We put a lot of time and effort into financial planning, making sure we have the kind of savings needed to secure a comfortable retirement. But what's the good of financial security and a long retirement if that's a long period of ill-health? It's an issue that the stats on longevity don't cover.
On the one hand there's the importance of lifestyle, of keeping to a sensible diet and staying active. There are no great secrets here, we all tend to know what's good for us in general terms. We know what's bad for us - even if we're not so good at sticking to the rules.
Where we can fall down is a basic lack of awareness of how we're actually doing physically. Many serious health conditions go unnoticed or are minor niggles that become familiar and ignored before turning into specific diseases. For example:
- around 20% of cases of atrial fibrillation are thought to be missed; it's essentially an irregular or fast heart beat which means people are at a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes. There can be symptoms of dizziness and tiredness - but often people live with the condition without any symptoms;
- fewer than 25% of cases of coeliac are diagnosed, or the condition is misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome. Coeliac is an intolerance to gluten (types of proteins that are found in grains like wheat and barley) leading to inflammations and affecting your ability to absorb nutrients, vitamins and minerals properly. Although coeliac disease is often said to present with stomach symptoms including diarrhoea, abdominal pain or distension it can show in more subtle ways. It's said 43% of cases don't involve any symptoms. Untreated coeliac disease can have long-term complications including diabetes, infertility, anaemia, osteoporosis (thin bones) and increased risk of some cancers of the gut such as lymphoma. In undiagnosed and untreated coeliac disease the risk of these types of cancer is up to 15 percent higher;
- high cholesterol can be genetic rather than the result of eating too many fatty foods, and affects an estimated one in 200 people (familial hypercholesterolaemia) who tend to be unaware of their condition and the risks that come with it;
- research suggests that 1 in 5 people who have a heart attack weren't originally considered to be in either the 'high' or even 'moderate' risk category based on the standard information on age, sex, ethnicity, cholesterol level, blood pressure, smoking status and family history;
- aortic aneurysms and types of cancer such as bowel cancer, ovarian and prostate cancer also tend to be overlooked.
So regular health screenings are important to pick up on these kinds of conditions. But as a GP I have to sigh when I'm presented with another set of test results that don't mean a great deal. It's important to remember some tests will help people improve their health and some won't - don't trust the offer of any test without proof, without evidence from research, and a solid case for using it.