It’s the start of a new year and if there is one resolution that you should make and keep, it’s this: go for an annual health check-up. Yes, you should pay your doctor a visit even if you are feeling perfectly fine.
Screening for early symptoms allows you to make necessary lifestyle changes or detect the onset of diseases. While there are no set annual check-ups, there are several standard tests. These include the blood and blood pressure tests and urinalysis.
According to general practitioner Dr. Robin Chinn, basic tests are carried out for both sexes. Gender-specific tests screen for diseases, which affect the respective reproductive organs. “It’s important to get checked even if you don’t show any symptoms. This is what’s called taking preventive health measures,” explains Dr Chinn.
These days, basic health check-ups can be done at any clinic or health laboratory but more specific tests (that require state-of-the-art equipment by specialists) are usually carried out in hospitals.
Basic tests for everyone
Recommended for: Those above 35 or if you’re a smoker and/or drinker, have a body mass index (BMI) above 30, have a family history of heart diseases or if you have unhealthy eating habits.
Test Reveals: Total cholesterol including high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and triglycerides as well as liver function.
The Procedure: A small blood sample is taken and sent to the laboratory. A healthy total cholesterol level should be below 5.2 mmol/L. A normal triglycerides level is below 1.7mmol/L. A high cholesterol level increases the risk of coronary heart diseases. If normal, test should be repeated every 2 to 3 years.
The Disease: Cholesterol is a waxy fat that slowly builds up on the inner walls of the arteries. It can form plaque — a thick hard deposit that narrows the arteries. If a clot forms and blocks an artery, a heart attack or stroke can happen.
Blood pressure screening
Recommended for: Those above 35 or if you’re a smoker and/or drinker or have a BMI above 30. Anyone with a family history of heart diseases or consumes unhealthy food consisting of saturated fat should be tested earlier.
Test Reveals: Hypertension or high blood pressure
The Procedure: A stethoscope and a sphygmomanometer for measurement. Sometimes, an electronic blood pressure monitor is used. Your blood pressure is measured by systolic (higher number) and diastolic (lower number) pressures. A normal reading should be around 120/80. Tests should be repeated every two years if results are normal.
The Disease: Hypertension places extra strain on your heart and blood vessels. Prolonged strain can cause a heart attack or stroke. Early detection also prevents kidney diseases and some forms of dementia, which are believed to be linked to hypertension
Recommended for: Those who are 21 and above
Test Reveals: Colour, clarity and concentration of the urine, chemical composition of the urine with a test strip, bacteria, cells and cell parts in the urine which is identified under a microscope.
The Procedure: You will need to pee in a cup. A rapid urine test is carried out or a sample is sent to a laboratory. The test should be repeated yearly.
The Disease: If glucose (sugar) is present in the urine, the patient is usually diagnosed with diabetes. Normal fasting blood glucose is between 4.4 and 6.1mmol/L. Urinalysis can also detect infections.
Lung function tests
Recommended for: Those above 35. This test is also subject to a doctor’s recommendation
Test Reveals: Airflow in the lungs, the lung’s capacity to deliver oxygen to the blood and the strength of the breathing muscles. It also measures the oxygen level in the blood.
- Spirometry – measures how much air you can inhale and exhale, as well as how fast you can blow out air.
- Body plethysmography – measures how much air is present in the lungs when inhaling, as well as how much air remains in the lungs after exhaling.
- Lung diffusion capacity – measures how well oxygen is transferred from the lungs to the bloodstream.
- Exercise stress test – measures lung and heart function while under stress/pressure. This is normally measured while you are on a treadmill or bicycle.
Normal values are based on your age, height, ethnicity and sex. Normal results are recorded as a percentage. A value is usually considered abnormal if it is less than 80% of your predicted value.
The Disease: Pulmonary-related diseases and the lung’s capacity for those who suffer from diseases such as asthma.
Recommended for: Those above 35
Test Reveals: Cardiovascular diseases, abnormal heart function
The Procedure: Electrodes, which are connected to a machine at one end, are placed on the arms, legs and chest at the other end. The machine translates the heart’s activity into waves on paper. A regular heartbeat should be between 60 and 100 beats per minute. Less than 60 beats per minute is slow, and more than 100 beats per minute is highly irregular/abnormal.
The Disease: Cardiovascular diseases including heart attacks and stroke. Prolonged cardiovascular diseases may affect other bodily functions such as the kidneys.
Recommended for: Those aged between 40 and 45. People with more risk factors (overweight, have a history of colon cancer in the family, smokers and drinkers) may start screening earlier.
Tests Reveals: Colorectal cancer.
The Procedure: A thin flexible tube with a camera at the end is inserted into the rectum. The doctor may take photographs of the colon or carry out a biopsy. To prepare for the test, you will be given a laxative solution to drink to clean your bowels. You will also fast a few hours before the procedure. You will usually be given a mild sedative during the procedure. Some people feel nothing while others report some discomfort. A normal result is when the colon and rectum show no abnormalities or growth.
The Disease: Colorectal cancer is cancer of the colon and rectum. It is one of the most common malignancies in the world. In 2002, it was the top and third most frequently reported cancer in males and females respectively, in West Malaysia.
Digital rectal examination
Recommended for: Those above 45 years
Test Reveals: Enlarged prostate or prostate cancer, the function of the anal sphincter in cases of fecal incontinence, hemorrhoids, helps diagnose appendicitis.
The Procedure: The doctor inserts a gloved finger into the rectum. Prostate cancer may be detectable as bumps on the normally smooth surface of the prostate. Men with enlarged or inflamed prostates may feel pain or the urge to urinate when the doctor applies firm pressure on the prostate.
The Disease: Prostate cancer occurs in the prostate gland. It is located at the base of the bladder surrounding the first part of the urethra, which carries urine from the bladder. According to the Malaysian Oncological Society, it is the sixth most frequent cancer in Malaysia and it accounts for 5.7 per cent of cancer cases in males.
Recommended for: Women above 40 or women at a higher risk (those with a family history of breast cancer)
Test Reveals: Breast cancer or any abnormalities.
The Procedure: Mammogram is an x-ray of the breast to look for tumours or cysts, masses, dense areas and calcification (tiny deposits of calcium). A normal mammogram shows no sign of mass or calcification.
The Disease: Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer affecting women in Malaysia. About one in 19 Malaysian women are at risk. As with most forms of cancer, it is treatable. Probability of survival is high if the growth is caught very early on.
Pap smear and pelvic examination
Recommended for: Women above 21 or after they have been sexually active for three years, whichever comes first.
Test Reveals: Cervical cancer, abnormalities of the uterus or cervix
The Procedure: A pap smear and a pelvic examination are usually carried out simultaneously. The doctor inserts a speculum – a device to separate the vagina wall – so he or she can look at the cervix, and use a tiny spatula or brush to take a small sample of cells. The doctor also inserts his or her fingers into the vagina and rectum to check for tumours or any abnormalities. The test needs to be repeated every three years if initial result is normal.
The Disease: Cervical cancer is one of the few cancers that can be detected before it becomes malignant. It is also the second most prevalent cancer among women in Malaysia. Pelvic examinations can detect abnormalities or any growth in and around the uterus or vagina.
Bone mineral density (BMD) test
Recommended for: Post-menopausal women or those aged above 45
Test Reveals: The dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry or DXA scan analyses one’s bone mineral density (BMD). Those with low BMD are at high risk of developing osteoporosis.
The Procedure: You lie on the life-sized DXA ‘scanner’. BMD results are usually presented as a T-score. As the T-score falls below -2.5, the fracture risk increases exponentially.
The Disease: Osteoporosis is a serious disease that is prevalent in women but can also afflict men. Postmenopausal women especially Asians and Caucasians are at risk of developing osteoporosis. The average age for postmenopausal women in Malaysia is 50.7 years old.
Information and data compiled and sourced from:
The Health Screening Centre, Gleneagles Hospital Kuala Lumpur Malaysian Oncological Society, American Heart Association and the National Health Service, UK