Common Health Tests

Why is health screening important?

Common health tests may be performed in your doctor's office, at health fairs, or even in the pharmacy. Regular health checks and screening for certain diseases and conditions have become routine for most people.

If you have any questions about exactly which tests are right for you, please discuss these concerns with your own doctor.

Screening tests for some of the less common conditions are not included here. However, it is important to be aware that just because doctors can identify someone at increased risk for a condition does not necessarily mean that it is preventable. It may simply mean that you will need to work with your doctor to closely monitor your health to ensure that the condition is detected as early as possible.

This is a brief review of some common screening health tests and it is not intended to include all of the available screening tests.

What Is a Screening Test?

Screening is a method of finding diseases in people who do not yet have any signs or symptoms of the disease being screened. The goal of screening is to help people live longer, healthier lives.

  • Does screening improve health outcomes? Sometimes, a person diagnosed with the condition by screening seems to have no improvement in health when compared with a person who is only diagnosed when the disease eventually shows signs or symptoms. An example of a condition in which there is still some debate is diabetes. Although it is clear that there is probably some benefit from screening people with a strong family history of diabetes, annual screening does not necessarily seem to be useful in the general population.
  • When does screening help? Screening helps when a test finds the disease or problem in a large proportion of cases. An excellent example is blood pressure. The blood pressure cuff is very accurate in diagnosing high blood pressure.
  • What are the risks of screening tests? Accuracy of testing is the only risk of screening.
    • However accurate a test may be, tests are never 100 % accurate, and a test may not detect a disease that is there. These called "false negatives."
    • The reverse event can also occur; a test may falsely find a disease where there is none. These results are said to be "false positives." The result of a false positive may be further unnecessary testing, which may be more complex, risky, and expensive.
  • Are common tests more appropriate for some people? All these factors are taken into account before a test is regularly and widely used as a routine health test. These widely used tests are discussed here. Although many screening tests may be appropriate for everyone some screening tests are more appropriate for certain groups of people.
    • Examples would be Pap smears and mammography for women or regular colorectal examinations for people with a family history of colorectal cancer.
    • The family history is very important to a doctor because it may point out tests that the doctor would perform in one case that may not be indicated in another person.
  • What are the best or most reliable screening tests, and when should they be done? Among people in the Western world, a major cause of death is coronary artery disease. There are a number of risk factors for this condition. A risk factor is a characteristic, behavior or environmental condition that increases the chances of developing a disease when compared with a person who does not have the risk factor. Some risk factors for heart disease include a family history of heart disease, smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
    • Some of these risk factors you cannot change. You cannot change family history, for example.
    • Some risk factors are completely under your control. You can determine whether to alter that risk factor, like smoking cessation.
    • Some factors could be altered through medication, dietary control, exercise, or other means. Examples are high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Cholesterol and Blood Pressure Measurements

Blood pressure checks: High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and also for a number of other diseases, such as stroke, kidney failure, and eye problems. High blood pressure may have no signs or symptoms at all, until one of these complications strikes. Measurement of blood pressure is relatively straightforward and reliable way to monitor risk and should be recorded every two years or so.

  • The recommendation is that everyone over 3 years of age should have a blood pressure recorded every two years or so.
  • Normal blood pressure should be no higher than 140/90, although it is clear that the lower the blood pressure (up to a point), the lower the risk.
  • If a high normal blood pressure reading is detected, then blood pressure should be checked more frequently. Most doctors would recommend every year. If the blood pressure is above normal on three readings, spaced over a period of time, then therapy should begin. This should be at the discretion of the doctor, because there are cases where it is appropriate to start treatment immediately if someone has very high blood pressure readings.

Cholesterol checks: High cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. This seems to be particularly predictive for middle-aged men. The evidence that lowering cholesterol, especially if only slightly elevated, in women, young people, and the elderly, reduces the risk of heart disease is not as strong.

  • What is meant by high cholesterol? People with cholesterol levels over 200 mg/dL are considered to have elevated cholesterol levels. An optimal level is felt to be 180 mg/dL.
  • If the cholesterol level is between 200 and 240, then this is considered borderline high. Levels above 240 are high. Diet and exercise can often lower borderline high cholesterol levels, while medications are frequently recommended for high levels.
  • In general, you should have your cholesterol checked every five years or more frequently if you have a previous high level.