5 Tests That May Save Your Life

Medical screening can go a long way to preventing health problems. Put these ones on your radar.
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You would never skip your daily green juice. Ditto for that sweat session and cup of coffee. Yet are you inadvertently hurting your health by skipping crucial health tests?

Granted, it’s not always easy to figure out exactly which tests you need, given all the conflicting news about what you should and shouldn’t do. Plus, with all that’s on your plate, finding time to get to the doctor is enough of a challenge.

Still, though, keeping closer tabs on your health, no matter how healthy you feel, is crucial. The main reason? Prevention. “At this point, if tests do find anything, you still have a chance to nip things in the bud rather than waiting until you start feeling badly or have symptoms,” says Danine Fruge, M.D., associate medical director at Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami.

Experts weigh in on five lifesaving tests you should put on your to-do list.

1. HPV

What it is: The HPV test detects whether you have a high-risk virus called human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection that could lead to cervical cancer

Why you need it: Every year, more than 12,000 new cases of invasive cervical cancer are diagnosed, and roughly 4,000 women will die from this disease, according to the American Cancer Society. Note, though, that the HPV test is different from a Pap test. Both are used to screen for cervical cancer, but while the Pap test looks for cancer cells and other cells that might become cancerous, the HPV test detects the actual virus.

What the guidelines say: The ACS and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend that women 30 and older get a Pap test and HPV test every five years. Or you might opt just to get a Pap test every three years from 30 to 65 years old. If your results are abnormal, you’ll be advised to repeat the Pap test, possibly the HPV, again in six months or a year. Neither organization, however, recommends the HPV test for women younger than 30, instead advocating a Pap test every three years for this group.

What the docs say: These guidelines don’t sit well with Fruge. “Younger women should have a right to know if they have this high-risk virus, which could help them adopt better lifestyle habits or get more frequent medical checks,” she says. Her advice? No matter your age or how sexually active you are, get the HPV test at least once, paying for it yourself, if necessary. If you’re in a monogamous relationship and have had two negative HPV tests, you don’t need it every year. You also should work with your doctor to determine a Pap smear schedule based on your health history and lifestyle habits, knowing that your last Pap is only as good as your last partner, Fruge says.

2. Blood Pressure

What it is: This test measures blood pressure, giving you two numbers. The first is systolic, pressure in your arteries when your heart beats, while the second is diastolic, pressure in your arteries between beats. Normal is less than 120/80 mm HG (millimeters of mercury).

Why you need it: High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death among women. Every year, one in three women’s deaths is from heart disease, according to Go Red for Women.

What the guidelines say: The American Heart Association recommends getting this test at 20 and repeating it when you visit the doctor or once every two years if it’s normal.

What the docs say: Check more frequently, about four times a year, even if you’ve had normal readings. “High blood pressure is a silent killer and starts young, even as early as your 20s or 30s and in otherwise healthy adults,” Fruge says. Damage to your arteries from high blood pressure can cause problems not only in your heart but also your brain, she adds. One option is to monitor it at home. Two of the best:

• Omron 7 Series Wrist Blood Pressure Monitor #BP652 ($56; omronhealthcare.com)

• iHealth Blood Pressure Dock ($80; ihealthlabs.com)

Sit quietly in place without texting or chatting for five minutes before getting a reading.

3. Mammogram

What it is: A mammogram is an X-ray of the breasts that detects and evaluates changes that could lead to breast cancer.

Why you need it: Although breast cancer incidents have been stable since 2004, it’s still the most common cancer among women. In 2014, more than 230,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer were estimated to have been diagnosed, and 40,000 women will have lost their lives to this disease during that year, according to Susan G. Komen, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting breast cancer.

What the guidelines say: The ACOG recommends annual mammograms for women starting at age 40, earlier if women are at high risk of breast cancer, and every two years for women 50 and older. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, however, doesn’t recommend mammography until women turn 50, unless earlier screenings are warranted; women should then be tested every two years.

What the docs say: Don’t wait until 50. “A mammogram isn’t flawless, but it’s the best screening tool we have,” says Nancy Simpkins, M.D., internist in Livingston, New Jersey, and medical consultant for the state of New Jersey. She advises getting a baseline mammography at 40 and then yearly starting at 45 if you have zero family history of breast cancer. If, though, you have a family history, start five years before the age your mother was diagnosed — if your mom was diagnosed at 30, your first mammogram would be at 25 — and then screen annually.

4. Skin Check

What it is: A doctor exams your skin looking for suspicious growths, moles or lesions.

Why you need it: Rates of skin cancer have continued to increase. Although most cases are preventable, it’s currently the most diagnosed cancer in the United States. Every year, 5 million people are treated for skin cancer with melanoma, a life-threatening cancer, being the most common in young adults, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

What the guidelines say: The SCF recommends examining your skin from head to toe every month and seeing a physician yearly for a skin check.

What the docs say: If you have no family history of skin cancer, get your first test between 20 and 25 and then every year. “[However], I know many women won’t do that, so at least every two years is OK,” says Elizabeth Tanzi, M.D., co-director of the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery in Washington, D.C. If you notice a mole or lesion that’s changed size, shape or color, call your doctor, she adds. If, though, you have a family history or a large number of moles, go yearly.

5. Abdominal Circumference Measurement

What it is: This test measures the width of your waistline to determine whether underlying abdominal fat is an issue.

Why you need it: Unlike the fat you might gain on your hips or thighs, abdominal fat, or visceral fat as it’s called, poses the most danger to your body. “Excess belly fat is a sign of metabolic syndrome, which leads to heart disease and diabetes,” says Christiane Northrup, M.D., board-certified OB-GYN in Portland, Maine, and author of Goddesses Never Age (Hay House, 2015).

What the guidelines say: Although numerous organizations advocate waistline measurement, there are no definitive guidelines about how often to do it.

What the docs say: If you’re trying to lose weight, measure yourself once a month. Otherwise, take a quarterly measurement, Fruge says. Fortunately, this is something you can do at home with a tape measure. Do it standing up under clothing, taking the tape measure across your bellybutton (so you can find the same spot every time). Your goal? No more than 34 inches — 32 inches if you have a petite bone structure, high cholesterol or blood pressure, or family history of diabetes.

3 Tests to Keep on Your Radar

In addition to the five tests, three others might be worth your time:

1) Colonoscopy: You probably won’t need to worry about this one until you’re in your 40s, so if you’re not there yet, bookmark it for the future. The test is designed to spot polyps and remove them before they turn into colon cancer. Get a baseline at 45, and if the colonoscopy is normal, every five years after that, Dr. Nancy Simpkins says. With a family history, however, get your first screening somewhere between 35 and 40.

2) Bone density scan: This one’s a little controversial because the National Osteoporosis Foundation doesn’t recommend getting your first one until you’re 65, perhaps earlier if you have risk factors for osteoporosis. Yet Dr. Danine Fruge recommends starting whenever you begin experiencing hormonal changes. “That’s the time we see the biggest loss in women,” she says. Women who are otherwise healthy but have lost a good deal of body fat through excessive exercise and are having irregular periods might also consider getting a baseline.

3) Complete blood panel: A blood work-up can show you how well your body is functioning overall, measuring cholesterol; thyroid, kidney and liver function; and cardiac inflammation, Simpkins says. Yet go even further and make sure you’re getting the more comprehensive NMR LipoProfile test for cholesterol (it’s better than the old lipid profile, which measured total cholesterol, bad and good cholesterol, and triglycerides); a 25 (OH) vitamin D test (optimal is 40-80 ng/ml; anything lower could put you at risk for breast and bowel cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease); and a glucose-insulin challenge test, which could indicate whether you’re at higher risk for diabetes or metabolic syndrome, both of which can start early, Dr. Christiane Northrup says.

3 Tests You Can Skip

So are there some tests you may not need? Experts say yes. Here are three:

1) Weight: “Bodyweight doesn’t tell you much,” Dr. Christiane Northrup says. However, measuring abdominal circumference or finding your waist-hip ratio does. To measure your WHR, visit http://www.healthcalculators.org/calculators/waist_hip.asp.

2) Blood tests for vitamin levels: Although it may be beneficial to know your vitamin B12 and D levels, anything beyond that may be somewhat meaningless. “I’m not comfortable saying the results are actionable enough,” Dr. Danine Fruge says.

3) Hormone tests: “Hormones vary from day to day, and unless you’re really suffering, I’d rather see people get healthy habits down first and then spend their money on things like fruits and vegetables versus these tests,” Fruge says.

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