Know your 'normal' - the importance of regular health 'servicing', whatever your age

11 October 2021

The past year-and-a-half of the pandemic and public health crisis has brought home for many of us just how easily 'good health' can be lost. Whether it's ending up in hospital from having had a bout of Covid-19 or struggling to recover from 'long Covid', the virus has been a massive shock for many people who have previously barely, if ever, had to engage with their GP, let alone the terror of intensive care.

Thankfully, for most of us our bodies just get on with the 'stuff' of life without us even having to think about it, whether we're talking about things like digesting our food, being able to bound up a flight of stairs, having regular bowel movements or walking without pain.

Yet, for both men and women, it is important to be alert to potential changes in our bodies as we age, as well as ensuring we are not ignoring possible warning signs; a key part of this is regular health screening or check-ups.

Value of health screening

For women, this can mean things like recognising the value of regular breast screening and smears. In older age, this can extend to understanding - and monitoring - important life changes such as the menopause, or the onset of often age-related risk factors (and lifestyle issues) such as osteoporosis.

For men, in younger years carrying out regular testicle checks for lumps that could be a warning sign of testicular cancer is important (although this is more likely to be something done through self-examination rather than screening). As men age, this can extend to recognising - and screening for - risks such as prostate cancer, which tends to be more common among men

For both sexes, screening and awareness around issues such as changes to bowel function, obesity, blood pressure, cholesterol, skin cancers, diabetes or declining eyesight can be important. Such regular checks, even if outwardly feeling fit and well, can be invaluable in terms of flagging up potential red flags and the need for intervention or prevention.

Essentially, the message here is we all need to recognise that our health needs and health risks, change during our lives - and this may be a message that, in particular, needs to be spelled out to men, notorious as they can be for ignoring or brushing off health issues, aches, pains or niggles.

While we all hope to live long healthy lives untroubled by illness, personal awareness and vigilance about what is 'normal' when it comes to our health and wellbeing - and whether and how that is changing - needs to be a lifetime skill and asset.

What's more, as we age and our bodies change, this 'normal' will need to adjust and be managed if we want to get the most out of our lives, whatever health issues we end up facing.

NHS versus private

The NHS, of course, offers regular breast screening and cervical/smear testing for women, as well as a range of self-help resources, for example around checking your breasts for lumps or this, similarly, for testicles.

Your GP practice, too, may be a useful port of call for healthy lifestyle advice and guidance, especially the NHS Health Check for those aged over 40.

The NHS Health Check is often referred to as a 'mid-life health check' or 'health MOT' - the analogy with the regular servicing and checking we all do on our cars - and accept is just a normal part of keeping a vehicle road-worthy - is perhaps apt here.

Just as we happily get our cars serviced regularly and MOT'd once a year, so it makes sense to be building regular bodily 'servicing' or health screening into our lives, especially as we age.

Given, however, the stresses and pressures NHS services remain under - and many NHS Health Check services, for example, were paused at the height of the pandemic - employer-funded health insurance-based health screening can be an increasingly attractive and valuable alternative.

This alternative route to a healthcare professional can be especially valuable where people are perhaps worried about a niggle or a persistent problem, and would like some reassurance about what's going on, but feel it isn't 'serious' enough to warrant 'worrying' their GP.

Equally, insurance-based screening can be invaluable in helping to identify asymptomatic issues, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or if someone is prediabetic, that may not otherwise get picked up.

Once highlighted, preventative interventions can then be put in place, whether medication or lifestyle changes, potentially, in turn, alleviating pressure on the NHS further down the line, when or if such conditions turn serious.

Striking a balance

Ultimately, of course, this is all about striking a balance. On the one hand, none of us wants to live our lives constantly worrying about our health and frenetically monitoring our bodies, perhaps unnecessarily.

On the other hand, being aware of, and being proactive about, regular checks, screening and tools (online or other) that can help to provide reassurance throughout our lives as our bodies change, enabling us all to take more control of our health as we age.

Importantly too, this sort of proactivity can act as a valuable warning system, identifying issues early and potentially preventing health issues from becoming more serious, or even life-threatening, further down the line.

Without putting too fine a point on it, regular health screening may just save your life.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.