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NHS HIGHLAND: Middle-aged men shouldn’t be afraid to seek help

By Dr Tim Allison

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Getting treated early can make a huge difference to the chance of getting cured and having less disability.
Getting treated early can make a huge difference to the chance of getting cured and having less disability.

There are many groups of people who are more reluctant than others to seek help with their health and one of these is middle-aged men.

Many medicines and treatments are designed to help this group of the population, but men are still reluctant to come forward and seek help. This may be because of embarrassment or perhaps a culture of not bothering people with problems, but for whatever reason men are less likely to be seeking out medical assistance.

This can be a big issue especially where early diagnosis is important. Getting treated early can make a huge difference to the chance of getting cured and having less disability.

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Perhaps screening programmes could help. After all women have screening programmes for breast and cervical cancer, so wouldn’t it be fair to have screening for men?

Healthcare doesn’t work like that though and we need to weigh up the pros and cons of screening programmes to see which offer enough benefits compared with their disadvantages. There is a screening programme to detect enlarged abdominal aortic aneurysms which is only for men. The risk of getting serious disease in this main artery of the body is much higher in men and there is a simple straightforward way to screen using an ultrasound scan.

However, screening for prostate cancer is not such a simple issue. It is possible to have a PSA test which can give an indication of the risk of getting cancer, but other tests are needed to get a diagnosis and the overall benefit of prostate cancer screening has yet to be shown to be enough to justify a national programme. This may change with the development of better ways to help make a diagnosis which are accurate and not invasive, but for the moment there are no letters coming through the door inviting men for a prostate screening appointment.

Screening will only help us for a small number of conditions, so we do need to look at other ways to stay healthy and to get early treatment.

In my last column I mentioned the symptoms of skin cancer and how identifying skin cancer early can lead to quick and effective treatment. For many other cancers and different conditions there are symptoms that give an early indication of disease and prompt us to seek professional help and assessment. For prostate cancer the symptoms include men needing to pass urine more frequently or needing to rush to the toilet, trouble passing urine or blood in urine.

If we do have these or other symptoms of concern it is important to seek help, but for those who aren’t keen to get help themselves it may take some prompting. Sometimes it is the wives or partners of middle aged men who are the best at getting them to do the right thing.

Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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