Sheila Hancock health: Death is ‘uncomfortably near’ – star on ageing and health battles

Sheila Hancock says 'we need a revolution'

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Having originated various roles on the stage, including Miss Hannigan in Annie and Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd, the star’s first big television role was in the BBC’s The Rag Trade. “People are always stopping me in the street,” Hancock said in a recent interview. “‘You’re a legend!’ they tell me. ‘It’s wonderful, the way you keep going!’ I thought: maybe I can write something helpful about how life can be quite lovely even at my age [she is now 89].” However, the star goes on to say that life suddenly took a turn for the worst. In recent years her daughter has battled cancer, she has personally been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and Brexit and Covid have shaken the nation as a whole.

“I thought, ‘No, I can’t write something lovely. I’m too angry for that,’” Hancock continued to say when promoting her new memoir Old Rage.

Having survived breast cancer herself back in 1988, Hancock has become surprisingly used to the aches and pains that have come with her old age, explaining that growing old is “a fair deal”.

“It’s always been awful,” she says when making comments on her body and the long list of ailments she has had over the years.

“I’m always reading adverts where something is ‘rejuvenating’ or ‘age-defying’ or whatever, and I think, ‘Well, I don’t know why they’re so vile about old age.’ Youth is horrible.

“You get acne. With middle age there’s menopause and then you’ve got an awful lot of cancers at middle age. What’s so especially dreadful about old age?

“Yes, you get aches and pains and things like arthritis, but on the whole it’s a fair deal, really. I have never felt well.”

In addition to physical health, after being diagnosed with cancer Hancock suffered from “clinical depression”, admitting that at the time she “didn’t want to live very much”.

Without mincing her words she adds: “I am awfully tired of reading about pop stars and people getting over their depression. I really am sick to death of that. I think everybody — everybody — goes through periods where they feel incredibly low.”

Accepting and almost enjoying getting older, Hancock admitted that the Covid lockdown drove her slightly mad, and she became hyper-aware of her aching body. Going on to add that she made the morbid realisation that she feels death is “uncomfortably near”.

However, all is not doom and gloom for the national treasure, as she claims she still enjoys keeping fit, despite her ailments causing her slight trouble. In fact, surprisingly in the past she has admitted to being “addicted” to weight lifting.

“I am fit, but I work at it. It doesn’t come easily. It’s not natural,” she shared in 2022. “I’m still recovering from a broken wrist, and I have a fracture in my back, too. But thanks to the physio at Charing Cross Hospital, I can still do weights, and I can still drive. Don’t let them tell you you’re old. ‘You’ve had a fall,’ people say, as if that’s it.

“Before, I could barely lift just the pole. There’s lots of medical evidence to support the fact that it’s incredibly good for bones and strength and all sorts of age-related problems.

“I feel so strong now. I was beginning to notice I couldn’t put my hand luggage above my seat on a plane, and that sort of thing. It was all muscle wastage to do with getting older.

“Lifting weights has restored muscle that had gone.

“My bicep is back now. My lower arms are strong. Some people do weights to look toned, but I just want to stay strong as I get older. You don’t have to get weak as you get older. I’ve proved that.”

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain that there are multiple benefits of physical activity, especially for those who are in older age. These include:

  • Helps maintain the ability to live independently and reduces the risk of falling and fracturing bones.
  • Reduces the risk of dying from coronary heart disease and of developing high blood pressure, colon cancer, and diabetes.
  • Can help reduce blood pressure in some people with hypertension.
  • Helps people with chronic, disabling conditions improve their stamina and muscle strength.
  • Reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression and fosters improvements in mood and feelings of well-being.
  • Helps maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints.
  • Helps control joint swelling and pain associated with arthritis.

In fact, exercise and keeping fit can help to lower the risk of early death by up to 30 percent. This is even more important as research suggests that many adults spend more than seven hours a day sitting down, at work, on transport or in their leisure time. Specifically, people aged over 65 spend 10 hours or more each day sitting or lying down, making them the most sedentary age group.

However, strength-training, like weight lifting, when done regularly can help to build muscle strength, mass and preserve bone density and independence for the elderly.

Research published by Rebecca Seguin BS et al, concluded: “It is clear that a variety of strength-training prescriptions from highly controlled laboratory-based to minimally supervised home-based programmes have the ability to elicit meaningful health benefits in older adults.”

For those who cannot do intense activity such as weightlifting or other associated weight exercises, the NHS recommends walking for health or cycling instead of using the car to get around instead. The more you do, the better, and taking part in activities such as sports and exercise will make you even healthier.

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