5 Medical Tests That May Keep You Well
Like a scene out of Star Trek, someday our doctors may simply wave a handheld device over our bodies and instantly diagnose any malady. In the meantime, however, it's important to keep abreast of the latest tests that can help us stay healthy - especially those that uncover risks before symptoms actually occur.
The following five tests are not yet considered as routine as cholesterol or blood-sugar tests, but chances are your doctor already is familiar with them. Not every test is necessary at every visit, and your insurance company may not pay unless it considers a particular test "medically necessary." Still, ask about them. Here's why they may be important to you.
CRP, or C-reactive Protein
This is a simple blood test that measures the amount of inflammation in your body. In many ways, CRP is the best "crystal ball" of health ever devised in a single blood test. Elevated CRP levels have been shown to precede and predict heart attack, stroke, colon cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, Alzheimer's disease, aneurysms, sudden cardiac death, abnormal heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation and even macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness.
CRP is a protein made by our immune system that fuels the fire of inflammation in our bodies. The higher your CRP level, the more at risk you are to develop problems. Optimal levels - less than 0.7 milligrams per liter - predict good health.
It's important to understand that CRP doesn't diagnose any particular conditions - it's not specific. It just identifies whether you're at risk for illness. It's best to check your CRP during your routine annual physical, when you feel fine. If you're sick with something, your CRP probably will be elevated.
The good news is that CRP levels can be lowered by exercise, modest weight loss, taking a multivitamin, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, and certain medications such as aspirin and statins (cholesterol-lowering drugs).
Vitamin D Level
Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones because it's needed for calcium absorption. But new research also is identifying an important role for vitamin D in the immune system and in the prevention of cancer, including breast and prostate.
Studies show that more than half of American women don't get enough vitamin D. It's known as the "sunshine vitamin," because your skin makes it when you're out in the sun. That's why people who lack daily sun exposure or who use sunblock when outdoors may be deficient in the vitamin. It's almost impossible to get adequate amounts from foods, despite fortification of dairy and some soy foods. All multivitamins contain vitamin D, but for most people even that is not sufficient. You may need to take a vitamin D supplement. Most people should get between 1000 and 1500 IU of vitamin D3 daily. (D3 is the natural form of vitamin D. It's more easily absorbed and stays in the body longer.) The best way to know if you're getting enough vitamin D is to get a blood test.
H. pylori Test
About 20% of Americans may unknowingly be infected with the bacteria responsible for stomach cancer, heartburn, ulcers and even eye disorders. The discovery of H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori) infection as the primary cause of stomach ulcers worldwide earned Australian researchers Robin Warren and Barry Marshall the Nobel Prize in medicine for 2005. The bacteria also have been found to cause stomach cancer.
H. pylori is a chronic, potentially lifelong infection of the stomach. It can cause stomach pain, heartburn or indigestion, but it's often silent, causing no symptoms. Infection typically occurs when a person eats contaminated food and ingests the bacteria. The infection can be cured with a combination of antibiotics and antacids.
A blood-antibody test can show if you've ever been infected, and a stool test or breath test can identify if you currently have an active infection. Fortunately, successful treatment of H. pylori eliminates the increased risk of stomach cancer, ulcers and related disorders.
Aspirin has been shown to be a powerful preventive measure for people at risk for heart attack and stroke as well as for colon cancer, and it's estimated that as many as 50 million Americans take aspirin daily to prevent a heart attack. What's not clear is the optimal dose of aspirin for prevention. Most people are taking a baby aspirin (81 milligrams), but research has shown that 10% to 20% of people are resistant to aspirin and require higher dosages in order to benefit from its protective effects.
An aspirin check is a test that determines the effectiveness of the daily aspirin for an individual. This is important for people who are taking aspirin therapeutically for cardiovascular disease as well as those at increased risk for heart disease who are taking aspirin for prevention. The test can be ordered by your doctor but also is available directly from an online lab.
Type 2 diabetes is characterized by an excess of insulin production in response to eating. The glucose tolerance test has long been the standard way to identify someone with diabetes. Until recently, glucose tolerance tests measured only blood sugar, or glucose levels, which are raised when a person has diabetes. But measuring your body's insulin-production levels improves the test by being able to identify your risk of diabetes long before symptoms emerge.
Typically, to do the test, your blood is drawn twice - first after fasting, then again two hours later after a glucose drink. Your insulin levels are recorded. If the results indicate that you're at a higher risk for diabetes, the good news is that you also have time to take action. Type 2 diabetes can be prevented by adopting a lifestyle that includes daily exercise, weight control and a low-glycemic diet that reduces the intake of sugar, refined grains and starches.