Must-Have Medical Tests

Daily Health Solutions, Healthy Heart, Power to the Patient
on September 7, 2008
Woman getting tested by doctor.

Blood pressure cuff? Check. Stethoscope? Check. There are some things you simply assume will be part of your annual physical. But what about a vitamin D work up? Or a C-reactive protein screening? These new-school health tests—and others—are becoming standard operating procedure in doctors’ offices all over the country. Are you getting the full treatment? Scan this list of the latest medical must-haves to find out.

Get stronger bones (and more). It’s no news that postmenopausal women should have a bone scan—a DEXA (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry) scan, to be exact—to check their bone density. But more and more doctors are recommending a blood test for vitamin D levels for all adults, too. Not only does vitamin D help your body absorb calcium, but low levels have been connected to muscle pain, high blood pressure and some cancers, says American Dietetic Association spokesperson Toby Smithson. Plus, research suggests that women with breast cancer who have low vitamin D levels are more likely to die of the disease than women with normal levels. The good news is that getting back to normal is simple with fortified foods and multivitamins.

Boost heart health. Inflammation can lead to the formation of plaque and increase your risk for heart attack and stroke. The high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-Crp) test measures the amount of that potentially harmful inflammation in your body. Dr. Nora Tossounian of Hackensack University Medical Center recommends the hs-Crp screening (a simple blood test) with a fasting cholesterol panel if you are at increased risk for heart disease. (Risks increase with a family history or personal history of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, or obesity.)

Monitor your mood. The thing about depression is that it often doesn’t look like depression. Especially in men, the symptoms are much different than the stereotypical feelings of hopelessness or 24-7 crying jags. Lashing out at your spouse more often than usual. Procrastinating at work. Drinking a bit too much. You get the picture. “Depression is probably the most serious and frequent disease in the world,” says Columbia University professor Dr. Marianne J. Legato, author of Why Men Die First. It’s a risk factor for high blood pressure and heart disease, and it even dampens your body’s immune response, making infection more likely. Because depression is so difficult to put a finger on when you’re in the midst of it, ask for a depression screening at each checkup. Your doctor will ask a series of questions that may sound simple, but that could help head off serious health problems.

Stay ahead of skin cancer. The standard skin cancer check involves looking for the ABCDs—moles or blemishes that exhibit asymmetry (where one half is different than the other), that have irregular borders, that change color, or that are larger than 1/4 inch in diameter. But if a suspicious spot is in an area you can’t see, the alphabet thing isn’t much help. And now, there’s more reason than ever to get a good going-over in those less-than-visible areas: Recent research suggests that melanomas on the scalp or neck are twice as deadly as those on other parts of the body. Robert Smith, director of cancer screening at the American Cancer Society (ACS), suggests asking for a skin check during your annual visit, especially if you’re over age 50, are fair skinned and/or had childhood sunburns.

Dodge diabetes. The growing number of Americans with “pre-diabetes”—blood sugar levels not high enough to rate a diabetes diagnosis, but dangerously close—is cause for keeping an eye on your own glucose levels. Right now, about 54 million people in the United States are considered pre-diabetic. Not only that—elevated blood sugar is connected to cancer, heart disease and heart attack. The best protection: staying active, eating healthy and getting tested. Smithson recommends a pre-diabetes screening for anyone who is overweight and age 45-plus; if you¨Ìre under 45 and overweight you should also get tested if you have a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high triglycerides. Blood sugar testing is also recommended for women who have had gestational diabetes or have given birth to a baby weighing 9 pounds or more; or anyone of African-American, Native American, Hispanic or Asian descent.

Check your colon. You know you should have the “Katie Couric” test, but a little less than half of the people who need it aren’t getting it. “It’s very discouraging. We have a test that can save lives and prevent cancer but is seriously underutilized,” says the ACS’s Smith. While some people may shy away from colorectal screenings because the test is uncomfortable, Smith says the most important reason people miss out is their doctor fails to recommend screening, or doesn’t properly underscore the importance. So don’t wait for your doc to bring it up: Get tested beginning at age 50; earlier if you have a family history.