Taking care of you: Health screenings every adult should have

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

Hey, you. Yeah, you. When was the last time you saw your doctor? You make sure your kids get their check-ups, your pets see the vet, and your cars are tuned up, but are you doing the same for yourself?

Even healthy adults should get regular health screenings to keep themselves in tip-top shape.

"There are no outward symptoms of many common health problems, which makes it important to catch the early signs so that treatment can begin as soon as possible," said Dr. Angela Tucker, a family physician at The Ohio State University Medical Center.

But we get it. No one relishes getting a Pap test or a prostate exam. It can be embarrassing, uncomfortable, and more than a little icky. So we've talked to the experts to find out exactly what you can expect when you go in for some of the most common health screenings. And they really aren't that bad. So no more excuses. Make an appointment with your doctor. We'll wait right here while you make the call.

Great, you're back. Now take a few minutes to read this article. We promise you'll feel better.

Everyone should read this part

Getting your blood pressure taken is one of the easiest and most important health screenings out there. That's why you've been getting it since you were a kid. According to the American Heart Association, high blood pressure has no symptoms and if left untreated, it can cause major damage to your arteries, heart and other organs. And guess what? You don't even need to see your doctor to keep an eye on it. "You can use those blood pressure monitors that they have at the drug store for free," Tucker said. So the next time you're at CVS or Walgreens, take your blood pressure. It might just save your life.

Two other screenings that your doctor will probably want to give you at some point will test your blood glucose levels and your cholesterol. Both of these tests require blood to be drawn and your doctor will ask you to fast overnight.

The blood glucose screening, which tests for diabetes, can be done in one of two ways. The fasting plasma glucose test measures the patient's blood glucose level first thing in the morning before eating. The oral glucose tolerance test measures the levels after fasting and again two hours after drinking a glucose-rich drink that tastes like super-sweet soda. The cholesterol test requires a simple blood draw and the results will tell your doctor your total cholesterol level, as well as your HDL and LDL levels. Diabetes and high cholesterol are similar to high blood pressure in that they are silent killers. All three of these diseases can cause a host of other health problems and can go undetected for years if you aren't screened.

Okay, those were the easy ones. Now for something a little more complicated and ostensibly yucky - the colonoscopy. "Colon cancer is one of the few cancers that can be detected in a precancerous form and removed, thereby eliminating the cancer risk," said Dr. Jean McKee of Northside Family Health, who recommends the test to her patients who are age 50 or older. It doesn't sound pleasant to have a three-and-a-half-foot tube inserted you-know-where, but according to Dr. William Wise of Colon and Rectal Surgical Associates, it really isn't as bad as you might think. "The preparation is worse than the exam," he said.

You'll be put on a clear liquid diet for the 24 hours leading up to the test. At about 4 or 5 p.m. that day, you have to drink a large volume of what Wise calls "pretty noxious stuff" which causes diarrhea. All of this is done to clear out the bowels. The worst is over by 9 or 10 p.m. and you'll have to fast after midnight.

The next morning you'll go to the hospital for the actual colonoscopy, before which you'll be given a moderate sedative intravenously. You will be responsive, but might not remember the procedure. You'll be taken to an exam room and hooked up to monitors. The doctor will then insert the scope into your rectum to look at your colon. Any abnormalities can be removed at that time and evaluated. The procedure takes about 10 to 20 minutes. You'll recover for about 30 minutes and then be released, at which time you can eat a light meal. You may feel a little sore and your stomach will be bloated and crampy, but you can resume normal activity by the next morning. "Getting a colonoscopy is important because it takes 7 to 10 years for a polyp to become a cancer. Remove that polyp and you will never have cancer," Wise said. "Colon cancer can actually be prevented through colonoscopy."

After a colonoscopy, a DEXA scan will sound easy. "A DEXA scan is used to detect osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones. Treatment can improve bone density, stop the progression of bone loss, and prevent fractures," McKee said. And the test is actually quite easy, according to Dr. Joshua Houser, section chief of muscular skeletal radiology for Columbus Radiology.

The test uses X-rays to measure the calcium and other bone minerals in a segment of bone. Houser explained that the test is done while you are lying on an exam table. An overhead arm will be lowered over you and you will be asked to keep still and hold your breath for a few seconds at a time while scans are made of your hip and lumbar spine. "DEXA scans are much more tolerable than an MRI because the patient is not confined or enclosed," Houser said. There is no pain, you are fully dressed (or in a hospital gown), and it's all over in 15 to 20 minutes. DEXA scans are recommended for women over age 65 and men over 70.

Ladies only

Ladies, you know Pap tests are important, right? They detect the signs of cervical cancer. "Cervical cancer is easily curable in its early stages," Tucker said. So what are you waiting for?

The test can be uncomfortable, but only lasts about 30 seconds. You will lie on your back with your feet in stirrups. The doctor will insert a speculum into your vagina, which holds the vagina open so that the doctor can see your cervix. Next, a small spatula will be used to take a sample of cells from the outer part of the cervix. A small brush or swab is then inserted to take a sample of cells from the inner part of the cervix. The samples are sent to a lab for testing and you can get on with your day.

Before you put off getting a mammogram for another year, take these three factors into consideration:

According to Tucker, "Doctors can't catch all signs of breast cancer through a physical exam."

Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer among U.S. women and is the second leading cause of cancer death in women.

"The size of a breast cancer and how far it has spread are important factors in predicting the prognosis for a woman with this disease," according to the American Cancer Society.

Dr. Adele Lipari, section chief of breast imaging at the James Cancer Hospital, tells women to expect mild compression of their breasts during a mammogram. "The pain is really not something to be alarmed about," she said.

"And women need to remember that they are in control. If something hurts, the technician will back off."

Two images are taken of each breast during a regular screening - a side view and a top view. The whole thing should take about 15 minutes. If you are still worried about the pain, check out ColumbusParent.com for Lipari's tips for a more comfortable mammogram.

Just for men

Okay guys, you know what's coming - the prostate exam. Prostate cancer is the second most common type of cancer among U.S. men and in its earliest and most treatable stages, prostate cancer does not present any outward symptoms, which makes getting the exam very important.

Here are the basics according to Wise. You will lie on your side and your doctor will insert a gloved finger into your rectum while asking you to bear down. Your prostate should feel like two smooth lobes - something like the pad of your thumb. If it is cancerous, it will feel harder and bumpier, like the tip of your nose. "The test takes about 20 seconds to complete," Wise said. "It should be a part of a normal exam for all men over the age of 40."

See? We told you these tests weren't that bad. Now go see your doctor and find out if you're due for any of these screenings. You - and your family - deserve it.

Truda Shinker is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom living in Powell with her husband and two children.

Immunizations: They're not just for babies

Your kids are probably up to date on their shots, but are you? Most adults don't realize that they need immunizations too. Dr. Kristen Rundell of Riverside Family Practice recommends the following immunizations for adults.

  • Meningitis vaccine: One shot, with a booster after five years. Recommended for teachers, college students and other high risk groups.
  • Tetanus vaccine: Most people get a booster shot at age 15 from their pediatrician. Adults should continue to receive boosters every 10 years.
  • Pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine: Adults should receive this around age 25. It is especially important for people who work with small children.
  • Shingles vaccine: One shot, recommended for adults 60 years and older.
  • Pneumonia vaccine: One shot, recommended for all adults age 65 and older, as well as other high risk groups.
Tips for making your mammogram more comfortable

Although mammograms are nothing to be afraid of, Dr. Adele Lipari, section chief of breast imaging at the James Cancer Hospital, has some tips to make them more comfortable.

  • Schedule your mammogram for 10 days after your period. Your breasts will be less sensitive at this point in your cycle.
  • Stop all caffeine a week ahead of your appointment.
  • Take Advil before your appointment.
  • And remember, the patient is in control. If something hurts, the technician will back off.

What's the deal with mammograms?

There has been a lot of controversy lately about when and how often women should get mammograms. The common wisdom in the medical community has always been that women over 40 should get a mammogram every one to two years. Then in November 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a government appointed group of doctors, released new recommendations stating that women should delay getting regular mammograms until age 50. The group found that regular mammograms in women between 40 and 50 years of age did reduce the risk of dying from breast cancer by 15 percent, but felt that the risk of anxiety caused by false positives and the often unnecessary surgical procedures required to investigate these results did not outweigh the benefits.

Many in the medical community were outraged by the new recommendations. Groups such as the American Cancer Society have refused to change their guidelines and continue to recommend yearly mammograms for women over 40. Other doctors agree with the reasoning behind the new guidelines.

So what does this mean for women? Whom do you believe? Basically, it comes down to this: talk to your doctor about your risk factors and personal preferences. Only you and your doctor can make the right decision for you, regardless of the guidelines.