May 05

Tests That Could Save Your Life

Nobody likes having medical tests, but the simple truth is that certain tests can save your life – or at least the quality of your life. Tests are vital indicators of health. They serve a useful purpose by catching problems before they become advanced.

Here are tests that most adults should have. Follow the schedule, and one of them could save your life. A number of tests, such as the blood pressure test, the Pap smear and the breast exam, should be part of your regular physical.


1. Blood-pressure exam – This one’s not so bad. The doctor puts a blood-pressure cuff around your upper arm and inflates it to check systolic pressure (when the heart contracts) and diastolic pressure (when the heart relaxes). This tests is done to identify the 15 percent of the adult population that suffers from hypertension, a leading cause of heart attacks and strokes, and recommend treatment. It’s part of the regular physical, and most doctors will check your blood pressure every time you visit the office.

2. Stool test, sigmoidoscopy – These tests may uncover bowel, colon and rectal cancer, which can often be symptomless. People who are 40 to 45 and over should have a stool test every 12 to 24 months. For the sigmoidoscopy, consult your doctor about having it every five years, especially if you have a family history of bowel or colon cancer.

3. Booster shots, immunizations – With a single booster shot, you can renew your immunity to tetanus, diphtheria and polio. Diphtheria is a bacteria that can cause potentially lethal heart and neurological problems. Tetanus results if bacteria from soil, rust or animal feces enter open wounds in people who are not immunized.

Everyone should get a booster every ten years to renew the effectiveness of the vaccine. Women should not be immunized while pregnant. With three injections spread out over several months, your doctor will immunize you against Hepatitis B, the most common form of hepatitis.

This serious and sometimes fatal form of liver disease is passed on mainly by sexual contact, infected blood products, dirty injection needles and shared household items such as bathroom cups. All sexually active women and men, as well as all health-care workers and military personnel, should be immunized against hepatitis B.

Most school boards immunize students in Grade 7. Everyone who is over 65 – or who lives in a chronic-care facility or who has a chronic condition such as bronchitis, emphysema or heart disease – should get an annual flu shot.

4. Sexually transmitted diseases tests – The test for gonorrhea is a Gram stain and a culture of a cervical or urethral smear; for chlamydia, it’s a smear, culture or analysis. Syphilis, Hepatitis B and HIV are diagnosed through blood tests.

If you have been sexually active with more than one partner in the last year and live in an urban area, you are at highest risk for a sexually transmitted disease. But there are other times to consider testing:

· If you know or suspect your sex partner is infected;
· Two months after entering into a new sexual relationship;
· If you’re an intravenous drug user;
· If there are signs of an unusual discharge from the penis or vagina, rash, warty growths, pimples, itchiness or sores on the genitals, pain when urinating, persistent lower abdominal pain;
· If women experience changes in menstrual flow;
· If women are pregnant (There’s controversy here. Some doctors say only a pregnant woman should have such tests, to protect her baby. Others say chlamydia tests should be conducted along with every Pap smear.)

5. Eye exam – The doctor is testing for farsightedness and nearsightedness, for cataracts, dry eyes and irregularities. If a woman is pregnant, an eye doctor also looks for hemorrhaging, which could be a sign of toxemia or diabetes. He also tests for glaucoma, presbyopia, and to see how much magnification you need to read. Everyone needs an eye exam every two to three years (annually if you have corrective lens); and everyone needs glaucoma and presbyopia testing annually once they turn 40.

6. Dental checkup –Dental decay is one of the most prevalent infectious diseases, and heart disease has now been linked to periodontal (gum) infections. Dentists can also discover mouth cancer. Everyone should have a dental checkup every six months.

7. Digital rectal exam – A physician’s gloved finger through the rectum probes for nodules and lumps that could prove to be colon or prostate cancer, which is now the second leading cause of cancer deaths in men. Men and women 50 and up should have this test as part of a periodic checkup; those in high-risk groups, as of age 40.

8. Breast exam – The physician manually examines your breasts, armpits and nipples for signs of lumps and unusual tissue. Breast cancer is a leading cause of cancer death in women and affects approximately one woman in 10 during a normal lifespan. Every woman should have it annually and perform monthly breast exams on herself.

9. Mammogram – A machine takes X-rays of your breast from various angles to check for cancer. In women over 50, mammography reduces the breast-cancer mortality rate by 30 percent. Every woman aged 50 and over – and women aged 40 and up if they have a mother or sister who had premenopausal breast cancer – should have a mammogram every two years. For best results, it should happen in the first two weeks of a woman’s menstrual cycle.

10. Osteoporosis test – Doctors can check for risk factors using blood and urine tests for hormone function, assessment of calcium and Vitamin D intake and assessment for hormone replacement therapy. They can use a bone-density scan to determine if bones are fragile. Approximately one in four women and one in eight men suffers from osteoporosis.

Many doctors recommend testing six months after menstruation stops for all postmenopausal women, whether menopause has occurred naturally or because of surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. Men may need testing if they have low levels of testosterone. Testing is also recommended for men and women who have prolonged exposure to medications such as steroids used to treat asthma or arthritis, anticonvulsants, certain cancer treatments and aluminum-containing antacids.

Those with chronic diseases that affect hormone levels, or who have abnormalities in the bones of the spine, should also be tested.

11. Pap smear – The doctor inserts an instrument into the vagina and scrapes a few cells from the cervix for examination. If caught early enough, cervical cancer can be completely cured without the invasive procedures associated with other forms of cancer.

All sexually active women and/or women 18 to 69 should have this test once a year. If the test comes back normal three years in a row, you can have it done at longer intervals (at your – or your doctor’s – discretion).

12. Blood sugar testing – If you are over 45 you may want to get your blood-sugar levels checked every three years. However, if you have risk factors associated with diabetes, you may want to get your blood-sugar levels checked at an earlier age, and more often.

13. Cholesterol testing – If you have a family history of heart disease, are overweight, smoke or have a poor diet, you should discuss with your doctor about getting a blood test for cholesterol levels.

14. Checking for melanoma – If a close relative has had the deadly form of skin cancer known as melanoma, you should keep a close watch on your moles. Visit your doctor for a skin check and ask your partner to help you check for changes to the color, size and shape of your moles.

A special note

It’s wise to keep track of all your test results and medical history. Many adults are oblivious to when they had their last tetanus vaccines or whether they had chickenpox as children. Take note of all this (electronically or otherwise) while it’s fresh in your brain. Also, make a record of your kids’ shots and dental visits. For some guidance in putting this together, visit This “Interactive Personal Health Site” features a Personal Health Notebook. You can download this document and use it to create and edit records of your health conditions, allergies, immunizations, medications and more.