Thursday, 16 August 2012

Your Health Dr James Le Fanu: 17 August

Assessing lifestyle choices for sugar and smoking enthusiasts, and recognising symptoms that may be allergic reactions

Written by Dr James Le Fanu
Those somewhat concerned that their lifestyle might be compromising their survival prospects may be reassured by the experience of the magnificently eccentric Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart Townend, founder of the world's largest private school, Hill House, who lived 'unhealthily' for decades until the Grim Reaper summoned him at the age of 93.

'He rose at 4am to take the first of 10 cups of tea with eight lumps of sugar in each', his obituarist wrote. 'He also drank 12 cups of Ovaltine and smoked 30 cigars a day.'

The sugar did for his teeth ('Knock out the whole shooting match,' he told his dentist), but his prodigious cigar consumption, as with a galaxy of other cigar and pipe-smoking centenarians, is a reminder of how puffing seems to be less dangerous than inhaling.

'When I was a young man, people said smoking my pipe (which is in my mouth at all times except when eating or sleeping) would shorten my life,' the philosopher Bertrand Russell once remarked. 'I am 94 now, so it has not shortened my life by much.'

The same can be said of Manny Shinwell (pipe: 101); Arthur Rubinstein (cigars: 94); PG Wodehouse (pipe: 93); Harold Macmillan (pipe: 92). Not to mention Winston Churchill, Somerset Maugham, JB Priestley and

Herbert Hoover, all smokers who made it to the other side of 90. 

Complementing this list, a reader from Exeter has provided another, of the recently deceased of the Indian Army Association. This offers vivid testimony to the resilience of the human constitution. 'We were all daily subjected to dirt, insects and dubious water supplies,' he writes.

'Malaria, dysentery, typhoid, cholera and hepatitis were always around, fever and stomach upsets common,' and yet the average age of death of these veterans 'who have now gone to join the great majority, was well into their 80s.

It would, of course, be quite wrong to infer from this that cigar smoking is completely harmless, or that a dose of malaria or dysentery never did anyone any damage. But they do provide the all-important context in which the hazards of life can be properly appreciated.

This week's medical problem comes from a reader from Lancashire who describes herself as 'still very active', playing golf and bowls, gardening and attending a Pilates class once a week. Two years ago she developed the symptoms of acid reflux for which she takes the acid-suppressant drug lansoprazole. However, she still suffers severe episodes of heartburn at two-weekly intervals, usually accompanied by sneezing fits, a runny nose and a general feeling of lethargy.

This is indeed very puzzling, but the association of the symptoms of heartburn, along with sneezing and a runny nose, are certainly suggestive of an allergy – perhaps due to aspirin or other anti-inflammatory drugs. It would seem sensible to discuss with the doctor the possibility of taking a course of anti-allergy drugs such as Telfast, in the hope that these might prevent such episodes.

The symptoms of acute indigestion – nausea, diarrhoea and abdominal pain – are usually due to a 'tummy bug' or food poisoning. But some people who have recurrent episodes may well have a sensitivity to one or other foods – as in these examples: 'Many years ago my husband discovered that onions were having quite an awful effect on his digestive system,' writes a lady from Middlesex.

'For a long time now we have left onions out of his diet with good effect. Looking back to his childhood he realises that onion-based soups and stews were what sometimes caused him to feel very ill.'

Next, melon: 'About 20 years ago, I became very ill on three occasions within about two hours of having eaten melon,' reports a London reader. Strangely enough, I remember my mother saying to me, 'It's odd, but I can't eat melon,' but at that time I did not think to ask her why.'

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