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Healthy Living

By Sheryl Kraft

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Each Thanksgiving, we have a tradition in my family (aside from the usual feast of turkey and stuffing and assorted other foods): Before we begin our meal, we take turns going around the table, and we each say a few words about what we are especially thankful for. We've been doing this for as long as I can remember— ever since our children were old enough to talk.

When I think back to some of the answers, I smile. Early on in our ritual, my youngest son, then a few months past 2, said he was thankful for Sesame Street. Another year, my older son told us he was thankful for his favorite football team, the Jets.

As the years pass, naturally their answers become a bit more serious and grounded in reality. Life—and age—has a way of doing that, after all.

What I haven't heard—yet—come from my sons' exclamations of thanks are words about health. That, I know, is not top of mind when you're in your 20s, after all. But for the more seasoned adults in the crowd? You can always bet on one or two health references.

I played a game with myself this morning when, upon hearing about the death of a close friend, I decided there are never too many things one can be thankful for. And sometimes, it's easy to get caught up in everyday minutiae and lose sight of that, or even forget that there are endless things, no matter how bad life might get, to be thankful for.

And, as it turns out, research is finding an "attitude of gratitude" to have a host of health benefits like sounder sleep, lower levels of anxiety, stress and depression and greater optimism about the future. It’s also been found to be a buffer where interpersonal relationships are concerned (so helpful in those emotionally charged family gatherings!).

Since time will not allow me to say more than a few sentences come Thanksgiving eve (lest the turkey burn in the oven!), here from A to Z is a sampling of what I am grateful for.

Allergies/Asthma. I am grateful I am free of these, since allergic diseases are among the major causes of illness and disability in the United States, affecting more than 50 million Americans (that's one in every six adults and children).

Breast Cancer. It is frustrating and unfortunate that close to 40,000 women lose their lives each year from this insidious disease. I am beyond grateful, though, to be among the more than 2.5 million breast cancer survivors in the United States.

Cellulite. I am grateful not to be plagued by too much of it. Yes, it's there … but thankfully, it's subtle and no one sees it except for moi. Or, at least, they claim they don't see it. And since there is partly a genetic element to it, I guess I have to include my mother here in my thanks.

Diabetes. I am eternally grateful I am not one of the 79 million adults living with prediabetes, nor one of the 26 million who have this disease. And I truly hope to keep it this way by keeping healthy habits like eating very little processed foods, bulking up on whole grains and beans and watching my weight.

Exercise. I'm not only grateful that such a thing exists, I am grateful that I can indulge in something that boosts energy and endorphins, decreases things like high blood pressure and LDL cholesterol and helps prevent or manage conditions or ills like stroke, metabolic syndrome, certain types of cancer, arthritis and falls.

Friends. How can I count the health benefits of friends? They are as essential to my life as air. Good friends help keep stress levels manageable, boost your self-esteem, help you cope with traumas and make life happier in general. It's hard to argue that they keep you healthier, especially when you learn about an Australian study that found people with a large network of friends outlived those with the fewest by 22 percent.

Glaucoma. I'm grateful my eyes are thus far healthy, especially free of glaucoma, the second-leading cause of blindness (everyone over the age of 60 is at increased risk of glaucoma). And since some types of glaucoma have no warning signs, I'm grateful for my ophthalmologist, who examines my eyes annually.

Hot Flashes. I say thank you almost every day that these have finally subsided, after years of turning red in the face and feeling like I was swaddled in a heating pad turned onto the highest setting possible. I gave away all my pretty fans to my (younger) friends who are suffering with hot flashes now. It's my way of recycling and showing gratitude, I guess.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I know so many people who suffer with this chronic common condition, and I am grateful not to be one of them who deal with bloating, abdominal pain, cramping and diarrhea or constipation on a sometimes-daily basis.

Jokes. I'm grateful for my ability to laugh at one, since nothing feels better than a great big laugh, which is a huge boost to your immune system.

Knee Replacement Surgery. I hope to be able to say this every year, since I fear it may be in my future: I am grateful to have my own knees. While it's true my left knee is missing a lot of its cartilage and the right one is not lagging far behind, I am hoping to keep my knees to myself by strengthening my quadriceps, avoiding weight gain (which puts a lot of stress on knees) and boosting my intake of fruits, veggies and whole grains.

Listeria. I am very grateful that my intake of cantaloupes has not put me in danger of contracting the food-borne illness listeria that was recently linked to cantaloupes grown in Colorado.

Melanoma. With all the sunbathing I did as a teen, I breathe a sigh of relief every time my annual skin check is clear. I hope to keep it that way by shunning direct contact with the sun and my daily use of sunscreen (even on cloudy days).

Nuts. Each day when I need something quick to satisfy my hunger, I am happy I can reach for something I love, whether it be a handful of peanuts, walnuts, pistachios or almonds. Packed with unsaturated fatty acids and other nutrients, nuts are a healthy way to keep your hunger in check while benefiting your heart, cholesterol and diabetes risk, to name just a few.

Overactive Thyroid. I thank my thyroid for staying in the right zone. Having an overactive thyroid can cause all sorts of health complications, from brittle bones and heart problems to red, swollen skin and bulging or irritated eyes.

Psoriasis. I'm grateful to be spared this autoimmune disease that causes skin cells to grow too quickly and can lead to a painful condition called psoriatic arthritis, where joints become swollen, tender and painful.

Not Smoking. I see how so many people struggle to quit smoking and how some don't succeed. Too bad: people who quit before age 50 have one-half the risk of dying in the next 15 years compared with those who keep up the habit. I'm grateful I never had to do this, since I never took up smoking.

Recipes. I am grateful for the myriad recipes I've found that make eating not just tasty but nutritious, as well. Here's one to satisfy any sweet tooth.

Shingles. I'm grateful to have only the wooden version on the outside of my house, rather than the painful and uncomfortable one caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. And I'm grateful, too, for having the option of a new shingles vaccine.

Time. I'm running out of it—and you likely are, too—and the older I get, the more precious it gets. So, in the interest of us both, I'll make it snappy with the rest of the alphabet.

U, V, W, X, Y and Z. Continued thanks goes to remaining ulcer-free, being able to supplement my diet with vitamins (especially vitamin D, which is difficult to get enough of in food), keeping bones strong with weight lifting, the invention of X-rays for diagnosing things like broken bones, pneumonia and cavities, yoga for relief from stress, anxiety and depression, and finally Z, a letter that is difficult enough to cause me to pick up a dictionary and exercise my brain and learn a few new words, like zeugma and Zoroastrianism.