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Age related illnesses

My Last Song's own doctor, Chris Browne, gives a brief description of some of the illnesses that can affect people as they get older.

Laughter helps to keep illness at bay

Dr Browne has almost 40 years' experience as a GP, practicing first as a rural GP and then in central London. He injects humour into his work for My Last Song, as he believes that if people smile and laugh they are likely to be healthier for longer.

Ask Dr Browne: email questions about your health to health@mylastsong.com and we will forward them to Dr Browne who will attempt to answer your questions.

Alzheimer's Disease

This is a form of dementia affecting the over 60s. There are more than 500,000 people affected in the UK.

The nerve cells in the brain are slowly destroyed resulting in memory loss and difficulty in completing simple tasks.

It progresses with time and is more likely to affect those with heart disease and poor circulation as well as those with a family history of Alzheimer's.

It is less likely in those who keep their brains active and stimulated and in those with a high Omega 3 diet (fish). So, do lots of brainteasers, crosswords and Sudoku, and eat plenty of fish.

Prescription drugs can slow down the progress of the disease.

For more information visit the Alzheimer's Society website.  BUPA has also produced an excellent publication, Caring for someone with dementia full of useful and sensitive information.


An aneurysm is a weakened bulge in an artery. It occurs more in the over 65s, and in men more than women.

It often occurs on the aorta, the main artery carrying blood to the lower half of the body. If it bursts it can be fatal.  Scanning can diagnose it.

Risk factors are smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes and lack of exercise. So, do not smoke, check your blood pressure, take the necessary medication and take exercise.

More information is available by visiting the British Heart Foundation's website.


Over million people in the UK suffer from angina, a form of coronary heart disease.  It is more common in older people, and affects more women than men.

Angina presents as chest pain or tightness in the chest, most likely to occur when exercising, after a meal or when stressed.  The pain can spread to the neck and arms.

An attack of angina doesn't normally last for more than a few minutes. Resting will speed recovery.

Don't ignore agina. Although it is often confused with indigestion, it can be a tell-tale sign of potentially dangerous heart conditions that can lead to a heart attack.

Angina can be treated with drugs and also by various levels of surgery.

Again the British Heart Foundation will give further information.


This is where the joint between the big toe and the foot sticks out causing the big toe to bend towards the other toes.

Bunions can be hereditary or caused by unsuitable, badly fitting footwear, especially high heels. So it's a good idea to wear sensible shoes as a form of prevention...always better than cure.

If it gets too painful then surgery may be required.

The British Orthopaedic Foot and Ankle Society's website is a step in the right direction.


Cancer is a group of cells in the body growing in an uncontrolled way.

One in three of us will at some stage get some form of cancer.

Because of the nature and history of cancer, the fear and dread surrounding the illness is still widespread. However, many cancers are completely curable and most can be treated.

Risk factors are smoking (one in four cancers), unhealthy diet and too much alcohol.

Some cancers are passed down in families. So, eat healthily, stop smoking and choose your parents carefully.

More information is available on Cancer Research UK's website.

Bowel Cancer
Third most common cancer in the UK - 35,000 a year, mostly in the over 60s.

Major symptoms are blood in the stool, unexplained weight loss and a change in bowel habit for more than four weeks (soft to hard or hard to soft).

Causes may be hereditary, or through lack of fibre and lack of exercise.

Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Keep active.

More information visit Bowel Cancer UK's website.

Breast Cancer
The most common cancer in women - 44,000 a year in the UK, that's one in nine women.  It can occur in men, though not very often.

Risk factors are being overweight, smoking, drinking too much alcohol, first pregnancy after 30, and not having children. It can run in families.

Treatment now much better so keep checking and having those mammograms.

Breast Cancer Care's website gives further information.

Lung Cancer
The most common cancer in the world.

Most lung cancers are due to smoking and show as coughing, weight loss, breathlessness and coughing up blood.

Treatment is still largely unsuccessful. Stop smoking, and go to your doctor immediately you show any symptoms.

Find out more on the British Lung Foundation's website.

Prostate Cancer
Commonest cancer in men with 35,000 cases a year in the UK. Mainly affects the over 50s.

Symptoms are the same for non cancerous prostate enlargement - poor flow, getting up more than three times at night to pee, occasionally blood in the pee.

Can get a PSA test but not always reliable.

Prostate UK's website has further information.

Skin Cancer
Two main types, those, more rare, that contain pigment (moles) - and those that don't, more common.

In melanoma (mole) cancer look for rapid change such as new moles or moles that are growing fast, irregular edges, bleeding, and very dark moles.

Other skin cancers present as lumps on the skin surface and are easily cured.

Again, Cancer Research UK's website has more information.


One in four women and one in ten men will suffer from depression at some stage in their lives. This statistic probably under-represents the number of men who suffer from depression...they are less likely to want to admit to having the illness.

Depression is characterised by low mood, loss of interest in everything, poor sleep, lack of energy, feelings of worthlessness and thoughts of suicide.

There are many treatments apart from drugs - counselling, exercise and alternative and natural therapies.

MIND is the charity that supports and advises those with depression and other mental illnesses.


Diabetes is the lack of insulin that controls the level of sugar in the blood.

Type1 affects children and young adults and requires insulin therapy.

Type 2 is much more common and starts slowly, affects older people and is generally controlled with diet and/or pills.

Two million in the UK are known have it and it is likely that 750,000 have diabetes without knowing it. The most obvious symptoms are tiredness, excessive thirst and frequent urination, so if you seem to have a permanent hangover, see your doctor.

Causes are heredity and lifestyle, especially obesity.

Visit Diabetes UK's website for further information.

Erectile Dysfunction

Sixty per cent of men over 60 may experience the loss of the ability to achieve or maintain an erection. This is commonly called impotence.

Erections depend on good blood flow, which is reduced with smoking, diabetes, lack of exercise, obesity, high blood pressure and some drugs.

In most cases drugs therapy is excellent which is why so many blue and yellow pills are now sold.

Also important is counselling and understanding some of the issues that cause a reduction in the sex drive in older people.

Sexual Dysfunction Association's website has some hard information.

Hearing Loss

Half of all over 60s are deaf or hard of hearing - that's about nine million in the UK.

Hearing loss can be due to loss of conduction of sound - wax, ear infection and ear damage causing a hole in the ear drum, or due to nerve malfunction - age, noise damage and some drugs.

If people complain that they have to shout at you, or you have the sound up too high on the TV, get an ear check - it may only be wax.

Treatment with hearing aids or surgery is getting more sophisticated and effective.

Royal National Institute for the Deaf's website has some sound information as does Deafness Research UK.

Heart and Circulatory Disease

More people die from heart disease in the UK than any other cause. About 7.5 per cent of men and 4.5 per cent of women are affected and the numbers increase with age.

The underlying cause is furring up of the major arteries (blood tubes) in the heart and elsewhere with fat and cholesterol.

Angina. (See above) This is due to narrowing of the blood vessels that supply oxygen to heart muscle. It causes central 'heavy' chest pain that comes on with exertion.

Ankle swelling. When the heart muscle pumps blood less effectively, the body compensates by keeping more fluid in the circulation and this results in swollen ankles.

Breathlessness. Another symptom of reduced heart function is breathlessness from exertion, caused by an increase of blood in the lungs that makes them stiffer, so breathing is harder.

Mini stroke. If the circulation in the brain is furred up, brain function can be impaired. Sometimes this shows as a short lived episode of weakness down one side or difficulty with speech. Loss of recent memory is another symptom.

Raised blood pressure. Normally caused by the heart pumping harder to force blood through furred up blood vessels. Symptoms include headaches and breathlessness on exertion.

Prevention is better than anything. Having a healthy diet, exercising and a happy life are all well researched measures.

Many drugs are also available to manage heart and circulatory disease and there are lots of surgical interventions to reduce the dangers.

More information is available from the British Heart Foundation.

Impaired vision

Vision: the process of seeing and beholding beauty. And quite often, the older you get, the more the vision becomes impaired. Maybe that is why the older we get, the less interested we are in beholding beauty. Or maybe not...

The eye is a complex mechanism - for most of our evolution, it has only had to work for 30 or 40 years, so it is understandable that it gets a bit worn when we reach older age.

For most of us, wearing the right spectacles or contact lenses enable us to see properly and counter the effects of wear. However, many of us are not using the right glasses or lenses, because we don't have our eyes checked regularly enough.

But with age also come more serious illnesses that affect our eyes.

A cataract is a painless clouding of the lens of the eye. It is a very slow process but is present in a third of people over the age of 65. Causes include diabetes, former injury, smoking, excess sunlight.

Cataracts can lead to blindness but an operation to remove them is usually successful.

With glaucoma the pressure in the eye builds up and can damage the eye nerve, leading to blindness.

Symptoms are slow to be detected as central vision is preserved until late. Risk factors are family history, diabetes and being over 40. Get pressures checked at the local opticians.

Treatment by eye drops is effective.

Visit the Royal National Institute Of The Blind's website for further information.

Macular Degeneration
This causes loss of central vision - that's the focused reading bit. Symptoms include a black patch at the centre of vision, blurring or distortion. Causes are smoking, too much sunlight, high blood pressure but are mainly unknown.

There is no cure but effective new drugs are now available.

The Macular Disease Society's website has more information.


Bladder incontinence is far more common in elderly people than bowel incontinence which is usually caused by more serious illnesses.

Stress and urge incontinence are less serious and more easy to treat than overflow incontinence.

Causes in women include wear and tear on the pelvic floor muscles and dryness caused by the menopause and associated hormonal changes. In men it can be due to prostate problems.

Strokes and other damage to the nervous system can affect the signals to and from the brain to the bladder and bowel, and this too causes incontinence.

Treatment includes bladder re-training and pelvic floor muscle exercises.

More information is available from the Bladder and Bowel Foundation.


Two million people see their GP for this every year in the UK.

There are different forms of arthritis but osteoarthritis, or 'wear and tear' arthritis is the most common. Joints become stiff and painful and get misshapen and knobbly.

Risk factors include being overweight, being inactive, previous joint injury especially high level sports injury.

Women are more affected than men.

Prevention means losing weight and being active. Swimming is especially beneficial. Treatment consists of pain killers, physical therapy and replacement surgery.

See Arthritis Care's website for further information.


One in two women and one in five men over the age of 50 will break a bone, mainly because of osteoporosis, the increasing brittleness of bones.

Although fractures can occur in different parts of the body, the wrist, hip and spine are most commonly affected, normally because these take the impact when a person falls.

Having osteoporosis does not automatically mean that your bones will break, nor does it generally slow or stop the healing process, but there is a greater risk of fracture.

Osteoporosis can be delayed by building up a bone 'bank' through weight bearing exercise and diet during the early adult years.

Even so, at any age a good diet rich in calcium and minerals, is recommended, as is taking exercise...being fit and active will reduce fragility and the chances of falls.

Drugs to strengthen bones are available for those at highest risk of fracture.

More information is available at the National Osteoporosis Society.


Strokes are more common in people over 55, and the risk continues to rise with age as arteries harden and become 'furred' by a build-up of cholesterol and other debris.

You are more likely to suffer from a stroke if it runs in the family. Those from Asian, African and African-Caribbean communities are at greater risk of a stroke.

The most common type of stroke is a blockage caused by a clot blocking an artery that carries blood to the brain.

Also common is haemorrhagic stroke when a blood vessel bursts, causing bleeding into the brain.

Symptoms of a stroke are very sudden. They include numbness, weakness or paralysis on one side of the body; slurred speech; blurred vision or loss of sight; confusion; unsteadiness; and a severe headache.

Medical conditions that contribute to the risk of strokes are high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and heart disease/circulatory problems.

Lifestyle choices are also contributory so stop smoking, cutback on fatty foods, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, have your blood pressure checked regularly, exercise regularly and avoid heavy drinking.

Visit the Stroke Association for more information.

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