If you’re relying on the basic tests you get at your annual physical to measure your health, you may not be seeing the whole picture. Many diseases won’t be caught, much less prevented, by the American Medical Associations’s standard of care testing. Or maybe you avoid the doctor’s office completely unless you’re experiencing symptoms. Unfortunately, as Daniel Cosgrove, MD, told Men’s Fitness, many diseases are far advanced by the time their symptoms start showing up. What steps can you take to prevent problems before they start? Here are three tests that could save your life.
1. Advanced heart disease risk panel
According to the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease is the number one killer of men in America, with one in every four male deaths caused by heart disease in 2013. They also report nearly half of all Americans have one of the three main risk factors for heart disease—high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. As I discuss here, lifestyle changes like tweaking your diet can go a long way toward protecting your heart. But to really dial in a prevention plan, it’s important to know what you’re dealing with. An advanced heart disease risk panel is actually a battery of tests that help determine your risk for heart disease. Here are some of the things the tests measure:
- LDL or “bad” cholesterol can cause the buildup of plaque in your arteries (atherosclerosis), but the LDL particle number and measure of your particular LDL pattern are as important as the total LDL that is measured in the routine annual physical.
- HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol that helps keep arteries clear by carrying LDL cholesterol away. Advanced heart disease risk testing looks at HDL particle number in addition to total HDL.
- ApoB, a measure of all of the “risky” cholesterol in your blood.
- Lp(a), a particularly dangerous cholesterol cousin that is genetically influenced.
- Homocysteine, an amino acid that significantly raises risk of plaque and heart disease.
- C-reactive protein (CRP), a protein your liver that signifies inflammation in the body
Based on your test results, you can work with a practitioner to design a prevention and/or treatment plan to optimize your cardiovascular health.
2. Genetic testing
Whether you’re worried about inheriting your father’s high blood pressure or concerned you don’t know much about your family’s medical history, genetic testing can help. Looking at your genes can determine your risk of conditions like cancer, heart disease, and dementia. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), genetic testing looks for inherited changes (also known as mutations) in chromosomes, genes, or proteins. Some of these mutations may have a neutral or even beneficial effect on your health, but others may increase your chances of developing a disease. While the field of genetic testing has advanced to the point where you can order an at-home test online, the NCI strongly suggests working with a professional who can help you understand the risks and limitations of these tests as well as interpret the results. Based on these results, a practitioner can help you to design an action plan. As I explain here, you’re not at the mercy of your genes but can actually affect which ones are turned on and off through lifestyle choices like diet, exercise, and stress management. One landmark study found people who ate more fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease even if they carried copies of the gene that increases risk of heart problems. Genetic testing helps you understand what you’re dealing with so you can adjust accordingly.
3. Nutritional testing
Unless you eat a perfectly balanced diet (and even if you do), you’re probably deficient in at least a couple micronutrients. You may also be taking medications that deplete your body’s stores—Life Extension Magazine reports common drug classes like statins and beta blockers can lower levels of the antioxidant CoQ10 and other critical compounds. While low CoQ10 often results in muscle aches, many nutrient deficiencies don’t present obvious symptoms. This means they often go undetected until they start to cause serious health problems. Poor nutrition can weaken your immune system, according to the Mayo Clinic. And research shows an association between low levels of vitamin D—which many of us experience since diligent sunscreen use prevents our bodies from making enough—and heart disease, among other serious illnesses. An experienced practitioner can check your vitamin and nutrient levels to see what you’re lacking, then make dietary and supplement recommendations to fill these holes.
Myles Spar, MD is a leading authority in Integrative Men’s Health as an author, teacher, researcher, TED talk speaker, contributor to Men’s Journal and the L.A. Times, expert on Dr. Oz and The Doctors TV shows and a faculty member of University of Arizona.