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Take Charge of Your Health

7 Checkups You Can't Afford to Miss

Taking care of one's health has become a national obsession, but health care isn't as simple as it used to be. A yearly checkup, while commendable, doesn't even begin to cover the options available. Working your way through the labyrinth of health screenings available can be daunting, but the following reference guide should make taking care of your health much easier.

Anemia

What It Is: Anemia is a condition that develops when your blood is deficient in healthy red blood cells, the main transporter of oxygen to organs.

Causes and Symptoms: Janice Smolowitz, a registered nurse at the Columbia Advanced Practice Nurse Associates at Columbia University, says that in the United States, iron deficiency anemia is more common in women of childbearing age as compared to men because women can lose an excessive amount of blood during menstruation. There are also other medical conditions that may cause anemia. "Pregnancy and inadequate dietary intake of iron may also cause iron deficiency anemia," says Smolowitz.

Some people feel tired, fatigued, weak, confused, dizzy, depressed or have difficulty concentrating. Other people may experience shortness of breath or palpitations, especially during exertion. Smolowitz is quick to point out that anyone experiencing these symptoms should not assume they are anemic, but should consult their health care provider.

Testing Schedule: Some experts believe that all non-pregnant women should be screened every five to 10 years from adolescence until menopause.

How the Test Is Done: A simple blood test can detect anemia and its cause.

Cholesterol and Lipids

What It Is: Lipids are fats and fat-like substances used to fuel our bodies. Cholesterol, triglycerides and fatty acids are all lipids. A cholesterol test can tell quite a bit about the state of your health.

"Coronary heart disease is a leading cause of death for men and women in the United States," says Smolowitz. "Studies have shown a direct relationship between the risk of coronary heart disease and plasma cholesterol concentration and low density lipoprotein (LDL). Clinical trials have demonstrated that deaths from coronary heart disease are decreased when cholesterol and LDL are lowered in patients with high cholesterol. Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol) does not cause symptoms, so a person might not know that his or her cholesterol is elevated."

Causes and Symptoms: Often, high lipid levels are due to hereditary and age and are not the result of a diet high in fat and a lack of exercise. However, most high cholesterol is due to poor eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle.

Testing Schedule: The National Cholesterol Education Program recommends routine lipid screening every five years for adults over age 20. If your cholesterol tends to run high, you may be asked to have the test done more often.

How the Test Is Done: This is a simple blood test, though you may be asked to fast for 12 hours before the blood is drawn.

Hypertension

What It Is: Hypertension, also called high blood pressure, occurs when the blood is forced through the body at too fast of a rate.

Causes and Symptoms: The exact cause of hypertension is not known, but there are many things that can contribute to high blood pressure such as genetics, obesity, lack of exercise, too much salt in the diet and stress. Hypertension does not usually cause any symptoms.

Testing Schedule: If your blood pressure tests normal (130/85 or under), then you can schedule your tests for every two years. If the blood pressure is between 130-139/85-89, then it should be checked annually. After age 60, blood pressure should be checked annually.

How the Test Is Done: To take the test, your health care provider will wrap your arm in an arm cuff that has a pump and valve attached to it. After pumping up the arm cuff (this may feel almost uncomfortably tight) the air will be slowly let out of the cuff. They will listen to your heartbeat through a stethoscope placed on the inside of your elbow and watch the valve at the same time. After doing so, they will be able to tell you what your blood pressure is. There is also a smaller wrist cuff that can take your blood pressure automatically.

Skin Cancer

What It Is: Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. There are three types of skin cancer: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Causes and Symptoms: The No. 1 cause of skin cancer is overexposure to the sun and often is signaled by a change in the skin such as a bump that does not go away, a sore that does not heal or an area that develops a crust.

Testing Schedule: Women should perform skin self-examination on a regular basis, looking for changes in the skin, including moles and warts. If an abnormality is identified, talk to your health care provider. Between the ages of 20 to 39, adults should receive a skin exam by a doctor every three years. After age 40, adults should receive an annual skin exam.

How the Test Is Done: Skin cancer is most common on the head, face, neck and shoulders. A doctor, trained to see abnormalities, can do this fairly quickly. If you have suspicious moles on other parts of your body, this is a good time for them to be examined as well.

Osteoporosis

What It Is: Osteoporosis is a disease that robs bones of their density and causes them to become thin and porous. It occurs most often in women age 65 and older, though it can also occur at a younger age.

Causes and Symptoms: Osteoporosis is a natural part of aging and only becomes a problem when bone density is low to begin with and enough calcium isn't supplied to continue to build new bone mass as you age. The symptoms include back pain, loss of height, stooped posture and a curved hump in the upper back.

Test Schedule: Women age 65 and older should have a baseline bone mineral density test to determine if they have osteoporosis.

How the Test Is Done: First a general physical is done and your height will be measured and compared to previous measurements. If your health care examiner suspects you may have osteoporosis, a bone mineral density test may be required. There are several different types of bone density tests available, ranging from an ultrasound to various low radiation X-ray tests.

Breast Cancer

What It Is: Breast cancer occurs when malignant cancer cells form in the tissues of the breast.

Causes and Symptoms: While no one is exactly sure what causes breast cancer, there are some risk factors that make you more likely to develop the cancer. These include being over 40 years of age, having a mother or sister who has had breast cancer, having your first child at an older age or never having had a child or habitual alcohol use. The most classic symptom of breast cancer is a lump in the breast tissue, but shortness of breath and bone pain in the chest wall are also symptoms.

Test Schedule: Though most experts suggest a yearly mammogram after the age of 40, Dr. David Ansell, chairman of Internal Medicine for Mount Sinai Hospital of Chicago, Ill., says the advantage of having mammography done annually between the ages of 40 and 50 is being debated. "Some experts only recommend mammograms when women reach 50 because the evidence for mammography benefit is negligible in women 40 to 50," says Dr. Ansell.

How the Test Is Done: Mammograms use a machine that compress the breast and take X-rays of the breast tissue. The breasts must be compressed in order to see the tissue more clearly.

Cervical Cancer

What It Is: Cervical cancer is the growth of cancerous cells in the cervix. It is second only to breast cancer in its incidence in women.

Causes and Symptoms: Abnormal cell changes within the cervix can be caused by infections along with certain human papillomavirus (a virus that can cause genital warts). The symptoms of cervical cancer can include pain during sexual intercourse or abnormal vaginal discharge.

Test Schedule: The recommendations for pap smear screening for cervical cancer for women is at the onset of sexual activity or at age 18. "After three normal pap smears in a row, a woman can get pap smears every three years until the age of 65," says Dr. Ansell. "High-risk women, those with HIV and those with a history of an abnormal pap smear or STDs should be screened yearly."

How the Test Is Done: A physician will take a small scraping of cells from the cervix and place them on a slide.

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