The Doctor's Corner: Put down the death sticks and live longer

Is 56 the new 76?

We read that 60 is the new 50.

In pursuit of that concept, I was recently fortunate to experience a dynamic therapeutic massage at the hands of talented, strong Hollee Neff in a lovely studio at Second and Mermaid streets in downtown Laguna Beach.

Two people I knew died in February, tragically, both at age 56. Smoking and abuse of alcohol contributed to their untimely departures. Please throw away the death sticks. If you are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, get sober and live.

The woman, whom I'll call "Gabrielle," was an independent, successful, white-collar small business owner. She also happened to be a pedal-to-the-metal prescription drug addict, alcoholic and smoker. When she landed in jail at the age of 30 for driving under the influence, she stopped everything, cold turkey.

Of her many vices, she said that giving up the cigarettes was the hardest. The next 22 years were smoke-free, full of health, sobriety and financial success. She developed a cough. Stage 2 lung cancer was diagnosed. She died after a valiant fight, kicking and screaming all the way.

Her message: "Never touch a cigarette." I spread the word in her memory.

Another person to leave this earth in February at age 56 drank himself into liver failure and death. We'll call him "Hank." He leaves behind a large, loving extended family, including children in their 20s. Gabrielle and Hank, we hope you are finally resting in peace.

These deaths give us pause. Gabrielle and Hank died before their time due to commonplace substances: cigarettes and alcohol.

Twenty percent of Californians smoke. We do smoke fewer cigarettes than people living in other places, to the dismay of the tobacco companies. However, smoking just four cigarettes a day doubles the risk of heart disease, the most common cause of death in both men and women.

There is no place for this habit.

While some can handle alcohol, a certain 10% to 20% of people can't moderate their intake. We read about innocent victims of drunk drivers all the time. There are scoring questionnaires that can be of value if it is unclear whether someone has a drinking problem. Denial is common.

Dr. Daniel Headrick, chief executive and medical director of the Recovery Center at Mission Hospital-Laguna Beach, encourages addicts and alcoholics who also smoke to clean up all their dangerous habits at once. Nicotine is a gateway substance for relapse.

Headrick, a Huntington Beach resident, often works with addicted and alcoholic patients in their recovery, only to see those who continue to smoke die prematurely of lung cancer.

"For people getting sober from substance abuse, the non-smokers' brains heal twice as fast on brain scans as do those of the smokers," he said.

Let the memories of two deceased 56-year-olds, who should have lived to see 76, inspire us all to take better care of ourselves. I, for one, am going to continue my walks around Laguna. With Neff to work on my muscles, and the captivating food and camaraderie at nearby Zinc Cafe to nurture my senses and spirit, why shouldn't 60 be the new 50?


DR. JANE BENING is a board-certified gynecologist who has practiced in Newport Beach and lived in Laguna Beach for 20 years. Contact her at or at her office, (949) 720-0206.

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