Which is Best: Health Savings Account or Flexible Spending Account?

February 1, 2024

While a health savings account (HSA) and a flexible savings account (FSA) both help you to set money aside for health care costs, they are not the same. Both accounts are often offered by employers, but it is possible to open an HSA independently as long as you have a HSA-eligible health plan in place. FSAs however are strictly employer-based and can only be contributed to if your employer offers them to you. Here are six key differences to know between HSAs and FSAs.

  1. An HSA Belongs to You, Not Your Employer

Whether or not you opened up a HSA through your employer-offered insurance, the funds within your HSA belong to you forever. You may even use your HSA to cover health insurance costs if you leave your current job. On the other hand, FSA funds belong to your company, and when you leave them, you forfeit your FSA.

This is not to say a FSA can’t be advantageous, as long as you intend to stay with your current employer. “The FSA basically works with any kind of health insurance plan,” says Roy Ramthun, president of HSA Consulting Services. “So from that perspective, the ‘flexible’ in the name is pretty good.”

  1. Both Accounts Have Contribution Limits

Each year, the IRS determines maximum annual amounts that can be contributed to both HSAs and FSAs. Employers may also apply their own limits to their employee FSAs. For 2024, the IRS individual contribution limits for HSAs will be $4,150, while the family limit will be twice that. In 2024, the maximum contribution for FSAs will be $3,200. While a HSA has a higher contribution limit, your employer may be contributing to your FSA for you, which may allow you to contribute more of your earnings into your own HSA.

  1. HSA Funds Carry Over

With an HSA, you may carry over unused funds from year-to-year indefinitely. This is helpful when you have more in your account than you can use before the year’s end. With the HSA, your funds won’t go wasted. This is why it is a great way to save up for unexpected health costs down the road.

Alternatively, FSA funds must be used before the year is over, or you’ll forgo the existing funds when the calendar year starts over. Some employers may allow you to carry over part of the funds or provide you with a grace period to use your funds, which is generally two and a half months. Since FSAs are offered through your employer, it will be important to inform yourself of their policies around the account.

  1. FSAs are More Accessible at the Beginning of Each Year

While your FSA funds don’t rollover, if you or your employer plan to contribute your entire limit at the beginning of the year, then that entire amount is available to you immediately. HSA funds accumulate over the year, which means that if you need access to more coverage midyear, you may not have enough money in your HSA to pay your medical bills. The upside to this is that you should be able to reimburse yourself for previous medical expenses from your HSA once those funds become available.

  1. The HSA Can be an Investment Strategy

Unlike an FSA, the HSA can gain interest over time. Couple this with the fact that your funds carry over year to year, and the HSA offers the potential for growing quite a sizable nest egg for potential health care coverage. According to the Fidelity Retiree Health Care Cost Estimate, an average retired couple age 65 in 2023 may need up to $315,000 saved just to cover health care expenses in retirement, while a single individual will need approximately $157,500.

  1. At 65, the HSA Can Act as a 401K or IRA

Before the age of 65, you will be subject to a 20% penalty if you use your HSA or FSA funds for anything other than medical expenses. But once you’re 65 or older, that fee is waived, which means that those HSA funds are only subject to income taxes no matter how you use them. While you avoid the 20% penalty over the age of 65 with a FSA as well, those funds can still only be used for health care coverage.

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Both HSAs and FSAs can prove to be valuable parts of a health coverage plan. Whether or not your employer offers a FSA to you in addition to health insurance coverage for you and your dependents will of course factor into your decision making about whether or not an added HSA will be necessary. Insureyouknow.org can help you store all of your financial and medical information in one place so that you can stay organized and make the best decisions when planning for your family’s health coverage.

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(AI)ding the Elderly with AI

January 24, 2024

Forget the golden age, artificial intelligence (AI) is bringing a new silver lining in healthcare. It is revolutionizing health services across the nation and improving patient care, specifically for the elderly population. According to the World Health Organization, AI technology is improving the fields of medicine and public health for older individuals by anticipating potential health risks, fueling drug development, and supporting the personalization of healthcare management.

“Though adoption of AI has been delayed in mental health research and clinical care relative to other fields, it could potentially enhance diagnostic, prognostic, and treatment approaches for the growing aging population,” said Dr. Helmet Karim, assistant professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh. “With ubiquitous usage of wearable sensors, advancements in explainable AI, and growing acceptance of AI in medicine, these approaches could support increasing clinical demands.”

Here are a few ways AI is helping seniors enter the digital age.

Daily Care & Wellness Monitoring

Scientifically validated AI in-home care solutions like People Power Family are revolutionizing home care, nursing facilities, and assisted living centers by helping older adults in their everyday tasks. This technology can track and collect the health data of individuals to ensure their well-being by detecting falls and changes in behavior that may indicate that an individual has a specific health condition.

AI devices are also being used to monitor patient health from cameras to motion sensors to wearables. Organizations such as SafelyYou are utilizing AI-based fall detection technology to continuously track patient movements and alert staff, effectively decreasing ER visits. On the other hand, CarePredict designs wearable wrist devices that can track an elderly patient’s daily activities including walking, bathing, eating, visits to the bathroom, and periods of sleep.

Managing Medication Schedules

Many elderly individuals face difficulties when it comes to adhering to their medication schedules. AI-powered medical reminder apps such as mPulse Mobile are game changers in that area. They ensure that elderly patients follow their medication regimen, which decreases the likelihood of potential hospital admissions and helps improve patient health outcomes.

Such technologies not only help patients in the short-term, but they also foster the creation of long-term health plans. AI utilizes patient data to predict an individual’s overall response to different forms of treatment and creates a beneficial medication schedule. This method helps increase patient-centered care within the medical field, establishing the welfare of patients.

Guidance During Medical Challenges

AI technologies can help empower patients by providing them with information, support, and guidance for managing specific health conditions. For example, a chatbot called “Vik” was created to help breast cancer patients navigate their diagnosis. This device provides patients with a variety of information through personalized text messages, ranging from comprehensive medical statistics and treatments regarding breast cancer to lifestyle and diet to patients’ rights.

Additionally, AI-powered systems can also detect conditions that go untreated like dementia and late-life depression. Such systems can potentially identify patients with symptoms of certain mental health conditions and provide them with timely information on treatment plans as well as tips on managing their health.

Companionship and Personal Interaction

According to the PEW Research Center, 27% of adults ages 60 and older live alone in the U.S., which indicates that many elderly individuals are in need of social interaction or companionship. AI technologies like ChatGPT can actually be trained to provide emotional and social support to the aging population. For instance, loved ones can set up and customize ChatGPT, ensuring that conversations are targeted to a person’s needs such as news updates, story sharing, light-hearted banter, and more.

But that is not all. Researchers have bigger plans for AI when it comes to the seniors. Dr. Lillian Hung, a researcher at The University of British Columbia and founder of IDEA lab (Innovation in Dementia & Aging) recently introduced AI-powered social robots to West Vancouver’s Amica senior living facility as part of her study. She found that AI-powered social robots have the potential to engage with elderly patients, mitigating their feelings of social isolation and loneliness. This daily interaction can alleviate psychological distress, decrease feelings of anxiety and depression, lower agitation, promote positive facial expressions, and enhance an individual’s overall mood on an everyday basis.

“It [AI robot] sings with you, plays with you, dances with you, follows you – just makes sure you feel that you’re loved,” said Dr. Hung about the adorable robots that have helped some shy residents come out of their rooms. There have been talks of making such robots permanent residents of the facility.

Increased Independence

As more seniors age in place, smart home devices enhanced with AI-powered features are revolutionizing households into spaces that address the needs of every resident. These devices offer support in various ways, including turning lights on and off, adjusting temperature, detecting smoke, monitoring behavior and health, reminding about medications, detecting falls, and even initiating emergency calls.

AI and sensor data can derive patterns and alerts that inform care, for example, combining sensors with data about individuals that have a history of falls, AI tools can detect bed, chair, and room exits which require immediate response,” said Laurie M. Orlov, principal analyst, Aging and Health Technology Watch.

A few other AI apps listed below can also help seniors live healthier, safer lives:

  • Caspar.ai: identifies 10+ health conditions even before symptoms are noticed
  • CareDaily.ai: is a fully integrated home health
  • CareSmartz360: helps seniors with activities of daily living and communication
  • Inspiren: is a healthcare technology company specializing in AI-powered solutions to improve outcomes
  • VirtuSense.ai: is a proactive AI that makes healthcare simple, affordable, and accessible
  • KamiCare: is an easy-to-install fall management solution
  • Sagely: assists with engagement programs in senior living communities

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Artificial intelligence is playing an increasingly important role in the healthcare industry by giving older individuals the chance at a new life. This revolutionary technology helps monitor health, creates efficient medication schedules, bolsters social interaction and personal care, and allows elderly patients to be more independent. With insureyouknow.org, you can keep track of the data AI helps collect to improve your health outcomes. With the assistance of AI, seniors are experiencing a digital revival and upgrading to a new level of well-being.

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The Pros and Cons of Modern Diets: Part 2

January 15, 2024

There are definitely enough diets out there to make your head spin. But once you start putting in the research, there are commonalities to almost every diet, including the lifestyle recommendation to exercise more and stress less. When it comes to food, if there is any one thing everyone can agree on avoiding, it is processed foods. A few days ago we explored ten modern diet trends. Today we will cover facts around ten additional diets:

11. The Flexitarian Diet

The Flexitarian Diet is a flexible vegetarian diet. While you’re focused on plant-based foods, you may still occasionally eat meat. In this way, it is quite similar to a Mediterranean diet and is ranked just behind it as the #2 Best Diet Overall according to the U.S. News Best Diet Rankings. While the diet is flexible, there are guidelines. On a flexitarian diet, you should choose high-quality animal products, such as organic, free-range, and grass-fed choices. Lean meats are best, and any meat that you eat should be limited to just a few times a week. The benefits of the diet include weight loss, a decreased risk of both heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and cancer prevention. The risk of eating less meat is that you suffer from nutrient deficiencies, such as not getting adequate amounts of B12 in your diet.

12. A Volumetrics Diet

With a volumetrics diet, the promise is that you may still eat a large amount of food and still lose weight. The concept was created by PhD Barbara Rolls so that people could find healthy foods they enjoy without depriving themselves. With volumetrics, the focus is on feeling full. Food is separated into high energy density and low energy density categories. People should eat mainly low energy density foods, which have fewer calories and more volume. The diet relies heavily on water-based foods, or fruits and vegetables. In short, the diet is effective in helping people lose weight and doesn’t come with any risks. People are simply learning how to make smarter food choices, focusing on eating nutrient-dense foods that won’t add unhealthy calories to their diets.

13. Intermittent Fasting

While most diets focus on what to eat, intermittent fasting is based on when to eat. When intermittent fasting, you only eat during a specific window of time. “Our bodies have evolved to be able to go without food for many hours, or even several days or longer,” says neuroscientist Mark Mattson. “In prehistoric times, before humans learned to farm, they were hunters and gatherers who evolved to survive — and thrive — for long periods without eating.” In the age of screen time, people stay up later, eat more, and exercise less. Adopting a lifestyle of intermittent fasting may help curtail the negative side effects of our modern world. “Many things happen during intermittent fasting that can protect organs against chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, age-related neurodegenerative disorders,” Mattson says. “Even inflammatory bowel disease and many cancers.” One study showed, however, that intermittent fasting was not proven to be an effective solution in both short term weight loss and long term weight management. Going too long without eating can actually cause the body to start storing fat in response to being starved. Fasting also isn’t safe for everyone; children, pregnant women, people with type 1 diabetes, and anyone with an eating disorder are strongly advised against intermittent fasting.

14. A Pescatarian Diet

With a pescatarian diet, people focus on eating a vegetarian diet while allowing fish and seafood as additional sources of protein. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are believed to reduce the risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure, and strokes, as well as regulate inflammation in the body. In addition to the fat found in fish, a diet high in vegetables is also associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. One study even showed that a pescatarian diet protected against colorectal cancer, which is the second leading cause of U.S. cancer deaths. The biggest disadvantage to eating a lot of seafood is the consumption of mercury because of polluted waters. The risk can be minimized by avoiding fish known to be high in mercury and focusing on fish low in mercury, including canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, shrimp, and catfish.

15. An Ornish Diet 

The Ornish diet was created by Dr. Dean Ornish to help people reverse heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. In addition to dietary changes, the Ornish diet is a lifestyle that incorporates moderate exercise, stress reduction techniques, and social support. It is a vegetarian diet that limits fat to ten percent of one’s daily calorie intake, as well as allowing only ten milligrams of cholesterol a day. On an Ornish diet, people may eat any fruit and vegetable, whole grains, legumes, soy products, and herbs and spices. Small amounts of egg whites, nuts and seeds may be eaten, but meat, fish, and egg yolks are eliminated. The plan also recommends taking a multivitamin and B12 and fish oil supplements. While vegetarian diets can lower the risks of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, the Ornish diet is shown to reduce coronary artery disease after just one year. Because of how many foods are eliminated, nutrient deficiencies are a risk and people with a history of eating disorders are advised against the diet.

16. The TLC Diet

The TLC diet is an acronym for Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes and was created by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute with an aim to improve cholesterol levels. The program combines diet and physical activity to lower high cholesterol and improve heart health. The diet limits saturated fats and cholesterol from foods, and increases plant stanols and sterols that can be found in whole grains, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and avocado oil. It also urges increases in soluble fiber from fruit, beans, and oats. Both soluble fiber and plant stanols and sterols block the body’s absorption of cholesterol and fats. Similar to the DASH diet, the TLC diet also limits salt to 2,300 milligrams a day. Increasing physical activity is a key part of the diet, as a lack of physical activity is a major risk factor for heart disease.

17. An Anti-Inflammatory Diet

An anti-inflammatory diet focuses on what you should eat and what you shouldn’t eat in order to reduce inflammation in the body. In this way, it is a simple plan for people to follow. On an anti-inflammatory diet, people stay away from ultra-processed foods, which have little to no nutritional value and are often high in fat, sugar, and salt. Research shows that sugars, grains, and salt from these highly processed foods can alter the bacteria in the gut, damage intestinal lining, and switch on inflammatory genes in cells. These processed foods are also linked to shorter life spans, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. To combat inflammation, aim for whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and small amounts of low-fat dairy. You may add spices to these foods to increase both flavor and the health benefits. The evidence in minimizing inflammation in the body is strongest against arthritis, gastrointestinal and heart health, and autoimmune diseases.

18. The Noom Diet

The Noom Diet is an anti-inflammatory diet that comes with a costly app, $50 a month to be exact. While it encourages more of certain foods, it doesn’t ban anything. Noom uses colors to label food, so green labeled foods like produce are encouraged and orange labeled foods like pizza should be minimized. Noom labels do contradict U.S. Dietary Guidelines which support healthy fats like olive oil; on a Noom diet, olive oil is an orange-labeled food. The main benefit of the app is guided support for people who struggle to make big lifestyle changes on their own. Otherwise, simply following an anti-inflammatory diet as described above will be far easier to navigate and afford.

19. The Pritikin Diet

The Pritikin Program for Diet and Exercise written by engineer Nathan Pritikin in 1979 recommended a low-fat, high-fiber diet paired with regular exercise to avoid heart disease and maintain a healthy weight, protocols that have become standard today. He suggested starting meals with a soup or salad, limiting high-calorie drinks and foods, avoiding snacking, eating whole foods, limiting salt and red meat, exercising, and controlling stress. The Pritikin diet is proven to help people lose weight and is approved as being heart-healthy.

20. The Zone Diet 

Similar to the Noom diet, Dr. Barry Sears developed the Zone diet to reduce inflammation. It involves rules, which include eating within one hour of waking, starting each meal with protein followed by healthy carbs and fats, eating every 4-6 hours, eating lots of omega-3 fats and polyphenols, and drinking at least 64 ounces of water a day. Before every meal, a person should assess their hunger level, and if they are not hungry, then they are in the zone, hence the diet’s name. The Zone diet aims to control hormone levels through diet in order to reduce inflammation. Because of this, the diet is popular with people who have diabetes. There is no evidence, however, that supports Sears’ claims that the diet reduces inflammation. Experts recommend simply staying away from processed foods if inflammation is a concern.

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While there is a plethora of diets out there to try, there are factors that nearly every diet has in common, such as a focus on whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Insureyouknow.org can help you keep track of your lifestyle changes, including physical activity monitoring, meal plans, diet changes, and medical records. While you put in the hard work to find which methods will help you most, Insureyouknow.org will take one chore off your plate by keeping all of your information in one organized place.

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The Pros and Cons of Modern Diets: Part 1

January 1, 2024

Wherever you get your information, whether it’s watching TV or scrolling through your phone, it’s likely you’ve been inundated with wellness trends that promise to solve all of your health problems. With so many different diets swirling around in the sphere of information, it can become difficult to decide which one is the right fit for you. Here are the facts around ten modern diets:

1. The Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, introduced by Harvard in 1993, is not limited to foods and includes daily exercise and the social benefits of sharing meals. It is also one of the few diets that recommends a daily dose of wine. The diet is primarily plant-based with an emphasis on healthy fats, such as from olive oil and oily fish, which is the preferred source of animal protein. Poultry, eggs, and dairy can be eaten in small amounts daily, but red meat is limited to only a few times a month. Research supports the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, which include a 25% reduced risk of developing heart disease, a 30% reduced rate of death from stroke, and 46% likelihood to live 70 years or more. Since the diet does not include serving sizes or a recommended overall calorie intake, some people may find that they gain weight because of the increased intake in healthy fats, which often comprise nearly half of your overall calories on a Mediterranean diet. This issue can be avoided though by keeping track of your overall calorie consumption.

2. The Keto Diet

Though recently popular, the Keto diet was first put in place during the 1920’s as a treatment for people with epilepsy after research showed that the diet reduced seizures. The diet consists mainly of fats (75 percent of daily calorie intake), a small amount of protein (20 percent of daily calorie intake), and very little carbohydrates (only five percent of daily calorie intake). The aim of the diet is to put the body into ketosis, where the body’s main source of energy comes from ketones instead of glucose. While the keto diet can kickstart weight loss, it may not be feasible to stick to this diet for a long amount of time. Even if the keto diet may help people with obesity and diabetes, these benefits wane after a year, and the diet often leads to higher levels of LDL cholesterol. The main concern with the keto diet according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is that it cuts out too many food groups, including adequate sources of fiber in addition to a dramatically low carbohydrate intake.

3. The Paleo Diet

A Paleo diet is based on foods that humans may have eaten during the Paleolithic Era, about 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago. The diet includes fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, and seeds. These are thought of as the foods that people would have hunted and gathered. It is quite similar to the Mediterranean diet, but it does not include foods that came from small farms, such as grains, legumes and dairy products. The idea behind the diet is that our genes are not well adjusted for the modern diet that grew out of these farm foods, which changed what our primary food sources were before our bodies could adapt to the change. Believers in the Paleo diet think that chronic illness is a modern problem and is therefore rooted in our modern diets, which include sugar and highly-processed foods. Objections to this include archeological evidence of 30,000 year old tools found for grinding grain, as well as evidence of the expression of genes related to the digestion of starches and lactose. Short-term studies show that the Paleo diet might help with weight loss and improved blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels. One study in Spain found that the diet was linked to lower levels of heart disease, but that link was attributed to avoiding processed foods and eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.

4. The Atkins Diet

The Atkins diet was developed in the 1960’s by cardiologist Robert C. Atkins. The purpose of the diet is to lose weight, while Atkins claimed that the diet was a healthy lifelong approach to eating. The diet limits carbs with a focus on avoiding sugar, white flour and refined carbs. Instead of simply limiting carbs, the diet teaches participants to calculate net carbs which deduct a meal’s fiber content from the carbohydrate content. In addition to weight loss, the diet can improve triglyceride levels at least in the short term, but there are no studies that prove any long term benefits. The diet can cause nutritional deficiencies such as fiber, which are often found in complex carbs like fruits. Because the diet can cause ketosis, it is not recommended for anyone with kidney disease or who is pregnant or breastfeeding.

5. A Low Carb Diet

A low carb diet simply limits carbs and places importance on protein and fat. The diet is generally used for weight loss but may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. Most low carb diets recommend 20 to 57 grams of carbohydrates a day, while the Dietary Guidelines for Americans say that carbohydrates should be 45% to 65% of your total daily calorie intake. The problems with a low carb diet include constipation, headaches, and muscle cramps while the long term health risks are still unknown.

6. The Vegan Alkaline Diet

The Vegan Alkaline diet is based on the premise promoted by Robert O. Young that everything we eat affects our pH balance. According to Young, an acidic environment in the body leads to diseases, like cancer, and that by promoting an alkaline environment with food, these diseases can be avoided. Alkaline foods include fruits, nuts, legumes, and vegetables, while acidic foods to be avoided include animal products, like meat, fish, dairy, and eggs. Science doesn’t support Young’s claims though, and in 2017, he was jailed for practicing medicine without a license. While the diet has become controversial, the foods that the diet focuses on have health benefits outside of pH balance. In short, a diet rich in plant-based whole foods is beneficial, while an excess of processed foods is not.

    7. The Dukan Diet

    The Dukan diet was developed in the 1970’s by Pierre Dukan, a French doctor that specializes in weight loss. In 2000, Dukan published The Dukan Diet, which outlines a four-phase weight loss plan that includes a high-protein and low-carb diet. A study that followed women on the diet found that weight loss was caused by a calorie deficit and that because the diet lacked important nutrients, it would be harmful to health in the long run.

    8. The DASH Diet

    DASH is an acronym that stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. The diet is designed to treat hypertension, or high blood pressure, and may also help to lower levels of LDL cholesterol, both of which are factors that may lead to heart disease and stroke. The DASH diet is rich in potassium, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and protein through vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. The diet limits salt to 2,300 milligrams a day, as well as sugar and saturated fats.

    9. A Low FODMAP Diet

    FODMAP are certain sugars that might cause intestinal distress, so on a low FODMAP diet, participants avoid foods high in FODMAP, such as dairy, wheat, beans, and certain vegetables and fruits like asparagus and apples. Foods low in FODMAP include meat, eggs, grains like rice, quinoa, and oats, and certain vegetables and fruits like cucumbers and strawberries. The low FODMAP diet is meant to help people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth. “It’s not a diet anyone should follow for long,” says gastroenterologist Hazel Galon Veloso. “It’s a short discovery process to determine what foods are troublesome for you.” The diet is only meant to be followed for two to six weeks before slowly reintroducing high FODMAP foods. Research has shown that the diet reduces symptoms in up to 86% of people but should not be followed by anyone who is underweight as it may cause unwanted weight loss.

    10. The MIND Protocol

    MIND is another acronym that stands for Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay. The MIND protocol was created by Dr. Martha Clare Morris in 2015 because of research that had shown both the Mediterranean and DASH diets had been associated with the preservation of cognitive functioning. The combination of both diets showed less cognitive decline than when just one of the diets was followed by study participants. While both diets focus on eating plant-based foods and limiting high saturated fat foods, the MIND diet recommends specific brain healthy foods, including three servings of whole grains and one vegetable a day and six servings of leafy greens, five servings of nuts, and four servings of beans a week. The main challenge to the diet is that if participants do not cook, then they may find it difficult to include all of the diet’s recommended components.

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    While you do the research in finding which diet and lifestyle will suit you best, Insureyouknow.org can help you keep  track of your grocery bills, meal planning, exercise logs, and food journals. That way, you can focus on enjoying the rewards of your improved lifestyle.

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    Dealing with Mental Stress During the Holidays

    November 22, 2023

    For most people, the best parts of the holidays, extravagant decor, rich foods, gift-giving, and additional time with friends and family, can also be the most stress inducing. While the holidays are thought of as the most wonderful time of the year, it is in fact viewed by many as the most stressful time of the year.

    Neverending to-do lists, added expenses, and the desire to achieve a perfect holiday are just a few of the ways that the season brings on an overwhelming amount of stress. Plus, if you have an existing mental health condition, the holidays may accentuate it. “There are a lot of stressors in life without the holiday season,” says event planner Courtney Lutkus. “The holidays can be triggering and make it worse.”

    In order to have a more relaxing holiday season, it’s important to choose some strategies ahead of time that will help you combat seasonal stress.

    Exercise is Often the Best Medicine

    During the holidays, prioritizing regular exercise can mitigate stress before it happens. Whichever exercise you choose, taking the time to move your body will guarantee a healthy dose of holiday cheer.

    If you tend to feel restricted during the holidays from being spread too thin both physically and mentally, dance therapist Erica Hornthal recommends what she calls joy workouts. Take a break from the festivities, find an open space, and spend eight minutes moving through six expanding moves, including reaching, swaying, and jumping, that are designed to boost happiness. “Shake your hands, shake your head — kind of like an animal after it gets wet,” she says. “You can make a game out of it if you have kids.”

    Alternatively, if you feel the need to slow things down, then yoga might work best for you. Even a fifteen minute session can lower levels of stress and anxiety. With a focus on breathwork and mindfulness, yoga can be especially effective for alleviating the feelings of nonstop commotion that often come with the holidays.

    If you find yourself wanting to get away, a walk or run around the neighborhood may be just what you need to reset. You could even plan a “microadventure,” which could be as simple as a bike ride in the dark or a daytime hike at a nearby nature reserve. Viewing things in a new light and admiring your surroundings can create a sense of awe, which has been proven to lower stress levels. Plus, spending time outside, even if it’s just a walk around the block, can lower cortisol levels, blood pressure, and muscle tension.

    Schedule Breaks

    If you’re having difficulty finding time for yourself  during busy days, then reclaiming your mornings might be the best way to fit in a break. “I encourage everyone to develop a daily habit of starting their day with their own voice as the primary driver for how they want to engage the day,” says therapist Chanel Dokun. “This is an easy way to pre-schedule ‘me-time’ amid a busy holiday season where you can check in with your own needs, set your own priorities, and move into your day feeling centered and in control.” Plus, research shows that waking up just one hour earlier lowers an individual’s risk for depression by 23 percent.

    In addition to making time for yourself in the mornings, simply saying no to yet another social obligation could help you avoid the burnout that comes from overdoing it. The sheer volume of things to do during the holidays can make it difficult to prioritize what’s most important. Sometimes, taking care of your mental health can be more important than attending yet another event, so give yourself permission to choose your festivities wisely. Not only will saying no to some things ease your stress, but it can also reinforce healthy relationship boundaries, which will leave you feeling empowered rather than burnt out.

    Honor Your Routine 

    With all of the added hustle and bustle, it will be easy to fall out of your usual routine, but sticking to your routine might be the simplest solution to seasonal stress. Dr. David Spiegel, director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University, says that our stress responses are far more flexible when we are resting and nourishing our bodies. “Mitigate stress by taking care of your body first,” says Spiegel. Give your body something to depend on during the holiday rush by getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising regularly.

    Ditch Perfectionism

    It would be impossible for every part of the holiday to be perfect, so why place that standard upon yourself? Think about what traditions matter most to you, such as cooking a specific meal for your children or visiting family. When you take the time to think about what matters most, you can either ditch the items that fall down on your to-do list, or you can ask other family members to take some tasks off of your plate.

    “You have a lot going on,” reminds psychologist David Rakofsky. “You can’t possibly do it all. Instead of lamenting your ‘losses,’ congratulate yourself on the everyday victories, like leaving the bed, smiling, and putting on pants.”

    Whether you’re counting on your travels to go just as planned, finding the perfect gifts, or hosting the event of the season, having an idealized approach can set you up for disappointment. When you let go of your vision for the perfect holiday, you may find that you have far more joy this season, as well as far less stress. 

    Stick to a Holiday Budget

    The best way to manage financial stress is to set a realistic budget. Since nearly 1 in 4 people feel financially burdened by the holidays, there may be no better time to employ a budget than this time of year. “Be realistic when creating a budget by using real prices, not ballpark figures,”  says Family and Community Health specialist Joyce Cavanagh. “Don’t forget to include travel, food and entertaining costs in your holiday budget. And remember to jot down what you’ve bought so you don’t lose track of how much you’ve spent.”

    Due to inflation, lower-income households may experience more financial stress this year. 29 percent of consumers say they’re stressed about the cost of holiday shopping, and 14 percent feel pressured to spend more than they’re comfortable with. Talking with your loved ones about minimizing holiday spending and gift-giving could take the pressure off of everyone and put the focus back on celebrating with loved ones. “Try managing your anxiety through transparency and planning,” says psychiatrist Dr. Georgia Gaveras. “You may end up being a hero this holiday season if you propose limiting the number of gifts everyone buys.”

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    While you concentrate on the most wonderful time of the year, Insureyouknow.org can help you keep track of everything from financial records to travel itineraries and schedules. This season, stay organized when things get chaotic, and give yourself space to be present for all of what the holidays offer.

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    Legal and Financial Planning for Those with Alzheimer’s and Their Caregivers

    November 1, 2023

    If you or a loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, then there are certain things that you will need to plan for legally and financially. An estimated 6 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and it is currently the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. Alzheimer’s is a brain disorder that slowly decreases memory and thinking skills, while dementia involves a loss of cognitive functioning; both cause more and more difficulty for an individual to perform the most simple tasks. Though a diagnosis can be scary, the right planning can help individuals and their families feel more at ease.

    Putting Legal Documentation in Place

    Christopher Berry, Founder and Planner at The Elder Care Firm, recommends three main disability documents that should be in place.

    First, there needs to be a financial power of attorney, a document that designates someone to make all financial decisions once an individual is unable to do so for themselves. If an individual lacks a trusted loved one to make financial decisions, then designating a financial attorney or bank is an option.

    The next document that needs to be in place is the medical power of attorney that designates someone to make medical decisions for an individual. In many cases, it may be appropriate to appoint the same person to be the financial and medical power of attorney, as long as that person is well-trusted by the individual. In the event that something happens to the original power of attorney(s), successor (or back-up) agents for power of attorney(s) should also be designated.

    The last document is the personal care plan, which instructs the financial and medical power of attorney(s) on how best to care for the individual in need. For instance, those entrusted to the care of an individual will need to make sure they sign medical records release forms at all doctor’s offices; copies of the power of attorney or living will should also be given to healthcare providers.

    These three documents provide a foundation to make decisions for the individual diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia when they no longer can themselves. It’s ideal to include the individual in these conversations in the early stages of their diagnosis, so that they may be a part of the decision-making process and appoint people that they will feel most comfortable with during their care.

    How to Pay for Long-Term Care

    Since Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease, the level of care an individual needs will increase over time. Care costs may include medical treatment, medical equipment, modifications to living areas, and full-time residential care services.

    The first thing a family can do is to use their own personal funds for care expenses. It’s important for families to remember that they will also pay in their time, as many children of loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia will become the main caregivers. It may be wise to meet with a financial planner or sit down with other family members, such as your spouse and siblings, to determine how long some of you may be able to forgo work in order to provide full time care.

    When personal funds get low or forgoing work for a period of time becomes difficult, long-term care insurance can be a lifesaver. The key to relying on long-term care insurance though is that it needs to be set up ahead of the Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnoses, so considering these plans as one ages may be smart.

    Veterans can make use of the veterans benefit, or non-service-connected pension, which is sometimes called the aid and attendance benefit. This benefit can help pay for long-term care of both veterans and their spouses.

    Finally, an individual aged 65 or older can receive Medicare, while those that qualify for Medicaid can receive assistance for the cost of a nursing home. If someone’s income is too high to receive Medicaid, then the spenddown is one strategy to know; under spenddown, an individual may subtract their non-covered medical expenses and cost sharing (including Medicare premiums and deductibles) from their available income. With the spenddown, a person’s income may be lowered enough for them to qualify for Medicaid.

    Minimizing Risk Factors During Care

    Research published recently in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that nearly half of patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia will experience a serious fall in their own home. Author Safiyyah Okoye, who was at John Hopkins University when the study was conducted, recommends minimizing risks such as these by safeguarding homes early on in diagnoses. “Examining the multiple factors, including environmental ones like a person’s home or neighborhood, is necessary to inform fall-risk screening, caregiver education and support, and prevention strategies for this high-risk population of older adults,” she states.

    The good news is that since the progression of Alzheimer’s is often slow, families have plenty of time to modify the home for increased safety.

    In addition to fall prevention modifications, other safety measures may include installing warning bells on doors to signal when they’re opened, putting down pressure-sensitive mats to alert when someone has moved, and using night lights throughout the home. Coats, wallets, and keys should also be kept out of sight, because at some point, leaving the home alone and driving will no longer be safe. Conversations about these safety measures, such as when an individual will have to stop driving, are ones that caregivers should have early on with their loved ones. Including individuals in their future planning while they are still cognitively sound will help both them and their caregivers feel more comfortable with the journey ahead.

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    It’s important to remember that even though receiving an Alzheimer’s or dementia diagnosis can be devastating, it is not the end. People with Alzheimer’s can thrive for many years before independent functioning becomes difficult. Both patients and caregivers will feel more calm through planning ahead. Insureyouknow.org can help caregivers stay organized by storing all of their important documents in one place, such as financial records, estate planning documentation, insurance policies, and detailed care plans. Above all, there is hope for those with Alzheimer’s; research is happening every day for potential therapies and future treatments.

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    Paying for Early Childhood Intervention Services

    October 1, 2023

    Over three million children in the United States had a reported disability according to the 2019 U.S. Census, and that number has risen 0.4% since 2008. Children experiencing developmental delays, not reaching developmental milestones, or those at risk may be eligible for early intervention services and supports.

    When to Screen for Developmental Delays

    If a child is born prematurely or with a genetic condition, then that child may qualify for early intervention as soon as birth. Early screening is part of the services that should be offered while parents are in the hospital for their child’s birth. However, if a parent becomes concerned about their child’s development after birth or notices any changes, they should refer their child for an early intervention evaluation. Eligibility for services is based on an evaluation of a child’s skills and abilities. A doctor’s referral is not necessary for an evaluation. It’s important for parents to educate themselves on which milestones their children should be reaching and not rely completely on their doctor’s recommendations; it is parents who spend the most time with their children, so they may notice something that a pediatrician won’t catch during a routine check-up. Emma Fitzsimmons, a New York mom who claims early intervention saved her son’s life, tells other parents, “If you’re worried that your child has delays, I would encourage you to seek out Early Intervention services and to ask for recommendations to find the best therapists in your area and a good service coordinator, the person who oversees your case.”

    Know What Your State Offers

    If eligible for early intervention, children may receive services to help with physical skills (crawling and walking), cognitive functions (thinking and learning), communication (talking and listening), adaptive skills (eating and dressing), and social-emotional development (play). Services are wide-ranging and can include speech therapy, physical or occupational therapy, psychological services, home visits, nutritional services, audiology (for hearing issues), vision therapy, social work, assistive technology, and even transportation.

    The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, covers early intervention and school-aged services. Under Part C of IDEA, funding is made available to each state and requires services to be made available to eligible children with disabilities. While all states offer early intervention, the screening processes and services offered vary state by state. The first step in finding out what your child may qualify for is learning about what your state offers. The CDC offers links for each state in order to learn about the benefits your state offers. Each state has its own guidelines around how families qualify, but generally, a child must exhibit a developmental delay or have been diagnosed with a specific health condition that is known to lead to delays, such as a genetic disorder. The Early Childhood Technical Assistance Center (or ECTA) also outlines the services each state offers. In some states, children may be eligible for services if they are at risk and not yet exhibiting any delays, such as having been born at a low weight. If a child is found eligible for services, a care team will develop an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP), which will outline the services a child will receive and the desired outcomes for those services. For instance, physical therapist Tonya McCool explains, “If a child presents with a delay that limits their abilities to complete age-appropriate milestones, a provider will assist by guiding the child into appropriate positions, providing them opportunities to experience new opportunities or helping them try new things so that their families can continue to work with them throughout the week to meet their goals.”

    Who Pays for Early Intervention Services?

    Under IDEA Part C, Child Find services, which include the initial referral, evaluations, the development of the IFSP, and service coordination must be made free to families, but depending on your state’s policies, some services may be provided at a cost or on a sliding scale. In addition to the federal education funds provided through IDEA, Medicaid and private insurance can also help cover the costs of interventions, such as speech therapy and hearing services. Finding a provider that is familiar with Early Intervention funding will know best how to help families cover the costs of these services. Although early intervention is mandated by IDEA and designed to meet the needs of children, it often requires a combination of resources to cover the costs of services. The ECTA’s website offers contact information for each state’s lead agency, who will be able to provide parents with the resources they’ll need to secure services and funding. If your child qualifies for interventional services, it will be important to become educated in what services must be provided at no cost to you through IDEA Part C.

    What Happens When Services End?

    Once a child is three, if they are still experiencing delays or require supports, then services will continue and transition into special education services. These are often provided through a child’s school at no additional cost to you. The age at which a child begins schooling also varies state-by-state, which is why it’s important for families to work with their initial early intervention team in order to ensure children continue receiving the supports they need. When an IFSP is developed, it should include any support for the transition to preschool when a child turns three. Plans should be reviewed every six months, as children change quickly from birth to age three.

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    Early intervention services can have an enormous impact on a child’s ability to meet developmental milestones. These services are provided not only for a child, but also so that their caregivers have the tools they need to create a healthy environment for their entire family. Insureyouknow.org can help you keep track of medical records, interventional resources, and your child’s IFSP, as well as their progress. When it comes time for your child to start school, having this paperwork organized in one place will help you provide their school with everything they require in order to ensure the necessary continued supports.

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    Health and Economic Costs of Dealing with Chronic Illness

    September 1, 2023

    While the diagnosis of a chronic illness is upsetting enough, the financial ramifications of needing ongoing care often hit the hardest. Medical issues account for two-thirds of all US bankruptcies, making them the number one reason people file; forty percent of people who are diagnosed with cancer are bankrupt within four years of their diagnosis. For those who are chronically ill, healthcare is the number three line item for budgeting, while it’s number 10 for healthy individuals.

    The costs of living with a chronic illness is not limited to financial burdens though; a chronic illness can also lead to even more health and interpersonal issues. 

    A Decline in Mental Well-Being

    Health impairments can exacerbate existing mental health conditions, like depression, or cause new issues to arise, such as anxiety. Being diagnosed with an illness that’s incurable or being unsure about whether or not the symptoms will improve is going to cause an immense amount of stress in patients. People who feel ill often may also end up feeling guilty for not being able to fulfill their personal responsibilities and show up fully for their loved ones.These mental and physical chronic conditions can lead to harmful degrees of social isolation and perpetuate a cycle of declining overall health.

    When considering the connection between physical and mental health, it has been shown that those who report feeling lonely suffer from higher rates of morbidity, infection, depression, and cognitive decline. Living with a chronic illness doesn’t have to equate to a lonely life though, and may even lead to more meaningful relationships, according to Caroyn Hax, an advice columnist for the Washington Post. In her response to a reader with multiple sclerosis, she stated “Although your illness will deter some potential companions, your ability to plan it into a full, rewarding and well-managed life will attract others — specifically those people who appreciate that circumstances change but character does not.”

    An Inability to Work and Losing Health Benefits

    Many people suffering from chronic health issues may begin to find it difficult if not impossible to go to work consistently. Many people who deal with chronic health issues––such as Charlene Marshall who is a Pulmonary Fibrosis patient–– find it difficult if not impossible to go to work consistently. “Whether the fatigue I feel is from managing the disease or the disease progression, daily activities become exhausting and hard to manage,” she shares. Unfortunately, many people suffering from a chronic condition may begin to be viewed as unreliable by their supervisors, leading to termination, while others may need to resign as they find it impossible to keep working.

    For many, losing their job also means losing their health benefits. Those who can no longer work may become reliant on spousal coverage or public assistance, which is likely why 99 percent of Medicare and 80 percent of Medicaid spending goes toward the treatment of chronic disease. Not only does the inability to work affect individuals and their families, but lower labor force participation rates affect society as a whole and are linked to slower economic growth, a higher dependency ratio, and higher tax rates.   

    Straining Personal Relationships

    The inability to work due to chronic illness can lead to financial strain on an individual’s entire family. Not only may family members need to help pay for care, but they may also need to take time from work to care for their loved ones who are undergoing treatment that makes them ill, need help with daily activities, or have just had a major surgery. Between new bills and extended care, the financial struggles of the chronically ill can spread easily to those who care for them most.

    People who have a loved one that is suffering from a chronic health condition may also experience stress, concern, and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Battling a chronic illness doesn’t always have to come with negative interpersonal effects though. Many people actually find that their relationships are strengthened through their health struggles. Marshall, for instance, shares that she is grateful for a strengthened social circle. “I’m blessed to have a network of great friends who support me despite IPF and who are always willing to listen.”  

    How We Can All Fight Chronic Disease

    By working together, we can help build up the next generation for a healthier life through education about the prevention of many chronic diseases. Eating well, regular exercise, and avoiding substance abuse are all behaviors that may reduce the risk of becoming chronically ill. On a societal level, we can address the underlying determinants of health, including one’s environment, education, and access to healthcare. For instance, since many chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis, are associated with poor diet and obesity, the FDA is currently working to make sure US eating patterns are meeting federal dietary guidelines.

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    If you or a loved one are struggling through a chronic illness, know that you are not alone. The CDC estimates that 6 in 10 adults living in the US have at least one chronic disease, while 4 in 10 suffer from at least two or more. Insureyouknow.org can help you keep track of medical records, doctor’s appointments, financial planning, and other important documentation regarding your health and finances. Getting organized and keeping a plan are easy ways to get more peace of mind on your life’s journey through a chronic illness.

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