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4 Medical Tests That Can Change Your Life

Knowing your risk factors can help you catch these devastating diseases in the early stages.
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You conduct risk analyses for our businesses, but what about your health? Dr. David Sandmire, Professor of Biology at the University of New England and co-author of Medical Tests That Can Save Your Life (Rodale Books, 2004), says the road to good health starts with knowing what diseases may stand in our way. Some illnesses may be lurking beneath the surface, only presenting symptoms when it's too late. Testing for these diseases can help catch them in their early stages and prevent them from destroying your health.

Consider these four tests to detect the early stages of disease:

1. DEXA scan for bone density to test of osteoporosis.
An estimated 10 million Americans have osteoporosis, a condition caused by decreased mineralization of the bone. Another 18 million are estimated to have low bone mass, or pre-osteoporosis. While we all reach peak bone mass around age 30 and begin to lose a small percentage each year for the rest of our lives, some individuals may lose more than others. By the time you notice symptoms such as back pain, stooped posture or an easily fractured bones occur, you may already have full-blown osteoporosis.

"Someone could be in their 40s or 50s and not realize that they have early osteoporosis," says Sandmire. There are several risk factors for osteoporosis including smoking, age and gender (post-menopausal women are at greater risk), a sedentary lifestyle, family history and excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption. If someone has several risk factors for osteoporosis, Sandmire says it would be worthwhile to request a DEXA scan for bone density. If early osteoporosis is detected, key lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking, cutting down on caffeine and alcohol, exercising and taking medication that aids in bone building can slow down the progression of this disease.

2. Genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer.
Angelina Jolie put BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in the newspaper headlines when she underwent a double mastectomy and hysterectomy after discovering she had inherited mutations in these genes. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes produce proteins that help repair DNA. Mutations in these genes have been found to increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Since family history is one of the major risk factors for breast and ovarian cancer. Sandmire says a genetic test for BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations is highly recommended for someone with a family history of these diseases. "Just because you have the genetic marker doesn't mean you have cancer, but it will mean there would be a more vigilant schedule of subsequent screening," says Sandmir.

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3. Screening for coronary artery disease.
"Coronary artery disease is the biggest killer in the United States," says Sandmire. Risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and a sedentary lifestyle. If an individual has several of these risk factors, Sandmire says a screening test could literally save their life. "More than a quarter of a million people die every year of a heart attack and in almost 50 percent of these cases, their heart attack is their first symptom," says Sandmire.

Some tests allow doctors to get a visual on the arteries to show fatty plaque buildups while others, such as a blood glucose test, are designed to test for risk factors such as diabetes. These later tests are less invasive, but a positive result may warrant closer monitoring or further testing as well as a change in lifestyle habits. "You can't change your family history, which is a risk factor, but we're looking at the modifiable risk factors such as diet and lifestyle and trying to control those," says Sandmire.

4. Blood glucose test for type 2 diabetes.
Although type 2 diabetes has a strong genetic component, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are controllable risk factors that make this disease ripe for a screening test. "Over 16 million people in the United States have type 2 diabetes and probably a third of them don't even know it yet," says Sandmire. This is a disease that creeps up insidiously. "You can have the early stages of it for months or even a year or more before you start having actual symptoms," says Sandmire.

By requesting a blood glucose test, you can start making changes to your lifestyle such as exercising, losing weight if overweight and eating a nutritious diet before a pre-diabetic condition becomes full-blown type 2 diabetes.

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