Is the NHS health check worth having?

You may be apprehensive about getting a health check! But whatever your reason, making sure everything is ticking along nicely -or making small corrections to your diet and lifestyle- can help prevent a number of health conditions in the long run. 

Think of positive lifestyle changes like savings with compounding interest! Making small changes now can help you reap huge health benefits in let’s say 10- or 20-years’ time.

If you’re 40 or over, you may have already got your invite for a free NHS health check! (For our non-UK readers, NHS stands for the National Health Service). So, what’s the NHS health check and why would you go to one?

What’s the NHS health check?

If you’re between the age of 40 and 74 years, you live in England and don’t have a pre-existing health condition, you’ll be offered a free health check through the NHS. It aims to pick up early signs or measure the odds of developing certain conditions like:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease
  • Stroke
  • Dementia

The assessment is a great opportunity to discuss how to lower your risk of developing these illnesses. And the earlier you pick up that risk, the easier it will be to act on it!  You’ll be invited to repeat the check-up every 5 years. 

What happens during an NHS health check?

The NHS Health check is done by a healthcare professional, usually a nurse or a healthcare assistant. But it can be a doctor or a pharmacist. They’ll ask you a number of questions about your lifestyle and family history. They’ll measure your height and weight and check your blood pressure. They’ll also take a blood test. Your blood test results will be useful in working out your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, stroke or kidney disease.

The assessment tends to last between 20 to 30 minutes, during which the health professional will talk to you about your individual cardiovascular risk (risk of getting diseases of the heart and blood vessels). They’ll also give you personalised advice on how to lower your risk. 

Depending on your personal situation, they may talk to you about:

  • How to help you stop smoking and cut down on drinking
  • How to improve your diet, increase your physical activity or lose weight
  • Prescribing you medicines to help lower your blood pressure or cholesterol (if your figures aren’t where they should be)

Your cardiovascular risk and what it means

After your test, you’ll be given a risk score. In simple terms, risk is the chance of something happening. Based on the information from your health check, a tool called QRISK is used to calculate your risk of how likely you are to get a heart or circulation problem (like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes or kidney problems) over the next 10 years. 

Your risk will be described as low, moderate or high, depending on your score. Here’s what your risk score means:

  • Less than 10% – You have less than one in 10 chance of developing a heart or circulation problem over the next 10 years. Your risk is low
  • Between 10 and 20% – You have between a one to two in 10 chance of developing a heart or circulation problem over the next 10 years. Your risk is moderate
  • More than 20% – You have more than a two in 10 chance of developing a heart or circulation problem over the next 10 years. Your risk is high

What can I do to lower my cardiovascular risk?

The good news is: You can lower your risk! While you can’t do much to lower certain risk factors, like your age, ethnic background or family history, there are plenty of things you can do about other factors like smoking, your weight, cholesterol level and blood pressure.

Making lifestyle changes now to improve, let’s say, your blood pressure or your cholesterol levels will have a compounding effect in terms of the health benefits you’ll get in the future.

During your check, you’ll have the chance to discuss how to improve your personal score and reduce your risk. But here are a few ways which can generally help reduce cardiovascular risk:

  • Quit smoking if you smoke
  • Eat a healthy and balanced diet, with plenty of fruits and veg
  • Get active 
  • Keep a healthy weight
  • Limit alcohol

Why is going to your health check important?

The main purpose of the NHS health check is to help pick up the early signs of a number of preventable diseases. The simple fact is: Feeling fit and healthy now, doesn’t mean you’re not at risk of getting ill in the future! 

You may have heard this a thousand times, but yes prevention is definitely better than cure! A number of warning signs to cardiovascular disease, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol often have no symptoms at all. So, whilst you may be feeling well, without checking for these, you wouldn’t know you’re at risk. Having your health check can help you find out about any potential problems, so you can treat them early. 

Does the NHS health check work?

An NHS health check review by Public Health England (PHE) found that the health check was linked with reduced blood pressure, total cholesterol, smoking rates, BMI and a lower cardiovascular risk. 

The health check also increased detection of new health problems, like pre-diabetes, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and kidney problems. And this helps to deal with them early on.

It’s expected that every single year, the NHS health check will help:

  • Save 650 lives
  • Prevent 1,600 heart attacks and strokes
  • Prevent 4,000 people from developing diabetes
  • Detect at least 20,000 cases of diabetes or kidney disease earlier

Does the NHS health check have other benefits?

The NHS health test mainly aims to lower your risk of cardiovascular illnesses, like heart disease and stroke. But, the risk factors for these are often similar to other preventable conditions, like certain cancers and respiratory illnesses. 

So, having the NHS health test may also reduce your risk of developing other health conditions.

Can the NHS health check be improved?

The NHS check currently uses an algorithm called the QRISK2 to calculate your individual risk. However, there’s a more advanced version of the tool developed by doctors and academics called QRISK3 – which many providers haven’t caught up with yet. The QRISK3 takes into consideration more risk factors (like having a mental illness or erectile dysfunction) to identify people who are more at risk of heart disease and stroke. 

The test could potentially be improved further by including other more comprehensive checks, like cancer screening, measuring stress, and assessing sleep quality and heart rate variability. This would probably mean using data collected from wearables like smart watches and other devices. But more research is needed to make sense of this data and use it for risk prediction. 

Other things that could be done now to improve the NHS health check include providing a written report to the patient.

One more thing!

Investing time in looking after your health would be time well spent. And that’s a good reason to go for your test, when you’re invited next! Or why not call your GP now schedule an appointment if you’re due for the test! This way it will get done.

If you want to find out more about the NHS health test, visit the NHS website.

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