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Illnesses most likely to kill you and how to prevent them

Know anyone who’s died of tuberculosis lately? How about diphtheria? That’s because you live in 2014 instead of 1900. Back then, these two diseases were some of the biggest killers of Americans. But, no more. A new study reveals the biggest killers in 2014 are exactly what one might expect: heart disease and cancer.

It’s kind of amazing how times change. Once upon a time, our American ancestors worried about diphtheria, TB and a host of other diseases like influenza, gastrointestinal infections, accidents and “senility.” These were all major killers back then. Some of those have been downright eradicated through vaccination and other rigorous advances in medicine.

Sadly, we still don’t get to live forever. It’s just that the killers have changed. According to a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, heart disease and cancer cause two-thirds of American deaths every year. Noninfectious airway disease, cerebrovascular diseases, accidents, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, nephropathies (kidney disease), pneumonia/influenza and suicide round out the top ten (from most common to least).

Note: The flu shows up on both lists. It’s no joke. Get that shot. In fact, influenza still kills a lot of people — between 3,000 and 49,000 each year, according to the CDC. So, what can we do to protect ourselves from these modern-day scourges? Here are a few:

To prevent the flu

Practice extra-good hygiene. Cover your nose and mouth when you cough. Try to avoid being around sick people and take the antiviral drugs if your doctor provides them. This is all advice from the CDC we would do well to heed. Most important: “CDC recommends a yearly flu vaccine as the first and most important step in protecting against flu viruses.” Get it.

To prevent “lifestyle diseases”

According to the study: “An obesity epidemic, feared in 1912, has come to pass. The climb in life expectancy stalled around the turn of the millennium — and may even be reversed.” So what can we do? Eat right. Exercise. Don’t take it for granted that we have forever. The CDC recommends that parents, in particular, should pay close attention to what their children consume, even counting calories if necessary. It could save their lives.

To prevent cancer

Preventing cancer is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but it can be done. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are ways to fight cancer before you have a diagnosis. How? Avoid tobacco. Be physically active. Avoid unhealthy foods and eat well. Use sunscreen and wear hats when outside. Get vaccinated.

We may not be able to live forever, but we can do some things here and now to improve our chances for a long life. We need to look to the past, but also look to our future. Or, in the words of the study authors: “We must continue to adapt health systems and health policy as the burden of disease evolves.”

More in health

Important: New flu guidelines for moms this season
Why the diseases that kill the most people get the least money
Heart disease becoming a concern for kids, too

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