Medical screening: The dangers of trying to be healthy

  • When trying to be healthy is unhealthy
  •  The downside of medical screening
  •  How to make your next fitness kick last

A few years ago, I was called in for a general health medical screening.

Like an MOT for the middle aged.

The man in the room looked about 20 years old. He was quite tubby and wearing shorts.

(I don’t know why that’s important, but for some reason I was taken aback by the shorts).

We ran through a load of tests – blood pressure, finger prick, weighing scales and height – during which I was shocked to discover that I was an inch shorter than I used to be…

Oh my word, I thought, the SHRINKING HAS BEGUN.

But most shocking was that the man told me I was very overweight.

Now, I’m not skinny, and I’ve always been a hefty bloke, with my own weight struggles in the past.

But the thing is… my BMI is 27, which is only a couple of points above the 25 they recommend.

Not bad going for me at all.

In the late 1990s, the official recommended BMI was actually 27 (they later lowered it).

So my score of 27 would have made me ‘healthy’ in 98, but apparently DOOMED to an early death in 2019, when I had this screening.

Personally, I’m not sure that measuring HEIGHT and WEIGHT and coming up a score is the most sophisticated way of truly measuring your health.

It’s highly simplistic, and doesn’t take into account all kinds of athletic physiques, or unconventionally shaped bodies.

I recall that in 2013 there was a meta-analysis of 3 million people, which showed that those with overweight BMIs were 6% LESS likely to die in a given year than those with normal BMIs.

In other words, the BMI evaluation wasn’t a meaningful indicator of how healthy someone’s weight was in reality.

The man at the test screening also said I had high cholesterol.

But I didn’t, really…

I had a HDL ratio of 3.4, and a total cholesterol of 5.4, so it was slightly raised but within the boundaries of reasonable health.

What he meant was – keep an eye on your cholesterol.

It wasn’t such a problem for me, because I know a lot about health, and take such tests with a pinch of salt.

But I can imagine a lot of people might go into a panic after such results.

This is why some experts have concerns about random medical screening services, particularly some of the new finger prick tests that are advertised these days.

The downside of medical screening

Firstly, there are all kinds of reasons why certain risk factors might be a little high or low.

Some symptoms like high blood pressure or raised cholesterol are family traits… others might be related to recent injuries, inflammation, stress and prescription medicines.

However, lots of anxious people have a hard time after screening… jumping to conclusions, seeing the results as death sentences… over-worrying, panicking, googling madly to come to even more horrific conclusions.

This doesn’t always lead to a healthier outcome.

In fact, it could make matters worse for some.

Dr Margaret McCartney is a GP, writer and broadcaster who is worried about the many firms selling finger prick tests and screenings to the public.

She thinks that they are “creating a market out of health anxiety and trying to turn healthy people into patients.”

“If you test for enough things,” she says, “you’ll inevitably spot something slightly wrong…. Patients could end up undergoing needless invasive procedures to look for something that, in the end, doesn’t turn out to be a problem and they never have need known existed.”

I read a recent article where one 25-year-old reporter underwent a blood test at the central London Randox clinic. He was shown that all six markers for heart diseases were in the red.

This totally shocked him…

But when he talked to another medical professional about his results, she said that while his LDL cholesterol was a little higher than average, a lot of the markers weren’t necessarily signs of heart problems.

There were other factors too…

He had suffered a cold the week before, and this could have influenced the results.

What’s more, his dad then told him that raised cholesterol ran in the family – and yet there were no known cases of heart disease in their family, either.

So this is an example of how the picture is often more complex than the simplistic number systems and markers will allow for.

After worrying test results, many people instantly go on a ‘health kick’ to try and correct the problem.

But that can also have its downsides..,

When health kicks go bad…

As I’ve shown you in previous Good Life Letters, it’s often the case that diets fail and end up making us fatter…

I’ve also written about how fitness trackers and counting calories can make us anxious and stressed.

In fact, there was a recent survey which showed that 50% of people who start a big health kick can feel worse because of it.

The authors concluded that a “brisk walk, a nice meal with a glass of wine, or lots of sunshine” were better for your health than going into an extreme diet and exercise regime.

Saying that, the company behind the research was a hotel chain, so they WOULD say that!

However, I wouldn’t disagree with it in principle.

The problem is that too many people make their lives more difficult on a health kick.

Frightened by screening results, they make extreme changes instantly, and restrict themselves from foods and drinks… push themselves into rigorous exercises…. and agonise over counting calories….

It’s not enjoyable and usually not sustainable either.

So no wonder they often feel worse when their health kick grinds to a halt, or goes into reverse.

Instead of suffering, agonising, and missing out on things, the secret is to choose a long term set of changes to your life with actually improve your lifestyle and make you happier.

That’s the only way you’re going to reach a major health target.

And be prepared that it’s likely to take a few years rather than a few months to get a significant, lasting result.