A strange thing happens when you hit your 60s. Having sailed through life in pretty good shape, suddenly your formerly healthy friends start falling apart – and you’re not looking so tip top either.
One friend’s breast cancer has returned, another had a massive heart attack and his veins are propped up with stents, two have prostate cancer (though thankfully caught early) and I’ve lost count of the number of hip and knee ops everyone’s now having.
Then there are the ever-expanding waistlines and, frankly, obesity. Thank heavens for the new weight-loss drug Wegovy – three of them are on that.
We get to a point in life where we’re going to more funerals than weddings of people our own age. Last month I heard the terrible news, a former dear colleague had a fatal heart attack playing football with his sons. He was only 60.
Shocks like that start to haunt you and you wonder whether you’re doing enough to look after your own health. Guilty as charged.
For despite exercising three times a week – boxing and weight training – and walking a lot, I know I could, and should, do more to stay in shape and keep healthy, starting with losing half a stone. Around a month ago, as I approached my 66th birthday, although I didn’t have any major symptoms of ill health, I definitely felt out of sorts: lethargic, sort of achy all over with a few pains occasionally in my chest near my heart when I trained too hard.
AMANDA PLATELL: A strange thing happens when you hit your 60s. Having sailed through life in pretty good shape, suddenly your formerly healthy friends start falling apart – and you’re not looking so tip top either
If I’m honest, my worst mid-life problem was the bloating, something that had come on over the past year.
Yes, I’m carrying a bit of weight around my once flat stomach which I put down to middle age, but how could my belly go from flattish to looking as though I was six months pregnant with twins within hours of eating?
After a quick Google search, my first fear was ovarian cancer, as there are few symptoms apart from bloating.
And I worried about the state of my lungs as I’ve been an on-off smoker for years – and my liver: I knew I was too fond of the Chablis wine hour and worried it might have caused lasting damage. We never think like this when we’re young.
Then you wake up in your 60s and start worrying what damage you’ve done to your body over all those decades – a quiet fear creeps up that maybe there is some ghastly silent disease taking hold inside that you’re blissfully unaware of, until it’s too late.
So I decided that this year, instead of spending over £2,000 for a fortnight in a Majorcan villa in the sun – being made fun of by my guests for my big hat, factor 50, sit-in-the-shade routine, as I never sunbathe – I’d stay in Blighty and spend the money on getting a complete health MOT.
I already have mammograms every three years, so there was no need for that. And my recent home-delivered NHS poo test (offered to everyone aged 60 to 74 but slowly being extended to 50- somethings, see box) had come back negative.
While we’re all entitled to a free NHS health check between the ages of 40-74, it’s not what most people would consider a full health MOT – and when I spoke to an NHS GP friend, it was clear there was no point going to my local practice for anything more as I had no specific symptoms of illness and with their current workload, what could they do: I’d be wasting their valuable time and mine.
So I called another friend, Dr Daniel Wright, who’s a private doctor: after he checked my blood pressure, fine and spot on the healthy mark at 120/80, he took a couple of vials of blood for testing.
I was going to have a full check for everything from liver health to my iron levels: he also booked me in for a heart and lung scan (I’d had a full colorectal scan privately last year, again, as a precautionary measure, because there is a history of bowel cancel in my family). Because of my history of skin cancer I booked separately to see a skin cancer specialist.
My MOT, with the scans, was essentially a premium version of those you can get from a private healthcare provider.
(And yes, I know the NHS is inundated and rightly irritated by the ‘worried well’ turning up at surgeries, private test result in hand revealing something worrying, clogging up the system. But in my defence I paid for all this testing, and I have private health insurance.)
First off was a CTCA – CT coronary angiogram, a scan predominantly for the heart but which also includes the lungs.
Before the scan, dye is injected into your arm; this shows up on the scanner, highlighting blood vessels and the heart. It was a pretty painless experience (apart from the cost, £1,200).
So why the heart scan when I had no symptoms?
I knew cardiovascular disease causes 35 per cent of deaths in women, more than breast cancer, more than all cancers combined.
And women are less likely to be taken seriously when they present with symptoms because doctors are still often painfully slow in detecting the signs in women (women having a heart attack have around a 50 per cent greater chance of misdiagnosis compared with men, according to research published in 2018).
More important to me than my heart were my lungs: I didn’t start smoking until my late 20s and gave it up repeatedly, once for a decade and now it’s just the occasional cigarillo after dinner or when stressed while writing my column.
The CTCA scan is done in a cylinder about 3ft wide and 6ft long with a flat bottom that moves in and out, and the hardest bit is lying completely still as you get zipped backward and forward into the scanning tube, desperately holding your breath.
Huge relief when the results showed my ‘lungs are normal with no evidence of emphysema or interstitial lung disease’. I’d never heard of the latter, but essentially it is scarring of the lungs and smoking is a cause.
Plus: healthy heart, nice pumping veins, no sign of narrowing or furring of the arteries.
Although there were no shadows on my lungs, the result was a clear incentive to give up while they are still healthy, so I’m now re-reading Allen Carr’s Easy Way To Stop Smoking, which worked for me about 20 years ago when I was a 30-a-day smoker.
So far so good, now for the blood tests. The first result made me laugh aloud — I do not have HIV, syphilis or gonorrhoea, or any other sexually transmitted diseases.
I didn’t even know I was being checked for them but still, good to know, especially with STIs exploding among today’s silver swingers. The blood test for ovarian cancer, for a marker called CA125, was the test result I feared most.
Before I saw Dr Dan, I didn’t even know there was such a test. He said it wasn’t 100 per cent accurate but it is a good indicator of cancer: my results were fine.
The results for kidney, thyroid and bone health were all good, too (a blood test can’t detect osteoporosis but it can spot any underlying conditions associated with bone density).
My uric acid levels were normal – a build-up of uric acid can lead to painful kidney stones and gout; ditto, my blood sugar.
There was some bad news, however – my levels of two enzymes, GGT (gamma-glutamyl transferase) and AST (aspartate aminotransferase) were slightly raised, which is associated with alcohol and possible liver damage. Ah, the Chablis – I’ll often have a couple of large glasses with dinner, or a vodka and slimline tonic when I’m out.
Dr Dan’s advice was to cut my drinking down ‘a little’. Hurrah, my fear was he’d tell me to stop drinking completely.
I almost raised a glass to that.
AMANDA PLATELL: I decided that this year, instead of spending over £2,000 for a fortnight in a Majorcan villa in the sun – being made fun of by my guests for my big hat, factor 50, sit-in-the-shade routine, as I never sunbathe – I’d stay in Blighty and spend the money on getting a complete health MOT (file photo)
My good (HDL) cholesterol was slightly low and my bad (LDL) cholesterol was slightly raised, so for the past month I’ve been on a Mediterranean diet of oily fish – which I hate: if I see another salmon, mackerel, trout or sardine I will scream – fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, tomatoes, salads and good protein.
Dr Dan said we’d check my blood results again in six months and if my cholesterol wasn’t back to normal we’d consider statins.
And my vitamin D levels are way down, almost non-existent, which could account for my lethargy, he told me. No surprise I have no vitamin D as I never intentionally go out in the sun and it’s the effect of sunlight on your skin that produces it. So I now have a morning cocktail of high-strength omega-3 oil and liquid vitamin D plus B.
The blood tests also confirmed I am not gluten or lactose intolerant, nor do I have coeliac disease: it seems the bloating was diet related, as since cutting out highly refined carbs such as white bread completely (I’ve become a convert of German rye bread Roggenbrot), it’s gone.
My tests showed markedly raised levels of ferritin, a blood protein that contains iron. Too much can be a sign of general inflammation in the body.
Dr Dan said inflammation can be tweaked by improving my gut bacteria so I now also take a daily probiotic – and the most disgusting drink ever, kefir, a fermented milk drink that tastes of sour cottage cheese. Apparently it’s better for you than live yoghurt (which is also good) as it has a wider range of microorganisms, which help switch off the inflammatory molecules that drive inflammation in your gut.
Not such good news when I first met the skin cancer specialist, Professor Julia Scarisbrick in Harley Street. Raised in Australia, I’ve had dozens and dozens of benign basal cell carcinomas (BCCs) iced off or cut out since I was 25.
She identified four more BCCs on my chest and two suspicious new moles on my back — I’ve always been on the lookout for deadly melanoma as my dad had them later in life, but of course I couldn’t see these and was blissfully unaware of them.
The Prof removed the BCCs with cryotherapy — liquid nitrogen sprayed on the cancer from a weird contraption like an old-fashioned soda fountain. Stings a bit, but within a few weeks they’d healed.
The next week I was back for the moles to be removed under local anaesthetic: a biopsy and subsequent visits revealed they were not malignant, so another good result.
Who knows what might have happened if I hadn’t gone to see her. So what have I learnt from my midlife MOT?
Some might think me silly to spend all this money on getting myself checked out, but I haven’t regretted it for a moment. My mission was to identify any early warning signs of health problems before they morphed into a major problem. And what all this testing has done is make me face up to making some big dietary and lifestyle changes.
I’ve been on my new regimen for nearly two months now. My bloating has disappeared, except when I gobble a white bread bacon sarnie, I’ve lost about 5lb and have so much more energy.
My skin is clearer and my hair shinier. And I have a spring in my step again. Of course, like any MOT, the old chassis or an engine part could blow at any time, you can’t insure against everything or the fatal hand of God.
But my MOT has given me peace of mind, for now, and the opportunity to make the lifestyle choices to ensure I have the best chance of staying healthy into what I hope will be the big, fat, fun next chapter of my life.
Content source – www.soundhealthandlastingwealth.com