When you’re feeling perfectly fit and healthy, getting screened for a disease or disorder might seem unnecessary. After all, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? But as any healthcare professional will tell you, the whole point of health screenings is either to identify risk factors for a disease before it develops or to catch an existing but as-yet undetected problem at the earliest possible stage, before symptoms arise.
Why is early detection so critical? Many serious health conditions—such as high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, and various forms of cancer—are “silent” early on, meaning they cause no noticeable symptoms in the initial stages when they tend to be most treatable or potentially even curable. In some cases, by the time symptoms appear, a disease has already advanced to the point that treatment is no longer effective.
Health screenings can also be a powerful tool for disease prevention—not just early detection. For example, if screening reveals a worrisome trend in your blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol level, your doctor can advise you on lifestyle changes you can make or medications you can take to help bring the level back into the desirable range. As a result of screening and some simple lifestyle modifications, you might be able to prevent a manageable risk factor from leading to a more serious chronic health condition, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
People can benefit from many different health screenings throughout their lives, and several factors influence which specific health screenings an individual should get. Based on factors such as your age, sex, personal history, family history, and lifestyle habits, your doctor will help determine which screenings are right for you, the age at which you should consider getting initial screenings, and the appropriate timing/frequency of follow-up screenings.
While a comprehensive listing of health screenings is beyond the scope of this article, here are just a few examples of ones that can save you a lot of suffering or even save your life.
This blanket term encompasses a variety of different measurements that influence cardiovascular health and the risk for heart attack and stroke, such as body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol level, and blood glucose. Of course, blood glucose screening is also vital from the standpoint of diabetes prevention and management.
Mammograms involve the use of low-dose x-ray to screen women for breast cancer or to assist in diagnosis if a growth has been identified. This screening tool is essential to early breast cancer detection along with monthly self-exams and regular medical exams.
The Pap test, or Pap smear, involves taking a sampling of cells from a woman’s cervix and looking for early changes that can lead to cervical cancer. The sample can also be tested for the presence of human papillomavirus, or HPV, which is associated with nearly all cervical cancers.
During a colonoscopy, a thin, flexible, lighted tube with a tiny video camera attached is passed through the rectum and colon to look for abnormalities such as cancerous or precancerous polyps. The doctor can biopsy abnormal tissue or remove suspicious polyps during the procedure as well.
Of course, with the pandemic still ongoing, the screening/testing on most people’s minds today is for COVID-19. In this case, screening usually takes the form of a questionnaire that asks about your contacts, travel history, physical symptoms, etc., whereas different types of testing are used to determine whether you’re actively infected with the virus or were infected as evidenced by the presence of antibodies in your blood.
Again, this is just a sampling of the many different health screenings available, and you can decide which screenings are appropriate for you in consultation with your doctor. It’s important to understand that health screenings do have their limitations and, in some cases, can yield false positives or false negatives. However, the results of a health screening are a good starting point for further evaluation and discussion with your doctor and can be used as a baseline against which future results can be compared.
Perhaps the most important message to take away is this: If you’re healthy and feeling fine right now, getting timely, appropriate health screenings will help ensure that you stay that way.