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'Today’s long-lived pensioners weren’t raised on doughnuts'


I have a thing for Twirls. Not the activity - I’m not given to insisting people who happen to be in the same room as me look at my choice of trouser from all angles without having to walk around me.

No, I mean the chocolate bar.

I eat a Twirl every day. Sometimes, if I have had a challenging day, I have two Twirls. And a KitKat. And, if it’s Friday, another Twirl. This descent into calorie hell is offset by my going to the gym four or five times a week. “It’s me against the Twirls,” is my mantra, as I am rowing indoors without water and not moving. The older I get, the better the Twirls are doing.

Still, the fight goes on as it does for many of us, laden with contradictions, Twirl wrappers and whatever unhealthy choice you may find yourself making.
We struggle, often in small ways to look after ourselves, to overcome or reduce our unhealthy choices - and even suggest ways in which other people may try to look after themselves too.

Last week, the BBC reported that life expectancy was on the increase, despite our fears about the impact obesity would have on the health of our nation. Life expectancy here is higher than in the US the report said, managing not to add wryly “Mind you, have you seen the size of their doughnuts?” The report concluded that the feared impact of our unhealthy lifestyle is not actually manifesting itself.

Breathe easy and send someone out for cake - the obesity epidemic was a false alarm. Yes, we may be at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes but we have the technology and the health services to help us get through that.

Except the life expectancy report by population expert Professor Leon did not offer such reassurances. The report didn’t say: “We don’t have to worry about obesity after all.” It said: “Life expectancy is on the rise in part because of lower smoking rates.” That’s it. Everything else is spin.

We know that obesity, smoking, too much beer and a lack of exercise not only kill but also make living a damn sight harder.

We also know that people who are struggling with unhealthy eating, giving up cigarettes or drinking too much alcohol can employ some sort of cognitive dissonance ranging from “yes, I have read the health warnings but my Granny smoked until she was 106” to “Yes, I do get puffed out putting my shirt on but a bloke down the pub said that Battenberg cake is really good for you, as is having a belly the size of Norway”. Now they have “Obesity isn’t as bad as they said, I read it on the BBC.”

Lazy or double messages around public health are unhelpful and make a nurse’s job all the harder. We have no meaningful statistics - although we could project some worrying ones - on what impact the relatively new epidemic of obesity will have on life expectancy.

All we know is that life expectancy is rising now. But we are measuring that by looking at a generation that was raised on rationing, not doughnuts. And enjoying the benefits of comprehensive health service with a range of improved treatments.

Obviously, we cannot regulate the free press, nor expect them to legislate for the consequences of the way they report. However, we can notice a false link in the chain of reason and point it out quickly and hope that evidence, professional opinion and logic will win out over spin at least sometimes.

Otherwise, knowing what you are talking about won’t matter a bit.


Readers' comments (9)

  • To be honest Mark (and feel free to call me a cynic) but I sometimes think it doesnt matter what health professionals or the media say, some people are just determined to eat/drink/smoke themselves to death. Some are in total denial "I eat like a bird Nurse honest!" and some simply see it as their "right".

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  • Thing is Sarah, it is their right isn't it? I agree some people seem determined to eat/drink/smoke themselves to an unnecessarily early death because we all have that thing called freewill. If we as health professionals don't acknowledge or respect that then we're heading into very dangerous territory as a profession. We'll will end up being perceived as another branch of the police instead of carers or health information promoters. I think this is the effect targets and outcomes have on our professional psyche...'you must behave in this way because then I achieve my agenda' type thinking. Not so much empowering, more controlling.

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  • The baby-boomers were brought up just after the end of rationing and got free orange juice and milk. it was also fashionable for our mums to supplement our diet with cod-liver oil, Haliborange (vit c tabs), Rosehip syrup, Virol and malt - if this adds any useful information or throws further light on longevity - but we do not yet know what the life expectancy for our generation will be as a result of this and so many other factors - rather difficult to forecast!
    To the list of nutrients above could be added Nestlé's condensed milk (best sucked straight out of the tin with two holes punched in it), Marmite, Veggiemite, Oxo, Ovaltine, Robinson's Golly Marmalade, one to two meals of meat, veg and potatoes daily and a Sunday traditional roast, baked beans on toast, sausages, jelly and custard or ice cream, white mice, liquorice, sherbet dabs and fountains, palm toffee and gob stoppers, to mention just a few of the ingredients of our delicious, nutritious and varied diet.

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  • Anonymous | 29-Mar-2011 6:36 pm

    ..and don't forget junior aspirin, not dietary I admit, and Minadex (? spelling)! The ovaltinies, didn't like it myself, but loved tomato sandwiches. Tomatoes, as many other things, were seasonal then.

    The downside, smoking was fashionable and advertised as such. You could visit your GP whilst he was having a fag. We didn't know it was so harmful then.

    Moving on, today, obesity, alcohol and drug taking is on the increase, and we DO know their harmful effects.

    The public, which includes health professionals, will always have their rights, be it good or bad, I hope.

    We may strive for perfection, but will never get it and that's what makes us an interesting mammal, and provides jobs.

    I can be a cynical so and so. Pharma and targets control our lives, which is leading us into a blame culture, negating 'unconditional positive regard', or is that now 'old hat' too.

    There is more than so called 'bad habits' that 'put on' NHS services that don't get the same critisism, extreme sports, travel to countries which have deadly diseases, reckless driving and maybe the long-term effects of prescribed medication, polypharmacy, superbugs that we have created from the not so everending strive to eliminate the simplist, and subsequent strive to become 'bug-free'. I think our immunity will suffer in the long run. If you examine many conditions they stem from immune resistantancy.

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  • This is amusing. Gives a bit of an insight into attitude of the 'great reformer' !!!
    Makes me wonder what he thinks of us nurses and what we do too!!

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  • Given the state of the pension industry a short life is beginning to have a great deal of appeal...

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  • Given the state of the pension industry *other people* having a short life is beginning to have a great deal of appeal

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  • Most of today's long lived pensioners were raised on what would be considered an unhealthy lifestyle.

    Eggs, sausages and bacon were fried in lard.
    White bread with butter.
    Full fat milk.
    Suet puddings.
    Sugar in tea and coffee.

    However, this was offset by a lifestyle that included a large amount of exercise which ensured that calories in were less than or equal to calories out and hence weight gain was the exception.

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  • don't forget the delicious bread and dripping which was always a great treat and pork with lots of crackling

    and we survived!

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