13 Lifesaving Tests You’re Probably Skipping—but Shouldn’t
Most of us aren’t getting the health screenings we need. Check out these preventive services you shouldn’t miss.
Prevention works better
More than 100,000 lives could be saved each year if we all got the preventive care we need, according to the CDC. But most Americans use preventive services at about half the recommended rate. In fact, in 2015, only 8 percent of U.S. adults age 35 and older received all the clinical services recommended for them—things like health screenings, counseling, preventive medications, and vaccinations. Nearly 5 percent of adults failed to get any of the services. Check out these 11 health services you probably didn’t know you can get for free.
The problem with too little prevention
“People often think, ‘Why should I see a doctor if I’m fine?’” says Christina Stasiuk, DO, senior medical director for Cigna. But chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, are responsible for seven of every ten deaths among Americans each year, according to the CDC. And these diseases can often be prevented through screenings that can help patients identify their risks in advance and make lifestyle changes to head off serious problems. Screenings can also detect disease earlier, when treatment works best. Make sure you keep an eye out for these 50 health symptoms you should never ignore.
Blood pressure test
“Know your numbers!” says Dr. Stasiuk. Blood pressure is something you should know and have checked each year. The measurement is taken with a blood pressure cuff strapped around your arm. A reading of 120/80 or less is normal, according to the CDC; a reading of 140/90 or higher puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, artery disease, and kidney failure. “If it’s high, it’s important to know that and understand what you can do to lower it,” says Dr. Stasiuk. “It’s very treatable with lifestyle changes such as increased physical activity, salt reduction, decreased alcohol use, and sometimes medication.” Know which doctor visits you should have at every age.
Body mass index
All you need to know in order to calculate your body mass index (BMI) is your height and weight, and it’s easy to calculate. A BMI of 25 or higher indicates overweight, and a BMI of 30 or higher indicates obesity. “Being overweight puts you at risk for not only heart disease and diabetes but osteoarthritis, back pain, and knee pain,” says Dr. Stasiuk.
Blood glucose test
This test, which determines the level of glucose (or sugar) in your blood, can detect type 2 diabetes. You will need to fast before the office or lab visit; then the technician will do a simple blood test. If your blood sugar (glucose) is elevated, you could be dealing with prediabetes or diabetes. In either case, lifestyle changes, such as altering your diet, losing weight, and exercising, can help. The American Diabetes Association recommends that adults age 45 and older get this screening every three years. If you have risk factors for diabetes, such as being overweight or obese, you may need the screening more often. Don’t miss these ways to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
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Nearly one in three American adults have high cholesterol, which raises the risk of a heart attack or stroke, along with kidney disease and impaired circulation in the legs. High cholesterol has no symptoms, so the only way to check it is with a blood test. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends an LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol level under 100 (though up to 129 is OK if you don’t have other heart risk factors); HDL—”good”—cholesterol over 40; triglycerides under 149; and a total cholesterol of no more than 200. Again, lifestyle changes can help you bring down levels; some people may need the help of cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins. Read about 16 things doctors do to lower their cholesterol.
Cancer screenings for women
The American Cancer Society recommends that women over age 40 have an annual mammogram (a scan of the breast). Women at higher risk or with dense breast tissue may need a breast ultrasound, too. After age 55, women can make the choice of whether to continue with annual screenings or switch to a screening every two years. To screen for cervical cancer, women ages 21 to 29 should have a Pap smear every three years. Women ages 30 to 65 should have a Pap smear and an HPV test every five years. (Both screenings can be done with the same cells, which are gently scraped from the cervix during an office visit.) After age 65, women may not need either test. Women with certain genetic or health histories may need a different screening schedule from what is outlined here. Check out 30 simple ways to help prevent cancer.
Colorectal cancer screening
Both men and women should have a colonoscopy—a test that detects changes or irregularities in the large intestine (colon) and rectum—every ten years beginning at age 50. (African Americans may need to have the screening starting at age 45.) The procedure, in which a doctor inserts a long, flexible tube into the rectum and through to the large intestine, takes between 30 and 60 minutes. You’ll be sedated and should have someone drive you home afterward. The test can reveal irritated and swollen tissue, ulcers, polyps, and colon or rectal cancer. Learn about 7 ways to prevent colon cancer.
Lung cancer screening
In the early stages, when the disease is easier to treat and the chance of survival is higher, lung cancer often has no symptoms. This is why screening is crucial, especially for those 55 and older who smoke (or used to smoke). The most effective test is a CT scan. “A chest X-ray is not going to give you good information,” says Dr. Stasiuk. Find out about the 9 uncommon signs of lung cancer.
Prostate cancer screening
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The American Cancer Society recommends that men who are at average risk of prostate cancer and are in good health have this screening at age 50. Men who are at high risk—including African Americans and men who have a father, brother, or son diagnosed with prostate cancer before age 65—should have the test at age 45. Men with even higher risk—those with more than one close relative who had prostate cancer at an early age—should have the test at age 40. A blood test detects the level of prostate-specific antigen (PSA). If the PSA is less than 2.5, screening should be done every two years. If it’s 2.5 or higher, screening should be done annually.
A doctor should examine your skin, including your scalp, every year for questionable spots or moles that could indicate skin cancer. “There should be an exam as well as a conversation about how to prevent skin cancer,” says Dr. Stasiuk. “Your primary-care physician can do this and refer you to a dermatologist if anything of concern turns up.” Check out these 51 things doctors need you to know about skin cancer.
“Preventive screening is not only about physical health but mental health as well,” says Dr. Stasiuk. Doctors can screen through a series of questions: Patients are asked how they’re feeling and whether they have symptoms like a lack of energy, sleep issues, or trouble concentrating. “The doctor can then have a longer conversation with you and ask more questions,” she says. “The doctor may recommend counseling or medication or a referral to a mental-health professional.” Become familiar with the 8 warning signs of depression.
Baby boomers, born between 1945 and 1965, should receive a one-time screening for hepatitis C, a virus that can destroy the liver and even cause cancer, according to the CDC. A blood sample can reveal antibodies to the hepatitis C virus. A second test then determines the level of virus in the blood. When used together, these two tests accurately identify whether a person has hepatitis C infection. Doctors treat the condition with antiviral drugs; lifestyle changes may also help protect the liver. Learn the 9 signs that your liver may be in big trouble.
To help prevent falls—which can lead to broken bones, hospitalizations, and worse—doctors like to screen patients who are 65 or older and have certain risk factors, such as poor eyesight or balance. “It’s a conversation between the physician and the patient as well as a physical check,” says Dr. Stasiuk. “The doctor will watch patients walk and look at their gait and balance. Are they swaying? Can they see where they’re walking? Are they lifting their feet high enough?” If problems are detected, the doctor can refer the patient for physical therapy and also recommend modifications in the home, such as improved lighting and removing trip hazards to prevent falls. Check out these 10 medical tests and procedures doctors never waste their money on.
Getting your shots isn’t a screening test—but immunizations can save your life. “Vaccinations are important for children, but adults need to be immunized against flu, pneumonia, and shingles,” says Dr. Stasiuk. Age, lifestyle, health, risk conditions, travel plans, and previous immunizations will help determine what you need. The CDC publishes a chart that outlines its recommendations. Don’t miss these 40 things your doctor wishes you knew about vaccines.