August 2, 2008

4 Medical Tests That Might Save Your Life

By Lee, Heather

That yearly checkup doesn't guarantee you're covered. Ask your M.D. about these important screens. You wouldn't dream of skipping your annual Pap or even your twice-ajar teeth cleaning. But there are a few tests you may be missing that can spot early signs of heart disease, glaucoma, and more. "Doctors check for common problems, but you may need to ask for a specific screen if you're at risk for a certain disease," says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of the Women's Heart Program at the New York University Medical Center. Acquaint yourself with these tests and your body will thank you.

TEST High-sensitivity C-reactive protein

This simple test measures the amount of inflammation in your body by examining levels of highsensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP) in your bloodstream. The body naturally produces an inflammatory response to fight off infections and heal wounds. "But chronically high levels may cause your blood vessels to harden or fat to build up in your arteries," says Goldberg. In fact, CRP may be an even stronger predictor of heart disease than cholesterol: According to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, women with elevated CRP levels were more likely to suffer from cardiovascular disease than those with high cholesterol.

Excess CRP has also been linked to the development of other problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer's disease. "The test is like an early warning system for your entire body," says Goldberg. If your level is high (a score of 3 milligrams per liter or more), your physician may recommend that you exercise 30 minutes a day and up your intake of produce, whole grains, and lean protein. She also may suggest taking medications, such as cholesterol-lowering statins or aspirin, to fight inflammation.

WHO NEEDS IT Women with several risk factors for heart disease, meaning those with high cholesterol (200 or more milligrams per deciliter) and blood pressure (140/90 millimeters or more of mercury) and a family history of early heart disease. Ask for the high-sensitivity CRP test rather than the standard one, which is used for diagnosing conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease. The screen costs about $60 and is covered by most insurance plans.

TEST Audiogram

Rock concerts, noisy traffic, and even just wearing extraloud headphones can break down the inner ear cells that control hearing over time. If you're concerned, consider this test, which is administered by an audiologist.

During the exam, you'll be asked to react to different noises by repeating words and responding to various pitches. If you have hearing loss, you'll be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for an examination to pinpoint the exact cause: Benign tumors, ear infections, or a perforated ear drum may all be culprits. If your loss is permanent, you can be fitted for hearing aids.

WHO NEEDS IT "All adults should have a baseline audiogram at age 40," says Ten Wilson-Bridges, director of the Hearing and Speech Center in Washington, D.C. But experts advise having your hearing checked earlier if you've had any trouble distinguishing sounds, are experiencing dizziness or a ringing sound in your ears, or have any risk factors, such as a family history of hearing loss or a job that requires working in a very loud environment.

TEST Glaucoma

"Half of the people who have glaucoma don't even know it," says Louis Cantor, M.D., director of glaucoma service at the Indiana University School of Medicine. Each year at least 5,000 people lose their sight to this disease, which occurs when the fluid pressure in the eye rises and damages the optic nerve. "By the time someone notices that something is wrong with her vision, nearly 80 to 90 percent of the optic nerve could have already been damaged."

Safeguard your sight with a yearly glaucoma check. It includes two tests often given at annual eye exams: tonometry and ophthalmoscopy. During a tonometry, your doctor measures the inner pressure of the eye with a puff of air or a probe. Ophthalmoscopy is used to examine the inside of the eye. The doctor will use a lighted instrument to examine the optic nerve.

WHO NEEDS IT Although glaucoma is often considered a disease that affects only the elderly, about 25 percent of sufferers are under the age of 50. According to the Glaucoma Research Foundation, adults should have their first glaucoma screenings at ages 35 and 40, but African-American and Hispanic women-or anyone with a family history of the diseaseshould be tested every year after the age of 3 5 because they are at a higher risk.

Though there's no cure, the good news is that glaucoma is very treatable, says Cantor. "Once the condition is diagnosed, we can prescribe eye drops that will prevent the damage from gelling worse."

TEST Vitamin B12

If you never seem to have enough energy, this simple screen may be in order. It measures the amount of vitamin B12 in the blood, which helps maintain healthy nerve cells and red blood cells in the body. "In addition to fatigue, low levels of this nutrient can cause numbness or tingling in the arms and legs, weakness, loss of balance, and anemia," says Lloyd Van Winkle, M.D., a clinical associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

Over the long run, a vitamin B12 deficiency can raise your risk for depression and dementia. If you're diagnosed with the condition, your doctor can prescribe high-dose supplements in pill, shot, or nasal spray form. She may also test you for pernicious anemia, a disease in which the body is unable to absorb vitamin B12 properly.

WHO NEEDS IT Consider this test if you're a vegetarian, since the only dietary sources of vitamin B12 come from animals. One German study found that 26 percent of vegetarians and 52 percent of vegans had low B12 levels. You should also ask your doctor about the test, which costs $5 to $30 and is covered by insurance plans, if you have any of the symptoms mentioned above.

About 10 percent of adults have noiserelated hearing loss

HEATHER LEE is a writer in New York City.

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