Prevention & Recovery

9 basic health tests to help you live longer

Photography by ©iStockphoto.com/Yuri_Arcurs Author: Canadian Living Credits: Photography by ©iStockphoto.com/Yuri_Arcurs

Prevention & Recovery

9 basic health tests to help you live longer

1. Mammogram
Why get it
While the Canadian Cancer Society points out that no cancer screening is guaranteed to be totally accurate, a mammogram is the most reliable method of detecting breast cancer.

What it involves
A low-dose X-ray of each breast. The technician helps you place your breast on a plastic plate and then another plate is pressed on top to flatten the breast and ensure it doesn’t move. It can be uncomfortable or even painful, but it lasts only a few seconds.

The whole process takes around 20 minutes. You get the results within a few days from your GP or the clinic where you had the test done. All provinces have breast cancer screening programs for women ages 50 to 69.

When to start

If you’re between 40 and 49, talk to your doctor about your risk for breast cancer (based on your family history and your lifestyle), because it’s unclear whether regular mammograms benefit those in that age group. The Canadian Cancer Society says women ages 50 to 69 should have a mammogram every two years.

For women; covered by insurance.

2. Eye exam
Why get it
The eyes may be the window to the soul, but they’re also a window through which an optometrist can detect cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, hypertension and even early signs of diabetes. The eyes are the only place where you can look at blood vessels without surgical intervention, says Dr. Tom Adamack, an optometrist in Powell River, B.C.

What it involves
An optometrist will examine your eyes externally and internally (with a special microscope), test for glaucoma and administer the familiar reading-chart vision test. Often the optometrist will put drops in your eyes to enlarge the pupils to see the inside of your eyes in more detail. The tests can take up to an hour, and you’ll get your results right after the exam.

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When to start
Everyone between the ages of 20 and 64 should have an eye test at least every two years; for people under 20 or over 64, once a year.

Adamack recommends having your kids tested annually, beginning at a year old, to look for lazy eyes or crossed eyes, and check overall ocular health.

The Canadian Association of Optometrists says almost 25 percent of children have undetected vision problems, which could affect their learning abilities.

You should also know
Tests for kids under 12 are usually covered by provincial health plans. Eye exams are not covered, although in many provinces, people age 20 or under, or over 64, are entitled to a yearly examination.

Eye exams cost between $75 and $125, but additional testing, such as a field test or OCT scan, may cost more.

For women, men and children.

3. Colonoscopy
Why get it
Colorectal cancer is the second-largest cause of cancer deaths in Canada, but it often shows no symptoms. According to a report by the Canadian Cancer Society, the Public Health Agency of Canada and Statistics Canada, if 80 percent of Canadians age 50 and older were screened over the next 10 years, as many as 15,000 deaths could be prevented.

What it involves

If you have an average risk for colon cancer (meaning you have no personal history of colon cancer, no immediate relatives with the cancer and no symptoms), Dr. Reena Chada, a family doctor in Toronto, suggests starting with an at-home fecal occult blood test (FOBT), which is, she says, “a noninvasive alternative to a colonoscopy.”

Your GP gives you the FOBT kit and, for three days, you place a tiny stool sample on three sterile areas of the kit. You then mail it to a lab, which will look for trace amounts of blood in the stool. If blood is detected, your GP will likely follow up with a colonoscopy, for which you’re sedated and a gastroenterologist inserts a small lit tube through your rectum to look at the lining of your colon.

Page 2 of 6 -- Discover what health problems a regular hearing test can detect on page 3
If something looks abnormal, the doctor may take a tissue sample or remove one or more polyps that are found. The FOBT takes a few minutes over three days; a colonoscopy takes 20 to 30 minutes, plus one hour to recover from the sedation (and you’ll need someone to drive you home).

Results of the FOBT arrive at your GP’s office within a week, while the gastroenterologist will either give you your colonoscopy results on the spot or ask you to return for a followup.

When to start

The Canadian Cancer Society recommends men and women age 50 and over get an FOBT at least every two years. High-risk individuals should discuss routine checkups with their doctors.

For women, men; covered by insurance.

4. Hearing test
Why get it
You might think your dwindling hearing is a normal part of getting older, and that’s often true. But hearing loss can also raise a red flag for other conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and cardiovascular disease.

Poor hearing can also increase your risk for depression, due to the social isolation it can cause. And the Canadian Paediatric Society says three in 1,000 babies are born completely deaf, and another three in 1,000 have serious hearing loss.

What it involves
For the test, you listen to sounds at various volumes and frequencies, and the audiologist tracks what you can or can’t hear on an audiogram. At the end of the one-hour test, the audiologist will talk to you about your results and what to do next.

When to start

Babies should be checked shortly after birth. So far only Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. have universal screening programs for babies, though other provinces are currently working toward that goal.

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If your hospital doesn’t automatically test your baby’s hearing, ask your GP or obstetrician to recommend an audiologist.

If you’re experiencing significant hearing loss or other symptoms, such as dizziness or depression, talk to your doctor. You may need regular tests, depending on whether the symptoms worsen or stay the same.

You should also know

Audiology tests for adults aren’t covered by provincial health-care plans. However, if your GP sends you to a specialist (such as an ear, nose and throat doctor) because your symptoms warrant further examination, you won’t be charged.

For women, men and children.

5. Pap smear
Why get it
The first stages of cervical cancer often don’t produce any symptoms, but research has shown that regular Pap tests may prevent cancer and that women who have regular tests are more likely to survive cervical cancer than those who don’t.

The biggest risk factor for cervical cancer is human papillomavirus (HPV), which spreads primarily through sexual contact. Chada says that even with the advent of the HPV vaccine, sexually active women over 21 still need regular Pap smears.

What it involves
Your doctor or gynecologist uses a small broom-like plastic utensil to carefully obtain cells from the surface of the cervix. The cells are placed in a liquid medium that is sent to a lab. The process can be uncomfortable, but it’s rarely painful and lasts just a few minutes. You’ll get the results through your doctor, though you’ll often only be notified if there is any cause for concern.

When to start
Chada says there’s no need to have a Pap test until you’re sexually active and age 21 or older. (Science has shown that sexually active women under 21 are likely to get false positive results.) You’ll need the test every one to three years, depending on your previous test results. Even if you have stopped having sex, you should continue to have the test. If you’ve had a hysterectomy, talk to your doctor about whether a test is still necessary.

For women; covered by insurance.

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6. Vitamin D test
Why get it
Growing evidence suggests that vitamin D may reduce the risk of some types of cancer, especially colorectal and breast cancers. It may also stave off multiple sclerosis and fight infections.

According to Health Canada, too little vitamin D can cause calcium levels to drop, so if you have osteoporosis, rickets, renal disease or your body has trouble absorbing nutrients, schedule a test with your GP.

However, Chada notes that almost all Canadians have low levels of vitamin D. She believes the most sensible route is to take a daily supplement.

What it involves
Your vitamin D level is checked through a blood test at a lab, which will give you the results in a day or two. However, so far six provinces have decided to limit “unnecessary” vitamin D testing – which is testing when there are no serious medical conditions involved. In that case, your GP can direct you to a lab, but you will have to pay for the test. The cost ranges from $32 in some Ontario labs to $93 in B.C.

When to start
Opinions are divided on who should get the test. Health Canada recommends adults over 50 should take 600 IU of vitamin D a day and follow Canada’s Food Guide; those over 70 should have 800 IU. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends taking 1,000 IU of vitamin D daily during the fall and winter months.

For women, men and children.

7. Diabetes test
Why get it
If diabetes is left untreated or isn’t managed properly, it can lead to other health complications, including heart, kidney and eye diseases, impotence and nerve damage. Dr. Ivan Kominek, a dental surgeon in Toronto, says people with diabetes are also more likely to have periodontal disease, a chronic bacterial gum and bone infection that can lead to tooth loss.

What it involves
The most common way to measure your blood sugar is with a fasting blood-glucose test. A lab takes a blood sample and the results are sent to your doctor, usually within a week. An eye exam can also reveal the onset of diabetes, so visit your optometrist at least once every two years.

When to start
The Canadian Diabetes Association recommends screening at least every three years for everyone over age 40. If you have risk factors that make it more likely that you could develop type 2 diabetes – such as having heart disease or having a close relative who has diabetes – you should be tested more often or start regular screenings at a younger age.

For women, men, children; covered by insurance.

Page 5 of 6 -- A simple test can keep heart disease at bay. Read more on page 6

8. Cholesterol level check
Why get it
Cholesterol is one of several fats in your blood. If you produce too much of it, the extra fat (called plaque) builds up and will clog your arteries. And if your blood can’t circulate properly or plaque comesloose, you’re at risk for a heart attack or stroke.

High cholesterol often doesn’t have any symptoms, which makes screening particularly important. You should also have a regular eye test; Adamack says a test can detect even the smallest amount of plaque.

What it involves
Your GP will send you to a lab for a blood test.

When to start
The Public Health Agency of Canada suggests screening for men over age 40 and women who are postmenopausal or over 50.

Your doctor may also book a test if you smoke or have diabetes, hypertension, abdominal obesity or a family history of premature heart disease or stroke; results are sent to your doctor. The Canadian Lipid Guidelines say tests should be carried out every one to three years.

For women, men; covered by insurance.

9. Heart health check

Why get it
Heart disease and stroke rank just behind cancer as leading causes of death. According to Statistics Canada, someone dies from heart disease or stroke every seven minutes.

What it involves
Your doctor begins by checking your blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels (via a blood test), weight, body mass index and waist circumference. If there are any anomalies – and you also have an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol – Chada says she would schedule an electrocardiogram.

A urine test can also detect health issues related tostroke, such as blood clots. Neither test takes long and you will get theresults promptly via your GP.

When to start
The Canadian Cardiovascular Society recommends the following groups get screened for coronary artery disease every one to three years: men age 40 and over; women who are past menopause or over 50; children who have family histories of conditions that cause very high cholesterol levels; and adults of any age who have risk factors, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, or who smoke. 

Anyone starting a vigorous exercise program or undergoing major surgery should also be checked.

For women, men, children; covered by insurance.


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This story was originally titled "9 Tests That Can Help You Live Longer" in the October 2012 issue.

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