EARLIER this week, the White House released the results of President Obama’s first medical report since he took office. For a 46-year-old man in a stressful job, they were pretty good. The only area of concern was indicated by the reference to continuing “smoking cessation efforts” – oh, and some borderline cholesterol issues.
Obama’s otherwise stellar report – low blood pressure (a beautiful 105/62), no hints of colon, heart or bowel trouble – rather pointed the finger at, well, forty and fifty-something men the world over, particularly those working in fast-paced jobs in the West.
The City is brimming with men who work hard, play hard (or certainly who played hard) and who juggle the stresses of work and commutes with the strains of family life. And, as plenty know, things start to change when you near 50. You’re not as young as you once were is one way to put it. The chances are you’re too busy to always remember to book in your annual physical check-up. Maybe you also turn a blind eye to those hangovers, the belly and your typical middle-aged man’s slightly less active lifestyle.
But that’s not good enough chaps. You need to aim for Obama’s report card – and top it. If you’re not suffering from an acute problem then here are some of the very basics you should bear in mind as you head to the big 5-0 and beyond.
1. Eat (much) less
The less you consume the better – Dr Peter Mace, medical director of Bupa health insurers, notes that humans who eat little for most of their lives live the longest. Then there’s the passage of time to consider. “Many of the problems facing middle-aged men stem from the fact that they get more sedentary as they get older – that body that used to be so good at five-a-side football can’t do it any more. Yet the diet stays the same. Cholesterol then goes up as the body fails to break down fats properly.” Us women tend to be better practised at controlling and worrying about our diets throughout our lives so we’re less likely to find ourselves caught short by a change in lifestyle. That’s not to say we don’t struggle with weight, but at least we’re usually aware of what we’re eating so we don’t fall into the “hey, I’ve been eating 15 Mars Bars and a fry-up a day for years and it’s been fine, so what’s happening?” trap. There’s also the fact that before menopause, women have the advantage over men in terms of heart health thanks to the protective properties of oestrogen.
2. Give up smoking
“Men nearing fifty shouldn’t be smoking,” says Mace. “They should have left that behind at university or in their twenties (Obama: take note). Giving up smoking is the single thing that you can do to make a material difference to health.” Within a year of giving up, any smoking-related sinus congestion, fatigue or shortness of breath will decrease, energy will have shot up and your lungs’ ability to handle mucus and fight infection will have sky-rocketed. Then there’s the fact that your risk of coronary heart disease will have dropped to less than half that of a smoker.
3. Exercise: Embrace those Tube escalators
Obviously the more exercise you do the better – the government recommends five 30-minute workouts per week, but even Mace says this is pretty demanding for most busy Londoners. “Something is far better than nothing,” he says. “Try to walk a bit more. London’s a good city to walk in – you can get most places centrally in half an hour, and there are the escalators on the Tube. Make them your friend.” Everyone knows you’re meant to move more, but knowing why is a good motivation too. Basically, the more you exercise, the better the heart becomes at pumping blood around the body. This carries more oxygen to the cells, which then – being grateful for it – adapt so that they can use more oxygen and use it better. Next you grow more blood vessels which help the heart pump more efficiently. Consider Obama’s 57 beat-per-minute heart rate – the President runs every day, and his low sitting heart rate indicates his risk of stroke is lower.
4. Eat your fibre
“A high fibre diet is good for the bowel,” says Mace, “and may reduce the risk of bowel cancer, which starts to be more of an issue for men reaching 50. If you look at the hunter gatherer population in Africa, who live on cereals and fruits etc, they have low blood pressure, low cholesterol, and don’t die of heart disease. They die of other things, of course.” Fibre also alleviates constipation and haemorrhoids. Wholegrain cereals are fibrous and packed with iron and B vitamins, and many fruit and veg are good sources of vitamin C as well as fibre. Pulses are strong on protein, iron and calcium and beloved of the digestive system. So next time you go for a business breakfast, order the muesli with fruit, the porridge and a nice glass of fresh juice – it’ll do you more good than the pastries or the cooked breakfast.
5. Watch the booze
Mace reiterates that two alcoholic drinks a day can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure. More than that, though, and you’re doing yourself a big disservice. Excessive consumption can raise levels of fats in the blood, which is what leads to high blood pressure and heart failure as well as the weakening of the heart muscle, cardiac arrhythmia or abnormal heartbeat, and sudden cardiac death. Eek. Of course, everyone has a different combination of genes and exposure to environmental factors, but the fact remains that men who care about their hearts should be careful. The solution? Splurge on a bottle of Petrus between four and hold back on the bottles of mediocre Burgundy.
6. Be rigorous about check-ups
The risk factor for a whole range of diseases shoots up around age fifty. “It’s worth getting regular check-ups even before you hit 50 so you know what conditions may be underlying. It’s important to detect common killers like bowel cancer and heart disease early.”