinerates 50 to 150. So get moving, start pumping and prepare to look as good as you feel. Or even better.

Staying healthy in a germy world

You're on a walk with your honey, the sun is setting, it would make a fabulous photo. You hand your phone/camera to a passer-by to take the shot. Snap! Coughing, he hands back ... his germs. All over your phone. Those bugs (colds, flu, gastroenteritis — feeling sick yet?) will live on that phone for hours or days.

And it's not just cell phones. Think about that ATM keypad, the electronic pen you use to sign for credit-card charges, and the most shared tech gadget of all: the remote.

Are there really enough germs on those devices (known medically as fomites — inanimate objects that can transmit infectious organisms) to make you ill? Yep. And the transmission process is all too simple. You touch the tech thingie, then you touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Voila. Germ transfer complete. Most of us touch our faces 10 to 25 times an hour!

How to up your odds of staying healthy in a germy, digital world? If you've got a manic streak, clean your phone with a sanitizing wipe before and after you pass it around to share those vacation photos or show off your grandchild. Not a chance? Wash your hands as soon as possible.

Soap and water are more effective than wipes anyway. If you've just gone to the bank or supermarket, pushed a door handle or an elevator button, do your best not to touch your face until you have washed your hands.