If you’re like many adults, you’ve made a mental note of recommended medical tests and filed it away in the corners of your mind, ready to act on when you reach milestone birthdays. A mammogram after the age of 40, a colonoscopy at age 50, and so on.
But, what you may not know is that a simple blood screening annually — even before the age of 40 — is the easiest and most important test you can have today to monitor your health and prevent life-threatening disease tomorrow.
Knowing your numbers — blood pressure, cholesterol levels, glucose levels, blood cell counts and other values — can help your you and your physician catch critical changes in your body before they manifest as heart disease, cancer, diabetes or worse.
“Regular health exams and tests can help find problems early, when your chances for treatment and cure are better,” says Ranjini Madhavan, MD, an internal medicine physician and Ascension Medical Group Via Christi on Murdock.
They can also serve as a wake-up call; an indicator that it’s time to modify your diet and get more physical activity, she adds.
“When the test comes back and you see abnormal numbers, it becomes personal," she says. "Suddenly, the idea of making lifestyle changes isn’t just a recommendation in a pamphlet. It’s something that can impact your life and health.”
What the screening can detect
A comprehensive metabolic panel includes a variety of tests (just one blood draw) and can help determine if you have or are at risk of getting:
- Heart disease (buildup of plaque in the arteries to your heart) — indicated mostly by cholesterol levels, including total cholesterol, HDL, LDL, total cholesterol/HDL ratio, and triglycerides
- Kidney or liver disease/malfunction — indicated by electrolyte and acid/base balance, blood sugars and blood proteins
- Cancer, Leukemia, infection — indicated by white and red blood cell counts, platelets
- Diabetes or prediabetes — indicated by average levels of blood glucose over the past three months (hemoglobin A1C test)
- Vitamin and nutrient deficiencies — potassium, calcium, protein, electrolytes levels
Your age, current health, family history, lifestyle choices and other important factors impact what blood work you’ll need and how often you’ll need care. The National Institutes of Health recommends people start having annual blood screenings beginning at the age 40 to set a baseline for future comparison.
Dr. Madhavan advises her patients age 20 and older to get a panel of tests including thyroid function test, cholesterol and — if obese or with risk factors — fasting blood sugar to check for diabetes. She encourages men over age 40 to have a baseline prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, screening to see if they are at risk for prostate inflammation or cancer. Further testing intervals can then be based on the preliminary results and their overall risk to disease.
“By getting the right health services, screenings, and treatments, you are taking steps that help your chances for living a longer, healthier life,” says Dr. Madhavan.