Obviously, being healthy won’t fit into a week or a month alone, but it’s a place to start. LGBT health is a big issue for each of us individually and as a community. Our health needs are sometimes the same as everyone else’s and sometimes different; and there’s a lot to consider. To get us all moving in the right direction, we’ve come up with a list of very basic facts, tips or issues to think about this.
Check your levels.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. Get your cholesterol levels and blood pressure checked regularly by an LGBT-friendly healthcare provider. Learn to understand what these levels are and how to manage them through diet, exercise, if necessary, medication(s).
Take a multivitamin.
Vitamins can be good for anyone…but for pregnant women, a multivitamin that includes folic acid is an important part of prenatal care to prevent birth defects. Many lesbian & bisexual women today are deciding to become pregnant and start families. If you are one of them, consider this tip for your health and the health of your baby.
Care for LGBT Seniors.
LGBT people come in all ages…and our community’s seniors are an important part of who we are, but services for them are often lacking. Find a group for LGBT seniors in your area or a program that serves them and donate your time, money and/or support.
Commit to quit smoking.
Studies show that LGBT people are 40-70% more likely to smoke than non-LGBT people, which is one of the highest smoking rates—even compared to other disproportionately affected communities. LGBT-specific cessation groups are increasingly available – find a group in your community to help you quit, or encourage and support loved ones in their efforts to quit.
Know your health insurance options.
Studies show 1 in 4 gay and lesbian adults have no health insurance (twice the rate of heterosexuals). Lack of health insurance is a serious concern. Learn about the kinds of insurance that might available to you and those you love—and support and advocate for health coverage that includes LGBT people and their families.
Support LGBT teens.
LGBT youth face great challenges. They are at greater risk for academic failure because schools are neither safe, healthy nor productive places for them to learn. A serious lack of role models in schools and other public spaces contributes to feelings of isolation and depression. Offer support to local organizations that provide services to LGBT youth, or mentor and model a sensitive and encouraging approach with LGBT teens in your own life.
Keep your vaccinations current.
Vaccinations are an important preventive health measure. Talk to your provider about what vaccinations are best for you. If you are a gay/bisexual man, you are at increased risk for both Hepatitis A & B, so specifically talk to your doctor about getting those vaccinations if you haven’t yet.
Automobile accidents are the leading cause of death in people under the age of 29. Automobile-related deaths are preventable with smart driving behavior and seatbelts—-so no matter who you are, LGBT or otherwise, don’t drive away until everyone in the car is buckled up!
Floss your teeth.
Oral health is important health for everyone. Harmful, disease causing bacteria can start in the mouth and lead to serious illnesses or even increase the risk of STD’s through oral sex. Take care of your teeth and see an LGBT-friendly dentist regularly!
Screen for breast cancer.
Lesbian and bisexual women share a collection of risk factors that may increase their likelihood to develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Some of these risks include: elevated levels of tobacco and alcohol use, higher rates of obesity, and nulliparity. Speak with your health care provider about your personalized risk for breast cancer, age-appropriate routine screenings and mammograms, and learn how to perform self-exams.
Know your family health history.
Whether you are LGBT or not, your family health history is one of the most important things in determining your potential for future health problems. Knowing this information can help you and your physician determine disease risk and develop personalized health strategies. This is particularly important for LGBT people who may already have elevated risk for certain diseases and often face financial, cultural and personal barriers when trying to access adequate health care.
Get an anal pap smear.
Human Papillomavirus (HPV) can cause anal cancer and rates among gay/bisexual men are 29 times higher than the general population. An anal pap smear can provide early detection & treatment options. Find a provider who understands the needs of LGBT patients so you can access this important screening.
Take the stairs.
Almost everyone can stand to think about ways to improve their overall fitness level and the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association lists fitness among the top ten health issues for both LGBT people. Thinking fitness doesn’t always have to mean major life changes or expensive gyms. Make small changes like taking the stairs or choosing a farther parking spot to get your heart working and help maintain strong bones and muscles.
Check your batteries.
Every year, 3000 people die in house fires. Having at least one functional smoke detector on every floor of your home and near bedrooms can save lives. Check the batteries on your smoke detector regularly.
Wash your hands.
Clean hands save lives…including LGBT lives! In fact, there is a whole day (October 15, Global Hand Washing Day) dedicated to raising awareness about the health benefits of hand washing. LGBT or not, washing your hands is one of the most important preventive measures you can take to support your immune system, and protect yourself from getting sick and/or spreading illness to others.
Try eating healthier.
Lesbians are nearly twice as likely to be overweight than straight women, and young gay white men are a leading risk group for eating disorders. Based on these statistics alone, it is clear that eating healthy has specific significance for the LGBT community. But eating healthy doesn’t have to be about strict regimens or depriving yourself of foods you love. In fact, food should be a source of pleasure. Learn some basics about nutrition and incorporate them into your routine in a way that works for you. Eat more local, fresh vegetables, try more grains, legumes, and fruits you don’t normally eat, drink more water.
Drinking responsibly includes much more than not driving drunk. Substantially higher numbers of LGBT people use alcohol and other substances and about 30% develop problems with alcohol. Additionally, alcohol affects decision-making and lowers inhibition, which can lead to other health risks such as increased sexual risk. If you or anyone you know has a problem with alcohol, seek out LGBT-affirming resources and supportive services in your community to help you overcome it.
Come out to your doctor.
A 2005 survey of gay/bisexual men found that 39% had never disclosed their orientation to their healthcare provider and studies have shown similar patterns among lesbian/bisexual women. If you have never come out to your provider, do it. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so or think you’re provider will react negatively, seek out a provider with whom you can have a more honest and healthier relationship.
Use hormones safely.
Hormone therapy can be an important part of daily health for some people of trans experience. Transgender individuals who wish to use hormones are best advised to do so under the supervision of an LGBT-affirming medical provider who is clinically competent in transgender health issues because using hormones can put you at risk for high blood pressure, liver disease, blood clots and other serious health risks.
Getting regular routine screenings for different kinds of cancers (breast, testicular, lung, cervical, ovarian, prostate, colorectal and skin) may help to find them early when treatment is most likely to work best. Routine screenings and exams are important for everyone, but many LGBT individuals may have increased risk for certain cancers and are often less likely and less able to access adequate health care. Learn more about the importance of routine screenings and early detection, and locate a health care facility near you that provides cancer screenings in a safe, LGBT-affirming environment.
Support an LGBT-friendly church.
Many LGBT people are also people of faith…and more and more communities of faith are opening their doors to LGBT communities. If faith is part of what keeps you healthy, find and participate in a spiritual community that embraces you.
Know if you’re depressed.
A 2000 survey reported that 70 percent of lesbians and 60 percent of gay men admitted having sought mental health counseling in some form. It’s normal to feel “down” sometimes, but if those feelings persist or become too extreme, consider talking to a professional about it. There are also free, anonymous depression screening tools available online like the one at www.depression-screening.org
Anyone can get HIV and other STDs, but LGBT individuals may be at increased risk. Gay and bisexual men of all races continue to be a risk group severely affected by HIV; transgender communities are estimated to have HIV infection rates ranging from 14 – 69%; and STDs such as herpes and Chlamydia are just as common among lesbians as other women. No sexual activity is 100% safe, but you can protect yourself if you’re sexually active by using protection properly and consistently, getting tested regularly for HIV and STDs, and communicating with your partner(s).
LGBT people often become the target of violence—sometimes from strangers and other times even at the hands of people we love and trust. Violence against individuals because of real or perceived sexual orientation is one of the most prevalent forms of hate-motivated violence in the US; and intimate partner violence affects same-sex and same-gender partners at the same rates it does opposite-gender partners. If you or anyone you know is dealing with any kind of violence, whether physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, etc., contact an LGBT-affirming anti-violence program in your community.
Get involved, Get connected.
Many LGBT people report feelings of isolation—especially youth, seniors and those in rural communities. Connecting with other LGBT people and building community can be the foundation of a healthy life.
Get regular eye exams.
Regular eye exams are important – much more happens during an eye exam than you might think! Your doctor checks your eyes for common eye diseases, assesses how well your eyes work together as a team, and evaluates your eyes as a telling indicator of your overall health. Whether you’re an LGBT person or not, taking the best care of yourself (every part of yourself!) that you can is a crucial step toward health and wellness.
Support safe schools.
A 2007 study found that in NY State, 64% of LGBT High School students reported feeling unsafe in their schools. Help make schools in your area safer by supporting LGBT youth and the agencies that serve them…and advocate for school change by supporting organizations like GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network) and/or legislation to make LGBT students safe like the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA).
Use clean needles.
Sharing needles spreads HIV and Hepatitis C and dirty needles can cause other infections. If you use needles for drugs, hormones or prescription medicines like insulin, make sure they’re new and/or clean. Find an LGBT-friendly syringe exchange program in your area or a pharmacy in NY’s Expanded Syringe Access Program (ESAP) where you can buy them.
1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer, the most common cancer in the U.S. and the most common cause is the sun. So, yes, even in March in New York, thinking about sun protection is important…because sunscreen isn’t just for the beach! Whether you’re planning a trip to warmer climates or hitting the slopes, use it any time you are outside.
Everyone deals with stress in their life. As LGBT people, there are aspects of our experience that can create more stress for us on a daily basis: homophobia, transphobia, discrimination, coming out. Find healthy ways to reduce stress: talk to a friend, go for a walk or bike ride, or engage yourself in a hobby you enjoy.
Get enough sleep.
When people get less than 6 hours of sleep each night, their risk for developing certain diseases begins to increase. There are known benefits to getting enough sleep: it supports heart health, it reduces stress, it may help prevent cancer, keeps you more alert and may help strengthen memory, to name a few. Not getting enough can impair judgment, reaction time, vision, concentration, and short-term memory. So get a good night’s sleep!