Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Health Self-Exams and Disease Prevention

While all of us rely on occasional visits to our physician to get an official health evaluation, the truth is that the ultimate responsibility for our health is up to us.  We are the ones who need to pay attention to our bodies and watch for any symptoms which could indicate a problem.  We are the ones who need to practice good preventive measures to keep our bodies functioning as smoothly as possible.  We are the ones who need to be able to concisely report any suspected problems to our doctors during the 15 minute annual appointment they allow us.

However, most of us have no idea what we can actually do to evaluate our health.  How do we recognize suspicious changes to our body?  How can we keep our body operating smoothly?  Start by talking to your doctor about any special self-exams or preventive measures which would be specific to your medical conditions.  In addition, you may want to take the following actions.  The suggestions below came from my healthcare provider, Kaiser Permanente, or were recommended in the August/September 2017 issue of AARP Magazine or the September 2017 issue of the AARP Bulletin.  I've pulled them all together in one location here.

Health Self-Exams

Check for Breast Cancer - Breast cancer can occur in both men and women, although it is more common in women.  Both men and women should do monthly breast self-exams while in the shower, checking for lumps, discharges, rashes or unusual changes in the breast area.

Check for Skin Cancer - Even one bad sunburn as a child could make you more vulnerable to skin cancer as an adult.  Everyone should look for changes to their skin.  In addition, run your fingers over your skin to see if there are areas where it feels different.  Check for patches which feel rough, spots of shiny pink or brown bumps with raised borders, or moles which have changed shape or color.

Check your Eyes - Has your sight suddenly changed?  Do you have blurry spots in your vision? Has your peripheral vision decreased?  Does your lower eyelid droop?  Is their a bump on your eyelid with missing eyelashes?  All of these could indicate serious problems which should be reported to your eye doctor quickly.

Check your Hair - Are you losing more hair than normal?  Everyone loses some hair every day.  However, if the rate of hair loss suddenly increases, it could indicate anemia or thyroid disease.  Also, check your scalp for signs of skin cancer.

Check your Heart - There are several self-tests you should do periodically to make sure everything is OK.  Buy a blood pressure monitor and check your pressure regularly.  Unless your doctor gives you other instructions, strive for blood pressure under 130/80.  At the same time, check your resting heart rate.  Your blood pressure monitor may do it for you, or you can do it manually by feeling your pulse in your neck or wrist.  Ideally, you should have a heart rate between 60 and 100 beats per minute.  If you are very fit, your resting heart rate may be slightly under 60. Report high blood pressure, an extremely high or low heart rate, or an irregular heartbeat to your doctor.

Check your Motor Skills or Ability to Move - Can you walk one meter (or 4.37 yards) at your normal pace in four seconds or less?  If not, you may want to spend more time walking, with the goal of increasing your normal walking speed.  Faster walkers tend to live longer.  You may also want to test your ability to sit on the floor and get up again.  Your goal is to be able to do that with reasonable ease and without outside help, relying on just your own hands and knees.  Being able to do that comfortably is also linked to better health.

Disease Prevention

In addition to your health self-tests, you will want to make sure you take advantage of all the preventive measures possible. Most of them are covered by Medicare or private insurance, with little or no co-pays.  Below are some which are recommended:

Get an Annual Physical - At least once a year you should see a doctor and have your blood tested for cholesterol and any abnormalities which could indicate the early stages of a variety of diseases.  The earlier an abnormality is detected, the easier it is to treat.  It is amazing how many health issues can now be detected through a simple blood test, so make sure you have yours checked at least once a year. If you have been keeping up with your health self-exams, bring your results with you when you see your doctor.  Also, write down any questions you have for your doctor so you remember to ask them during your appointment.  Between the results of your self-tests, the questions you ask, and your blood work, the results of your annual physical will be much more meaningful.

Innoculations - According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC), only 1/3 of people over the age of 65 have gotten the shingles shot; less than 2/3 have had a tetanus shot in the past 10 years; only 2/3 have had the pneumococcal vaccine; and only 2/3 of people between the ages of 65 and 74 received the flu vaccine last year.  These inoculations can save lives and also prevent misery.  Even if you had a shingles shot or pneumonia shot five or more years ago, you may want to ask your doctor whether or not you should get the updated, more protective versions. Most healthcare providers recommend these innoculations.  Check with yours to make sure you do not have a healthcare problem which would prevent you from getting one of these vaccines.

Get recommended screening tests - If your doctor recommends you get a mammogram, colonoscopy, or other screening test, be sure to follow their recommendation.  Colonoscopies can actually prevent many cases of colon cancer, since doctors remove precancerous polyps when they perform the procedure.  Screening tests can catch cancer and other diseases early and make them easier to treat.

Follow your heathcare providers' instructions for maintaining your health - This could mean losing weight, following a special diet, stopping smoking, cutting back on alcohol, getting more exercise or making other recommended lifestyle changes. Simple changes can improve both the quality and length of your life.

While taking the above steps cannot guarantee you will have perfect health for your entire life, they do increase your odds of leading a healthier and longer life.  They also make you an active participant in maintaining your health.  Ultimately, you are the person who knows your body best and you are the one responsible for seeing that it gets the best care possible.

If you are interested in learning more about common health issues affecting baby boomers, retirement planning, where to retire, Social Security, Medicare and more, use the tabs or pull-down menu at the top of the page to find links to hundreds of additional articles.


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Photo credit:  morguefile.com

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