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.