Little changes can make a difference in Butler County residents' lives

| Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Keeping a New Year's resolution is hard, but what if one small lifestyle change could save your life?

It's just that simple, local doctors say. The leading causes of death in Butler County can be prevented by three easy lifestyle changes: quit smoking, eat better and exercise more.

“It really is about trying to reduce your risk — a lot of it's about the American lifestyle,” said Dr. Elliot Smith, internist with Butler Health System Primary Care.

“And you can't just eat a healthy diet from January to the middle of February.”

The change has to be long-lasting.

Heart disease claims the most lives in Butler County, 2,302 people between 2007 and 2011; followed by cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke and Alzheimer's disease, according to data from the Pennsylvania State Department of Health.

While many factors influence each disease, a few common threads run among the top four.

Dr. Dean Wolz, a clinical and interventional cardiologist with Butler Cardiovascular Consultants, said if one thing has the biggest impact, it's to quit smoking.

“Smoking is the biggest culprit,” Wolz said. “To quit smoking is far and away No. 1. It's a big risk factor for heart disease, stroke, cancer.”

Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smith said along with having a significantly increased risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases such as asthma and emphysema are found almost exclusively in smokers. Lower respiratory disease affects the lungs, as opposed to the nose, throat and sinuses, which is upper respiratory.

“If people can quit smoking, that is going to cut down on all of those things,” he said.

Making dietary changes and starting a regular exercise routine are also critical lifestyle changes that can help prevent the top four causes of death.

“An American diet, which is high in fat, raises the risk of blocking arteries, which raises the risk of stroke, heart disease,” Smith said. “Things people think are good, like eating less red meat and more fish and chicken, are good, but it's not enough. You have to make a huge change and start regular exercise.”

Wolz said the key to making changes is being slow and consistent.

“Like anything else, if you can incorporate it into your routine and involve friends and family, and make it gradual lifestyle changes that will endure over time you'll find success,” he said.

Alzheimer's Disease, the fifth leading cause of death in Butler, is more difficult to address because it's not confirmed what causes it. Smith said there is some evidence that dietary changes such as getting more antioxidants or Vitamin D and lowering the intake of saturated fats can help, but it's not been proven.

Overall, prevention is key to a healthier life, but it's much easier said than done, the doctors said.

“It's much better to be in prevention, but human nature being what it is — people are caught off guard,” Wolz said.

Coming in for a yearly physically after age 40, when the incidence of these diseases begins to rise, is a good place to start, Smith said.

“Getting a regular annual physical, trying to work with physicians with what changes you can make and have a support system in place to be able to make those changes,” Smith said. “As a primary-care doctor, our job is to get them before they have their heart attack, and getting them to do the things like quitting smoking, exercising regularly — things that they would do for a New Year's resolution.”

Smith said ultimately to effect change in one's life will not only improve the quantity, but also the quality.

“There are things worse than death,” he said. “Being in a nursing home and being fed through a tube is not anybody's idea of living. The quality of life that can be impacted by making those changes to prevent those things from happening is something else people should be looking at.”

Rachel Farkas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-779-6902 or

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