Do you regularly wake up in the night gagging for a glass of water? Do you experience unexplained tingling sensations in your arms and legs? Are you heaving yourself from your bed multiple times each night for the toilet? If so, you’re not alone: these are all common ‘midlife’ health ailments experienced by people in their forties, fifties, and beyond, doctors say.
Type your symptoms into Google, and you’ll probably be told that you have only minutes to live – or perhaps that you should already be dead. Indeed, in a world of turbocharged health warnings, where everything from burnt toast to ‘posh crisps’ is said to give us cancer, it can be tempting to throw off the doctor's advice entirely.
But experts warn that some of these common midlife ailments – whilst often harmless – can be a red flag for a more serious underlying health problem.
‘Midlife medicine’ expert Dr Daniel Fenton, a GP and Clinical Director at London Doctor’s Clinic, says doctors need to find the right balance between informing patients about potential risks, and scaring them unnecessarily.
“Telling people about things to look out for is not telling them that everything is cancer, because actually most things are not cancer when you’re in their 40s and 50s,” he says. “It’s simply about informing people so they can be vigilant.”
He says it is particularly important that we look out for changes to the norm: “If you’ve had blood in your stool since your mid-twenties, having some in your forties is not going to be surprising. But if you’ve noticed a significant change then it becomes notable. The same applies to fatigue and weight loss.”
So what are the everyday health ailments that could in fact be a ‘red flag’ for something more serious?
Needing the toilet in the night
Waking up to use the toilet multiple times each night is so common doctors have given it its own official title: nocturia. Up to fourteen percent of Brits are said need the toilet at least twice each night, according to research, and a report last week found that too many trips to the lavatory is costing the UK economy some £4.5bn each year.
In men, it might also be a sign of an enlarged prostate, Dr Fenton says, which could be a warning for prostate cancer. Other symptoms of an enlarged prostate include dribbling while you urinate, difficulty starting urination, and a “reduction in the power of the stream”, he says.
An enlarged prostate is not necessarily anything to worry about many men will find their’s growing naturally as they age, he says. “But they can be early warning signs of prostate cancer, so they shouldn’t be ignored and they should be discussed with a GP at the nearest opportunity,” he adds.
Tingling, weakness, or numbness
Do you experience unexplained tingling in your limbs? You may be having a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or “mini stroke”, says Dr Fenton, and you should see a GP, especially if it comes accompanied with slurred speech or dripping of the face. “They tend to last for a short period and then resolve,” he explains, “but they are a warning sign that you could potentially develop a full-blown stroke.”
You’re likely to become more sweaty as your approach middle-age, and that shouldn’t be a major worry, says Dr Fenton. For middle-aged women, sweating is also a common sign of menopause. But if you’re experiencing “drenching night sweats” which force you to remove your pajamas or change your bedsheets, he says, this could be a sign of underlying cancers, particularly blood cancers like lymphoma and myeloma.
A feeling of overwhelming tiredness is probably not a sign of anything serious, but it’s worth checking with your GP, Dr Fenton says. It is very commonly a sign of Vitamin D deficiency, particularly during the winter months: “We’re practically all deficient in Vitamin D because we don’t get a huge amount of sunshine.
“The only real way to get a good Vitamin D source is from sunlight, and because we have such dreary winters and short summers, it’s unsurprising that most people are either insufficient or deficient in Vitamin D.”
It could also be a sign of an under-active or an over-active thyroid, or iron deficiency. In a small number of cases, it could be a sign of blood cancer.
Blood in your stool
The NHS has ratcheted up its campaigns on this topic in recent years, and most people now know they should see a GP if they notice blood in their stool. “Significant blood loss in stool”, including blood “mixed in the poo”, may just be a sign of piles, haemorrhoids, or an anal fissure, he says. But it could also be red flag for prostate cancer or bowel cancer.
Unexplained weight loss
You should definitely see your GP if you experience sudden, unexplained weight loss, Dr Fenton says. It can be a sign of Type One or Two Diabetes, or various cancers, including bowel cancer.
Do you find yourself gagging for a sip of water as soon as your head hits the pillow at night? An overwhelming feeling of thirst could be a sign of Type One or Two Diabetes, he says, and is worth checking with your GP.