About 2 months ago I got a letter in the post, from a place in Winchester, asking me to attend a free NHS health check at my local surgery. Having spent the past four months undergoing routine health checks (mammogram, annual dental exam, annual eye test, smear test) I felt I’d gone through quite enough prodding about and the associated anxiety waiting for test results, so I chucked the letter in the bin. The aforementioned tests had all come back ‘normal’ – with the caveat that ‘normal’ didn’t mean anything really, and that I should in no way sit back, kick off the old trainers and relax, being that some horrid disease was most probably lying in wait just around the corner.
Two weeks later another letter came, this time from my local surgery, asking why I hadn’t made an appointment for this health check, urging me to ring and get on with it.
So I walked over to the docs and made an appointment where I was told I also needed a blood test and couldn’t make the health check appointment until I’d had the blood test. I was duly signed in for the blood test 5 days later.
I went home downcast and downbeat. Because of all the tests out there, designed to find out if your body is ticking along as it should be, the blood test is the one that fills me with abject fear. Because they nearly always find something. Rapid internet research revealed the Health Check looks at glucose and cholesterol levels in your blood. ‘They’ll put me on statins’, I kept saying, and ‘statins, statins, statins’, became a kind of insane mantra inside my head.
The husband said: ‘don’t be silly.’
Three days after the test the husband and I asked for my test results and were told the doctor had typed ‘satisfactory’ into the computer. I then went on holiday up in Yorkshire (here) feeling relieved that the worst bit of the health check was over and that my upcoming appointment was likely to be a convivial chat with the health checking nurse.
Had I known which doctor had checked my results, I wouldn’t have felt quite so carefree.
My appointment was two days ago. I sat in the waiting room on edge, but nothing major, i.e. no hyperventilation/chest pains/sweaty palms etc etc. The nurse’s name flashed up on the screen, alongside mine, and I went in.
‘Hello Susan!’ (she greeted me like I was a lifelong friend.) ‘Thanks so much for coming, do sit down.’ This is going well thought I. She’s all smiles and very friendly-like. She also happened to be somewhat obese, which is rather odd, considering that part of my health check was to be weighed and measured and, should I fall outside those important BMI lines, I would be urged to lose weight, by someone who clearly needed to lose weight. ‘You’ve made a very important step in coming to the appointment. A lot of people don’t bother’ (I was about to find out why a lot of people don’t bother.)
‘Let’s get on with it. I’ve got your blood test results here. The good news is that you’re not diabetic.’ (I smiled, when I should have realised that any statement that begins with: ‘the good news is…’ is always followed by something very bad indeed.)
‘The bad news is that you have very high cholesterol. I really can’t understand why the doctor didn’t contact you when the results came in – it’s very surprising.’
I asked to look at the pathology report. The doctor who’d ok’d the dreadful results was one I generally didn’t see if I could help it.
‘I wish I hadn’t had the test‘, I said. ‘Is it better to put your head in the sand?’ she replied. ‘Now you’ve got this information you can do something about it; that’s better than carrying on regardless whilst your arteries fur up isn’t it?’ We really need to put you on statins straight away,’ she carried on, whilst I sat there smiling and nodding, like one of those weird automatons at Disney World. The part of my brain capable of rational thought had left the building. ‘Your reading is 7.72,’ she exclaimed. ‘We need to get it down to below 5 (5 is the NHS cholesterol magic number.) The doctor really should have contacted you.’
I got it. The doctor was an idiot. I asked if there was anything else I could do before I had to take statins. She gave me a diet sheet (the unkind thought crossed my mind that she could do with a free NHS diet sheet herself) and gave me 6 months to change my eating habits. I would then have another blood test and, if the cholesterol was not down, I would be given statins.
‘Right, blood pressure,’ she said, smiling all the while. The wide grin on her round face was beginning to take on a similarity to the Cheshire Cat’s – and I was beginning to HATE it.
After all, why not? Why not take my blood pressure when you’ve just told me I’m at imminent risk of a heart attack or stroke. Perfect time to take it. I engaged in a rapid bit of slow, deep breathing and closed my eyes, in an effort to influence the BP result (it didn’t work.) The reading came out at 133/80. ‘That’s a bit on the high side,’ said the grinning nurse – and she ticked the amber circle on the traffic light system in her health check book.
I should pause to explain that the health check operates on the traffic light system. A green circle is ticked if your results are good, an amber one if they’re not so good, but not life threatening, and red if there’s a strong likelihood you won’t make it back out of the waiting room alive.
She ticked amber for BP and remarked that I was pre hypertensive. I remarked that she’d just told me I had sky high cholesterol. The Cheshire Cat grin re-appeared and she agreed that anxiety may be playing a part.
I’ll pause again to note that a doctor had taken my BP a month before and it had come out at 110/60. He had remarked that I ‘would live forever.’
A month later and things were looking drastic.
I went home armed with my pathology report and the health check booklet with my traffic light results. The nurse omitted to weigh or measure me, so she didn’t fill in the BMI bit. If she had, there would be yet another amber tick against me, as I fall outside normal weight for my height by about 21 lbs.
My cholesterol results (which the stupid doctor ok’d) are red flagged in three areas.
Triglyceride 2.63 (should be less than 2.3)
Total Chol/HDL Chol ratio 4.4 (not sure how bad this is)
LDL 4.75 (should be 0.0-3.0)
The direct result of attending this health check is that I now see myself as a walking vat of lard. That my veins are chock-a-block with blobs of yellow cholesterol type fat, merrily floating about in my insides, just waiting to gang up and cause a heart attack.
I consulted the internet and found Dr Malcolm Kendrick, a scottish doctor. Dr Kendrick wrote a book called The Great Cholesterol Con. He is roughly my age and a practising GP, with an interest in heart disease. He refuses to believe that cholesterol levels have anything to do with heart attack/stroke risk. His level is 6 (mine really is high then) but he refuses to take statins believing the protection they offer to be negligible and that they carry serious side effects. Instead he plays squash three time a week, goes to the gym and walks.
Dr Kendrick notes that:
- People with high cholesterol tend to live longer
- People with heart disease tend to have low levels of cholesterol
- Statins have not reduced the rate of heart disease
I then re-discovered Zoe Harcombe, a woman I’d read years ago the last time I lost weight. Zoe is rabidly anti-statin, going so far as to call the statinisation of almost everyone over the age of 50 as ‘one of the greatest crimes committed against mankind.’
She congratulates you on your high cholesterol reading, claiming that cholesterol is VITAL to life. That it is involved in every operation of the human body and that without it we would die instantly. Zoe believes you should never have a cholesterol test – ever. That knowing your numbers is useless information. That the NHS insistence on a level of 5 mmol/L or less is madness. That the NHS keep changing the goalposts. That my level of 7.72 was considered normal, at my age, a few years ago.
And on and on she goes. It must be said that Ms Harcombe is stick thin and sticks to her own rigid, very healthy diet.
Prior to the health check I was regularly chucking an entire ‘Teaser’ chocolate bar down my neck (the 6 inch ones.) After dinner I’d get peckish and stuff a couple of bits of toast, covered in butter and jam, down my neck. Breakfast was toast and jam. Lunch would be salad stuff but always with hard cheeses thrown in, followed by yoghurts to which I added lashings of cream. There was a pattern here. I was clearly a carbohydrate and sugar nut. Carbs and sugar are what really cause heart disease, according to Dr Kendrick and Ms Harcombe – and NOT fat of any kind.
However, I was also eating far too much fat, in the form of daily butter, cheese and cream.
So, this is what I’m doing. Supplies of skimmed (yukk) milk are in the fridge, as is low fat cheese and cholesterol lowering spreads/drinks. Cakes, chocolate, biscuits, sugar coated cereals will never again pass my lips (this is easily said when you’re just 3 days into your new diet.) Porridge and fruit has replaced the morning toast. Water and fruit juice has replaced tea and coffee. Dinners were fairly healthy anyway but now consist of loads more vegetables. And I have to get in a stash of whole nuts, as apparently a handful of nuts (almonds, walnuts, pecans etc) eaten everyday keeps the dreaded cholesterol down.
Of course, the blood test news could have been much worse. But now I’m caught up in the system with regular blood tests to monitor the cholesterol, and the threat of statins hanging over my drug-hating head.
I’d skip the Health Check if I was you – you’ll feel better for it.