Our gift to the NHS is to stop making them cure our own self-indulgent habits
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Last month, at the World Health Assembly it was announced that 2021 would be designated Year of the Health and Care Worker. I think this will be a popular decision.
We’ve never been more aware of the people who work in our health service. And the events of 2020 have certainly brought home to us just how many of them routinely put their lives on the line for the rest of us and how, very sadly, far too many of them have died as a result of the pandemic.
During the initial lockdown, we did show our gratitude by clapping for the NHS every Thursday evening. But I genuinely believe that focusing for a whole year on all the individuals who work in GP practices, hospitals and care homes is a better way of thanking them.
But could we do more? In the last few months, politicians have asked us to behave in a safer and more sensible way in order to ease the strain on the health service. Before Covid-19, I think the majority of us assumed that the NHS would always have the capacity to treat us if we became ill. Now, we have more insight into how quickly it can be overwhelmed. So maybe it’s time to start thinking about how each of us can help and protect the NHS that we love and depend upon so much.
For decades, far too many of us have lived well but not wisely. At the same time, we’ve expected that any damage we inflicted on ourselves – through over-eating, or drinking to excess, or smoking, or living sedentary existences – would be put right by the NHS.
Is that realistic long-term, and in the world as it’s become? Frankly, I doubt it.
Over the years I’ve interviewed countless health professionals on TV programmes or for articles or books I’ve written. One major theme has emerged from those conversations and it is how frustrated medics and nurses feel when they are being asked to cure someone whose own habits and self-indulgence have caused their illness.
I was once at a fundraising dinner for a hospital’s cardiac unit. And I saw the look on the face of a surgeon when a patient he had operated on not long before lit up a cigarette as soon as the meal was over. This man had had extensive heart surgery lasting nine hours. The NHS had saved his life. But he was still smoking – which was what had caused him to be ill in the first place.
I spoke to a Consultant not long ago who told me about a psychologist who had been in denial about her excessive weight of over 20 stone, and how this had led to her contracting Type 2 diabetes, which quickly became so serious she had to have several toes amputated.
"If even highly intelligent people won’t act on the health messages," the specialist said, "what hope is there for the rest of the population? Her illness is going to kill her, which is tragic. And it’s also terrible that she’s going to be a burden to the health service, when her condition could so easily have been avoided."
These are just two examples among the host of anecdotes I’ve collected over the years. But let me tell you now about someone who spotted for himself that his health was going downhill, and who resolved to do something about it.
Aged 50, Dr Norman Lazarus was having lunch with his wife when he looked down and noticed how his considerable girth was spilling over his belt. There and then, he decided to change his ways. He lost weight, embarked upon a routine where he ate less but more healthily than he was used to, and took up various forms of exercise. Now, at 84, he is still working as a professor at Kings College London, and he’s healthy, trim, and a keen cyclist.
Earlier this year saw the publication of The Lazarus Strategy, which details both his research and his own quest for fitness. In it he states that many cancers, cardiac problems, stroke, vascular dementia, Type 2 diabetes and other illnesses associated with ageing can be prevented if we live differently. He writes: "Ageing is not a disease, and the diseases of ageing have little to do with genetics. The real problems are social and lifestyle."
He’s an example of Positive Ageing at its best, so it won’t surprise you to learn that I find his book massively inspirational. Lots of us are the wrong side of 50 but it’s still worth making those lifestyle changes. So, why not do yourself a favour and make The Lazarus Strategy the first book you read in 2021? Genuinely, it could save your life. It could also take pressure off the NHS which would be the best present you could give it during the International Year of the Health and Care Worker.