Protect yourself from serious medical conditions

(MoneyWatch) My wife's recent brush with death and her encounter with our medical system confirmed insights that we've gained regarding how to protect yourself from potentially ruinous medical expenses. While my posts typically use analysis for my conclusions, in this case it's my wife's personal experience that provides support for my recommendations. While I normally write about retirement planning strategies, these insights apply to anybody, not just people in their retirement years.

Just to set expectations: The action steps I describe below won't be easy or inexpensive for you to adopt. But they shouldn't be a surprise if you've been following health care issues in the news. And I'm not portraying these insights as ideal for individuals or society. Rather, these insights are realistic given the world we live in. Hopefully my wife's story will provide motivation for you to take the steps you probably know you need to take anyway.

If you're serious about protecting yourself from financially ruinous medical conditions, you'll want to take both lifestyle steps and financial steps. (This post covers suggested lifestyle steps while my next post covers the financial protections you need to put in place.)

My first suggestion is the most powerful: Be very conscientious about taking care of your health. Keep your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol at healthy levels; maintain good cardiovascular health; and build joint flexibility and muscle strength. Most people can manage these through proper nutrition, exercise and stress management. Easier said than done, I know, but that's what we need to do.

My wife's doctors and nurses said she might not have survived her medical crisis if she wasn't in such good physical health. Her many years of yoga training gave her the breath control and stamina to stay conscious while her blood pressure and heart rate dropped precipitously to dangerous levels. During her stay in the hospital, the nurses were also better able to take care of her because she was easier to move around, having kept her weight at healthy levels for years.

Not only did her good health help her survive, it enabled her to be released sooner from the hospital than expected, saving us money in the process. She also avoided a potentially expensive stay at a skilled nursing facility following her release from the hospital.

Her rare medical condition happened even though she's in excellent health and all her vital signs are at healthy levels. Considering how serious her medical emergency was, you might say that taking care of her health was a waste of time because of her experience, but that would be the wrong interpretation.

Here's the right way to look at it: Taking care of your health significantly reduces the odds of incurring debilitating and life-threatening conditions, but there are no guarantees. And good health can help you survive and more easily recover from a serious medical threat.

My wife and I have now both experienced the personal and financial trauma that serious medical conditions can cause. We're more motivated than ever to reduce the odds of going through another medical crisis.

The next insight: Nurture your network. Family and friends all pitched in to help us, and their help was critical. The best way to have relatives and friends who will help you in a crisis is to be there for them when they need help. So stay in touch, meet for lunch, and pick up that phone and chat with your loved ones. Taking time to cultivate loving relationships with your friends and relatives is good for you -- and may come in handy some day when you need help.

What's nice about these action steps is that they also enhance your enjoyment of life here and now. When you think about it, they're not really a sacrifice. They're an added bonus!

I gained additional insights about how to protect yourself financially from serious medical conditions. Stay tuned for my next post that covers these ideas.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

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