Annual blood testing is the most important step aging adults can take to prevent life-threatening disease. With blood test results in hand, you can catch critical changes in your body before they manifest as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or worse. Having the proper blood tests can empower you to enact a science-based disease-prevention program that could add decades of healthy life.
Sadly, most annual medical check-ups involve the physician ordering only routine blood tests, if blood tests are ordered at all. Far too often, this blood work does not even test for important markers of disease risk. The consequences of failing to analyze blood for proven markers of disease risk are needless disability and death.
Blood tests have benefits that go far beyond disease prevention. For example, by monitoring levels of sex hormones, you can take decisive steps to enhance your quality of life, perhaps by correcting a depressive mental state, erectile dysfunction, abdominal obesity, or by improving your memory and energy levels.
In this article, we discuss the 10 most important blood tests that people over the age of 40 should have each year. Armed with the results of these tests, aging adults can work together with their physicians to avert serious health problems and achieve optimal health.
Chemistry Panel and Complete Blood Count
The Chemistry Panel and Complete Blood Count (CBC) is the best place to begin your disease-prevention program. This low-cost panel will give you and your physician a quick snapshot of your overall health. This test provides a broad range of diagnostic information to assess your vascular, liver, kidney, and blood cell status. The Complete Blood Count measures the number, variety, percentage, concentration, and quality of platelets, red blood cells, and white blood cells, and thus is useful in screening for infections, anemias, and other hematological abnormalities.
The Chemistry Panel provides information on the status of your cardiovascular system by testing for total cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein), LDL (low-density lipo-protein), triglycerides, and the total cholesterol/HDL ratio.1
The Chemistry Panel also measures blood glucose, which is critically important for detecting early-stage metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and coronary artery disease. In light of the rapidly growing epidemic of diabetes and other related metabolic syndromes, monitoring your fasting glucose levels is as important as knowing your cholesterol.
Also included in the Chemistry Panel is an assessment of critical minerals such as calcium, potassium, and iron.
An important contributor to blood clotting, fibrinogen levels increase in response to tissue inflammation. Since the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease are essentially inflammatory processes, increased fibrinogen levels can help predict the risk of heart disease and stroke.
High fibrinogen levels not only are associated with an increased risk of heart attack, but also are seen in other inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the kidney).
One of the best ways to assess your glucose status is testing for hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c).5 This test measures a person’s blood sugar control over the last two to three months and is an independent predictor of heart disease risk in persons with or without diabetes. Maintaining healthy hemoglobin A1C levels may also help patients with diabetes to prevent some of the complications of the disease.
The American Diabetes Association recommends testing HbA1c levels every three to six months to monitor blood sugar levels in insulin-treated patients, in patients who are changing therapy, and in patients with elevated blood glucose levels. Since HbA1c is not subject to the same fluctuations that normally occur with daily glucose monitoring, it represents a more accurate picture of blood sugar control.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, is a precursor to the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. Blood levels of DHEA peak in one’s twenties and then decline dramatically with age, decreasing to 20-30% of peak youthful levels between the ages of 70 and 80. DHEA is frequently referred to as an “anti-aging” hormone.
Recently, researchers in Turkey found that DHEA levels were significantly lower in men with symptoms associated with aging, including erectile dysfunction. Healthy levels of DHEA may support immune function, bone density, mood, libido, and healthy body composition.
Supplementation with DHEA increases immunological function, improves bone mineral density, increases sexual libido in women, reduces abdominal fat, protects the brain following nerve injury, and helps prevent depression, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) (Men Only)
Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) is a protein manufactured by the prostate gland in men. Elevated levels may suggest an enlarged prostate, prostate inflammation, or prostate cancer. PSA levels may also be used to monitor the efficacy of therapeutic regimens for prostate conditions.
The American Cancer Society recommends annual PSA testing for men beginning at age 50. Men who are at high risk should begin PSA testing at age 40-45. PSA levels increase with age, even in the absence of prostate abnormalities.
The amino acid homocysteine is formed in the body during the metabolism of methionine. High homocysteine levels have been associated with increased risk of heart attack, bone fracture, and poor cognitive function.
Increasingly, medical science is discovering that inflammation within the body can lead to a range of life-threatening degenerative diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, macular degeneration, and cognitive decline. By measuring your body’s level of inflammation through regular C-reactive protein testing, you can devise a strategy of diet, exercise, and supplementation to halt many of these conditions.
Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH)
Secreted by the pituitary gland, thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) controls thyroid hormone secretion in the thyroid. When blood levels fall below normal, this indicates hyperthyroidism (increased thyroid activity, also called thyrotoxicosis), and when values are above normal, this suggests hypothyroidism (low thyroid activity).
Testosterone is produced in the testes in men, in the ovaries in women, and in the adrenal glands of both men and women. Men and women alike can be dramatically affected by the decline in testosterone levelsthat occurs with aging.
In the serum of both men and women, less than 2% of testosterone typically is found in the free (uncomplexed) state. Unlike bound testosterone, the free form of the hormone can circulate in the brain and affect nerve cells. Testosterone plays different roles in men and women, including the regulation of fertility, libido, and muscle mass. In men, free testosterone levels may be used to evaluate whether sufficient bioactive testosterone is available to protect against abdominal obesity, mental depression, osteoporosis, and heart disease. In women, low levels of testosterone have been associated with decreased libido and well-being, while high levels of free testosterone may indicate hirsuitism (a condition of excessive hair growth on the face and chest) or polycystic ovarian syndrome. Increased testosterone in women may also indicate low estrogen levels.
Like testosterone, both men and women need estrogen for numerous physiological functions. Estradiol is the primary circulating form of estrogen in men and women, and is an indicator of hypothalamic and pituitary function. Men produce estradiol in much smaller amounts than do women; most estradiol is produced from testosterone and adrenal steroid hormones, and a fraction is produced directly by the testes. In women, estradiol is produced in the ovaries, adrenal glands, and peripheral tissues. Levels of estradiol vary throughout the menstrual cycle, and drop to low but constant levels after menopause.
In women, blood estradiol levels help to evaluate menopausal status and sexual maturity. Increased levels in women may indicate an increased risk for breast or endometrial cancer. Estradiol plays a role in supporting healthy bone density in men and women. Low levels are associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis and bone fracture in men and women as well. Elevated levels of estradiol in men may accompany gynecomastia (breast enlargement), diminished sex drive, and difficulty with urination.
Yearly blood testing is a simple yet powerful strategy to help you proactively take charge of your current and future health. A well-chosen complement of blood tests can thoroughly assess your overall state of health, as well as detect the silent warning signals that precede the development of serious diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
Many diseases and disorders are treatable when caught early, but can severely impair the quality and length of your life if left unattended. Identifying these hidden risk factors will enable you to implement powerful strategies such as proper nutrition, weight loss, exercise, supplements, and medications in order to prevent progression to full-blown, life-threatening diseases. Blood testing can also detect biochemical changes that threaten well-being and quality of life, such as declining levels of sex hormones.
Armed with information on important health biomarkers, you and your physician can plan and execute a strategy to help you achieve and maintain vibrant health.