As the old saying goes, prevention is better than cure — and when it comes to long-term health, the experts couldn’t agree more. Abi Jackson reports.
It’s probably impossible to live a life that’s completely illness free. And, to quote another common phrase, nothing is certain but death and taxes - we humans aren’t designed to live forever.
If we’re lucky though, we’ll enjoy a decent innings. But while a long, healthy life is a blessing, it’s not entirely down to luck.
Some of the UK’s biggest killer diseases - heart disease, stroke, cancer, lung and liver disease - are, to a significant extent, preventable.
A major study published in The Lancet last year reported that the UK was falling behind other Western countries in managing such illnesses, with the five conditions mentioned above responsible for more than 150,000 deaths in under-75s a year in England alone.
A fifth of these (30,000) are estimated to be avoidable.
It’s a cost issue too, with lifestyle-related diseases placing an ever-increasing burden on the NHS.
Diabetes costs the NHS £10 billion a year (10% of its entire budget). While Type 1 diabetes is not preventable, Type 2, the form linked with lifestyle factors, is largely avoidable - and it’s this form which is costing the most, accounting for around 90% of the 3.2 million people currently diagnosed with diabetes in the UK.
Coronary heart disease, the number one killer causing 74,000 UK deaths a year, comes in at an annual cost of £2 billion, and circulatory and heart diseases collectively (including stroke, heart attacks and cardiomyopathy) kill 161,000 a year, with an estimated overall bill of £19 billion, for what are classed as premature deaths.
The risk factors for many of these conditions are well documented — smoking’s a huge health-zapper, and alcohol and a poor diet. Not getting enough regular exercise and being overweight or obese are also linked with an increased chance of serious long-term health problems.
That’s not to say that only people who don’t look after themselves get sick. Even elite athletes can suffer a heart attack, and many forms of cancer can seemingly strike at random, belying years of healthy living.
Scientists are making huge strides in genetic research, and a number of genetic risk factors have been identified for many major diseases, but it could be a long time before these are unlocked entirely.
Meanwhile, what is certain — in the minds of key experts at least — is that lifestyle does play a role, enough of a role that it’s worth all of us taking steps to invest in our future health by looking after ourselves today.
“Sadly, for a lot of people, it’s the heart attack or the stroke that finally pushes them to stop smoking, whereas they’d have done a lot better to have stopped much earlier,” says the British Heart Foundation’s Dr Mike Knapton.
Professor Jeremy Pearson, the charity’s associate medical director for research, stresses the importance of raising awareness that arteries begin to narrow - the process that culminates in heart disease — years earlier.
“You don’t get a heart attack hopefully until you’re in your fifties through to your seventies, but this is a process that actually starts when you are very young,” he says.
“We need to be shouting more about how this is a disease that begins from the word go, and there are things you can do about it. People can adjust their lifestyles early on to reduce their eventual chances of a heart attack, rather than waiting until they’re told they actually have a problem.
“This is very difficult for people to understand. If you don’t lead a healthy lifestyle as you grow up, you’re pre-destined, if you like, to have a heart attack later in life. We need to make this clearer.”
Not smoking and not consuming too much alcohol are two of the main steps in having a healthy lifestyle.
Beyond that, eating well, taking regular exercise and managing stress effectively can all play a part in long-term health.
Three experts share their advice for getting started...
Get active: “Staying active’s absolutely vital,” says osteopath and physiotherapist Tim Allardyce (www.surreyphysio.co.uk). “Everything in the body’s designed to move; joints, muscles, the blood that circulates, even our bowels!
“When you feel sluggish, listen to your body — get up, get your heart pumping! Next time you’re feeling tired, go for a short, brisk walk rather than having a nap. You’ll feel better for it.”
The benefits of exercise are practically boundless.
“It’s great for our cardiovascular system (the bit that helps us breathe and gets oxygen to our organs and muscles). It also helps our bowels stay healthy, keeps muscles strong and joints more flexible.
“Getting active is simple: exercise a little each day. Your weekly activity may not be going to the gym five times; instead go for three 20-minute walks, swim once a week, cycle every Sunday morning for an hour. After a few weeks you’ll start to feel great in both your mind and body.”
If you’ve been inactive for a while, start slowly, and speak with your doctor if you have existing health problems.
Eat a balanced diet: “People are aware that a healthy diet can affect health, but I don’t think people generally understand just how essential it is,” says British Dietetic Association spokesperson Sioned Quirke, who has her own healthy eating website (www.quirkynutrition.co.uk). “Many people don’t like the idea of having to take medication, but don’t realise that your diet and lifestyle is the most powerful drug of all — and you control it!”
With so many conflicting headlines about what’s good and bad for us, eating healthily can be confusing, but reliable experts believe a sensible balance is key.
“It’s very beneficial to have a variety of foods, including foods from each of the five food groups. Portion control’s very important, as we tend to overindulge.
“Remember that no foods are ‘banned’, you just need to be ‘treat-wise’ and not go overboard. The five-a-day fruit and vegetables recommendation’s also very important.”
There’s increasing evidence linking childhood diet to health consequences later in life. “It’s never too early to start getting into good habits,” adds Quirke. “Children learn from their parents — so if you have a healthy diet, so will they.
“Get children involved in food choices, knowing where foods come from and cooking early. Also, persevere! It can take up to 15 exposures for a child to accept a food, so if they weren’t keen for the first few attempts, keep trying.”
Sugar-laden fizzy drinks should be viewed as occasional treats, and people often fall short of the recommended two-litres of fluid a day. Sipping water regularly will boost health and keep you hydrated.
Be stress aware: Stress is a normal fact of life. Our bodies react to challenging situations by triggering a ‘fight or flight’ response, releasing chemicals, including adrenalin, to kick us into action. It’s only when chronic stress builds up that it becomes a health concern.
In research terms, stress is a relatively new area and while there isn’t as much clear evidence of its role in long-term health as factors like smoking, it’s importance is increasingly acknowledged.
It can also lead to a number of things which, in turn, don’t do our health any favours — impacting sleep, for instance.
Managing stress, like eating well and being active, requires proactive effort. “We often just continue on our daily treadmill, ignoring the little signs that our body provides us with, like sleeping difficulties, rapid heart rate, changes in eating habits and bowel movement,” says wellbeing expert Annie Aulds (www.wisteriaholistichealth.co.uk).
“It’s only when our body makes the signs more obvious, like clinical depression or a heart attack, that it forces us to stop.
“It’s so important to listen to your body, understand its needs and act early while the symptoms are still self-manageable.”
Relaxation shouldn’t feel like a guilty indulgence; it’s a health necessity! Don’t let shortage of time or money be an excuse — even taking half an hour a couple of times a day to go for a peaceful walk, or listen to music, will count. Take control and have a break from that smartphone/laptop, organise your priorities and identify any specific triggers, like money worries or problems at work, which may be a factor.
If you’re struggling to cope, speak to your GP or call the Mind infoline: 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk).