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5 Health Tests to Ask the Doctor About

These lesser-known exams may be vitally important to your health


(This article appeared previously on Grandparents.com)

Regular health screenings, such as a colonoscopy or blood pressure reading, are key to detecting problems early — before they lead to something serious. Yet, Americans are surprisingly lax about getting recommended tests. Less than 25 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 and less than half of those over age 65 are up to date on screenings. “But preventive services, including screenings, can save lives and promote well-being,” says Lisa McGuire, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

Aside from the better known, recommended tests (listed at the bottom of this piece), here are five less-common tests you should talk to your doctor about to see if you should be screened.

1. C-Reactive Protein (CRP): People over 40 with certain risk factors (slightly elevated cholesterol, a large waistline, a family history of heart disease or being overweight) should get the blood test, which detects the presence of C-reactive proteins — indicators of inflammation in the body. According to the American Heart Association, high levels of C-reactive proteins double the likelihood of suffering cardiac arrest, compared to low levels. A test result greater than 3.0 milligrams per liter (mg/L) suggests a higher risk for heart disease and heart attack.

2. Depression: A depression screening may be in order if you are feeling unusually sad or hopeless for more than two weeks and have lost interest in activities that once gave you pleasure. Your doctor can do a simple screening — essentially, having you respond to a series of questions—and refer you for treatment, if needed.

3. Hepatitis C Test: Everyone born between 1945 and 1965 should have a one-time blood test to detect this disease, which disproportionately affects the boomer generation. According to research, boomers are six times more likely to have Hepatitis C. Experts suggest this may be due to be risky behaviors like recreational drug use, which were prevalent in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as the fact that disposable needles were not available at that time for medical procedures and transfusions. As many as 75 percent of cases go undiagnosed, yet Hepatitis C can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis and cancer. Luckily, there are now good treatments that are more effective and have fewer side effects than those of the past.

4. Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone (TSH): Women over 60 are prone to underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism). Although many doctors regularly test patients’ levels of the hormone to measure the functioning of the thyroid gland, you should ask, particularly if you are having symptoms, such as experiencing fatigue, increased sensitivity to cold, constipation, dry skin and unexplained weight gain. People with overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) experience rapid heart rate, nervousness, tremor and sweating. A result between 0.4 to 4.0 milli-international units per liter (mIU/L) is considered normal.

High levels of C-reactive proteins double the likelihood of suffering cardiac arrest, compared to low levels.

5. Vitamin D: A surprising number of Americans — 75 percent of teens and adults — are deficient in the “sunshine vitamin,” which not only helps keep bones and muscles strong but may help lower your risk for cancer and heart disease and bolster your immune system. Ask your doctor for a 25-hydroxy vitamin D blood test to determine how much vitamin D is in your body. Many experts recommend a level between 20 and 40 nanograms per milliliter (ng/ml). Others recommend a level between 30 and 50 ng/ml.

Other Recommended Tests

Blood Pressure: Get a blood pressure screening at least once every two years to detect hypertension, which could be a warning sign of coronary disease and other problems. A normal blood pressure reading is a systolic blood pressure of less than 120 and a diastolic blood pressure of less than 80.

Cholesterol: Men 35 and up and women 45 and up with heart disease risk factors should have their cholesterol levels tested every five years. Doctors take a blood sample to assess levels of your total cholesterol and its components. Desirable levels of each:

  • Total cholesterol of less than 200 mg/dl.
  • HDL (the “good” high-density lipoprotein) greater than or equal to 60 mg/dl.
  • Triglycerides less than 150 mg/dl

Colonoscopy: To catch colon or rectal cancer early, you need a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or a colonoscopy every 10 years from ages 50 to 75. Ask your doctor which test is right for you.

Mammogram (Women): Although there’s some debate about when to start mammograms, women over 50 should have them regularly. The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 45 to 54 get mammograms every year. Women 55 and older can switch to mammograms every two years, or can continue yearly screening. Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and expected to live 10 or more years.

Pap Test (Women): You should get a Pap smear every three years to test for cervical cancer. If you get a Pap smear coupled with an HPV test, which detects the strains of the virus strongly linked to cervical cancer, however, you can delay screening to every five years. After 65, you no longer need the test if results in the 10 years prior were normal, according to the American Cancer Society.

Bone Density Scan (Women): Women should get a bone density test using dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA), an advanced x-ray technology, at age 65 to look for signs of the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis. The test results in a “T” score, which indicates the amount of bone you have compared to a young woman with peak bone mass, and is used to estimate your risk of a fracture. A score above -1 is considered normal; a score between -1 and -2.5 is classified as osteopenia (low bone mass), and a score below -2.5 is considered osteoporosis.

Prostate Exam (Men): Starting at age 50, men should talk to their health care provider about the pros and cons of having their blood tested for levels of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, which may indicate the presence of prostate cancer.

By Beth Howard
A former magazine editor, Beth Howard specializes in health and medicine. She also writes for U.S. News & World Report; Reader's Digest; O, The Oprah Magazine; The Washington Post; and The Wall Street Journal. She is based in Charlotte, N.C.

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