Screening tests can be an important part of maintaining our health. There’s screening for heart disease, cancers, blood vessel blockages; there’s tests such as colonoscopies, mammograms, and screening blood tests for cholesterol and prostate. There’s also mobile screening available to check for aneurysms and thyroid problems.
The purpose of a screening test is to identify a condition early so that treatment can be instituted to prevent illness or premature death. Screening is normally recommended for individuals who might be at higher risk for a certain condition or disease. Screening everyone for everything would yield very little valuable information since every individual is not vulnerable to all diseases.
For example, a 60-year-old man who has high blood pressure and high cholesterol might consider having screening for blood vessel blockage in his neck (a carotid artery doppler). He would be at higher risk for plaque development in the arteries and this could lead to a stroke. Or a 35-year-old woman whose mother has diabetes may want to have her blood sugar checked. If diabetes is detected early, treatment can prevent complications in the years to come.
But there are no perfect screening tests. Every test can tell you something, but no test can tell you everything. Screening tests may pick up a certain percentage of positive findings, but they can miss a percentage of disease as well. Tests can also give you false-positive results. False-positive results could lead to further unnecessary testing.
Since heart disease is the number one killer of Americans, we can use it as an example for examining risk. Factors that make you at increased risk for heart disease include smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes (high sugar), high blood pressure, overweight, lack of physical activity, and a strong family history of early heart disease.
Consequently, general screening for most Americans in regard to heart disease includes having your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and sugar checked. If these values are normal, you’re not having any symptoms, and you have no other risk factors, it doesn’t make sense to have more extensive heart testing because the chances of finding something wrong are relatively small.
Several organizations regularly examine common diseases and the available screening tests to identify these diseases. The U.S. Preventive Task Force is an example of a group who makes recommendations on screening. They look at who is at greatest risk for a disease and who will most likely benefit from which screening tests. A great website for looking at your risks for certain conditions is http://www.yourdiseaserisk.harvard.edu.
Screening tests play an important part in evaluating each individual’s wellness. Even more important, however, is that we institute and maintain health-promoting behaviors such as regular exercise, not smoking, and eating a healthy diet. In this way, we can be assured that we are doing all we can to keep ourselves fit.
The content in this column is for information purposes only and is not intended to be used for diagnostic or treatment purposes. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield