Expensive high-tech equipment such as MRIs and PET scans make many modern medical miracles possible... but, in truth, most of us have much of the medical information that we need to evaluate our health right at our fingertips. Low-tech, do-it-yourself tests can reveal surprisingly important information about how healthy you are... and even how long you can reasonably expect to live. With that information, you can make changes... be healthier... and live longer... all without a doctor’s intervention.
Better Than a Crystal Ball
Here are five tests you can do yourself, at home, that will help gauge your health from head to toe. You’ll need no equipment fancier than a stopwatch or tape measure, and the information you’ll get can provide valuable insights into what your future holds.
Test # 1: A Brain Teaser
In their offices, physicians use the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE) to evaluate memory and cognitive abilities and screen for signs of dementia in older people... but you can conduct your own unofficial evaluation at home. (Note: You can use these questions to determine whether someone in your life is beginning to suffer early signs of dementia, or you can use questions like these to decide whether your own memory lapses are normal or potentially worrisome.)
Required equipment: A pen and paper.
Test-taking instructions: Ask a series of straightforward questions. What’s today’s date? What country are we in? Can you repeat a phrase spoken to you by someone else? Name common objects around you, such as a pencil or watch? Consistent problems with answering questions such as these can indicate that you may have some underlying health troubles, which Dr. Rubman notes may be dementia or could point to other problems, including environmental factors or nutritional deficiencies. For example, dementia-like symptoms can sometimes be side effects of prescription or over-the-counter medications or may be caused by a deficiency of certain nutrients, such as vitamins B-12 and B-6 or the amino acid L-carnitine.
Test # 2: Stick Your Neck Out
A simple test for obstructive sleep apnea -- a dangerous sleep disorder characterized by abnormal pauses in breathing and snoring -- is neck circumference. Although size matters in the sense that larger people have larger "healthy" measurements, if you are a man with a neck circumference of 17 inches or more or a woman with a neck that measures 16 inches or greater, you have a higher-than-normal risk for sleep apnea -- in fact, you may have sleep apnea and not realize it.
Required equipment: A tape measure.
How to do it: Measure the distance around your neck at about the spot where a man would measure for collar size. If you are in the danger area, see your physician to discuss whether you should be tested for sleep apnea. Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to complications ranging from daytime sleepiness and poor concentration to an increased risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Losing weight or sleeping on your side may solve the problem, or your physician can prescribe a special sleep mask or other device to help regulate breathing.
Test # 3: Name That Fruit
In general, people of both genders whose bodies are shaped like apples (round at the middle) face greater health risks than those shaped like pears (a narrow waist and wider hips). When fat accumulates in your abdomen and around your waist, it’s a sign that fat is also building up around vital organs such as your heart, liver, kidneys and intestine. For people of average height, a waist circumference over 35 inches in women or over 40 inches in men often is an indication of higher risk for metabolic syndrome, diabetes or even heart attack or stroke.
Required equipment: That same tape measure you just used.
How to do it: Wrap the tape measure around your waist and then your hips. If your waist is bigger than your hips, you have an apple shape. To slim down, consult your health-care provider and get started on a sensible program of diet and exercise.
Test # 4: Pay Attention to Your Poop
A sudden change in bowel habits, especially if you are 50 or older, is a possible sign of a digestive disorder, which may or may not be serious. Watch for variations in stool frequency, color, consistency or shape that last longer than a few days. Also be alert to the onset of prolonged periods of constipation or diarrhea. Other stool symptoms that should be checked out with your doctor include the presence of mucus or blood (bright red or dark or clotted) or a color that is very light or very dark.
Required equipment: None.
Dr. Rubman’s tip: A normal stool is soft, medium brown, doesn’t sink quickly and doesn’t stink (not terribly, anyway). If you detect danger signs, promptly report them to your physician and seek appropriate diagnosis and treatment.
Test #5: Speed Test
Believe it or not, something as simple as the way you walk (called "gait speed" in medical-ese) is an accepted measurement of frailty in older people and a predictor of physical and cognitive health. In fact, it is a key barometer of heart and lung health and overall well-being. In the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, researchers reported that measuring gait speed even can aid doctors in determining whether a patient is fit for heart surgery. In other research, investigators found that people with a brisk gait of at least 3.28 feet (one meter) per second live longer than average.
Required equipment: A tape measure or yardstick and a stopwatch.
How to do it: Measure out a distance of 30 feet (roughly three car lengths) and then use the stopwatch to time (or have someone else do so) how long it takes you to walk the distance at your regular pace -- for instance, imagining yourself taking a walk on a nice spring day. Ideally, you should cover the distance in no more than 10 seconds. A worrisome result would be if it takes you 20 seconds. The idea here is not that you should try to walk faster, but rather that if you are healthier overall you will naturally be a faster walker. Therefore, picking up your walking speed may turn out to be a good way to achieve this general health goal -- and it will enhance your mental acuity as well. That should be ample incentive to start a regular walking program several days a week!
Yes, these tests are basic, but the information they provide is valuable and helpful -- they’re worth doing periodically to keep a measure on your health and well-being.
Andrew L. Rubman, ND, is founder and director of Southbury Clinic for Traditional Medicines, Southbury, Connecticut. www.SouthburyClinic.com.