8 Medical Tests You Need This Year

If we don’t take care of ourselves, we might end up with years, maybe even decades, of bad health.

Americans are living longer than ever. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy is 77.6 years, and this figure represents life expectancy at birth. The older you are, the longer you’re likely to live. For Americans who’ve reached 65, for example, life expectancy is 81.6 for men and 84.5 for women.

“But just as important as the years that you live are the years that you live in good health,” stresses Thomas Rice, MD, FACG, Medical Director of the Pritikin Longevity Center® & Spa in Aventura, Florida.

Since 1975, Pritikin’s doctors, dietitians, exercise physiologists, and psychologists have coached thousands worldwide on successful aging. “The Pritikin Longevity Center’s goal is increasing not only people’s life spans but their health spans,” says Dr. Rice. “You want to keep doing what you love doing – whether it’s shooting hoops or shooting across town for lunch with friends – for as long as you can.”

Individual responsibility is THE key. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we might end up with years, maybe even decades, of sluggish, sickish health. “One of the great fallacies among men is that a heart attack takes you right out…there’s no suffering,” Dr. Willam Castelli, retired director of the internationally renowned Framingham Heart Study, often contended. “But that’s just not true. Many heart patients live on for years and years with chronic, debilitating illness.”

The good news: There’s an excellent chance that through nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle factors you can protect yourself from quality-of-life-wreckers like heart disease, and, in doing so, extend your years of peak health and vitality.

To help you live better and longer, here are 8 medical/diagnostic tests you should get. All are part of the health-and-wellness programs at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Florida:

1. Cholesterol Tests

Knowing your cholesterol, particularly your LDL “bad” cholesterol, is crucial for protection against a heart attack and other cardiovascular-related problems. The higher the level of LDL cholesterol is in your blood, the greater is your risk of heart disease. The #1 killer in the United States of both men and women is heart disease.

A diet like the Pritikin Eating Plan, very low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol, and very high in fruits, whole grains, and vegetables, can dramatically lower LDL levels. An analysis of nearly 4,600 men and women attending the Pritikin Longevity Center for three weeks showed an average 23% drop in LDL bad cholesterol. (Archives of Internal Medicine, 151: 1389, 1991. See also Circulation, 106: 2530, 2002.)

2. Treadmill Stress Test

Treadmill stress tests help determine if there is adequate blood flow to your heart during increased levels of activity. Since heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, it’s a good idea for all men and women middle-aged and older to have this test.

At the Pritikin Longevity Center, the doctors also use the results from treadmill stress tests, also called exercise tolerance tests, to plan individualized exercise prescriptions. That way, each guest is assured that his/her exercise plan is both safe and effective.

3. IMT Test

Used as a research tool in universities for the last few years and now available in select facilities like the Pritikin Longevity Center, IMT testing (carotid ultrasound intimal-medial thickness) is a 100% safe, pain-free way of showing heart attack and stroke risk. IMT testing is such a breakthrough in the field of cardiovascular health that the physicians at Pritikin now make the testing part of their standard medical recommendations.

IMT testing can be a real motivator, too. “I remember one patient, a Detroit businessman who smoked and ate a lot of garbage food. He was shocked when he saw his initial IMT image,” says scientist Jacques D. Barth, M.D., Ph.D., who spearheaded the first clinical studies of IMT testing. “His IMT test showed a very large plaque as well as thickening of the inner wall of the artery, both precursors to a heart attack.”

The businessman became a Pritikin devotee. One year later, he returned to the Pritikin Longevity Center and had a second IMT. “He was thrilled at what he saw,” recalls Dr. Barth. “The plaque had disappeared, and the thickening had gone way down. His arteries looked 20 years younger, and he looked 20 years younger. He’d lost a lot of weight. He was the picture of health – both inside and out.”

For high-risk individuals, the physicians at Pritikin also utilize non-invasive, safe 64-Slice Fast CT Coronary Artery Angiography. “This 10-second procedure is the latest technology. It provides 360-degree imaging, which is not available with traditional angiographies. Traditional angiographies are also suboptimal because they’re invasive; they require catheterization of coronary arteries,” states Pritikin’s Medical Director Dr. Rice.

“With the 64-Slice CT Angiography, each participant at Pritikin also receives a CD of his or her own coronary arteries.”

4. Blood Sugar Testing

In the U.S., diabetes is the fifth most common cause of death, “and may be even higher because of underreporting,” states Dr. Rice. In America alone, 18 million are known diabetics, and 6 million more do not know they have the disease. Having diabetes is a big problem because it is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and other disabling conditions.

Fortunately, simple blood tests like the fasting plasma glucose test can determine whether you have pre-diabetes or diabetes. And there’s much you can do with lifestyle alone (no medications needed) to control the disease. The American Diabetes Association’s Diabetes Prevention Program study conclusively showed that people with pre-diabetes can prevent the onset of full-blown type 2 diabetes by following a diet-and-exercise program, like the Pritikin Program, that focuses on low-calorie, high-fiber foods and just 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise.

With a healthy lifestyle, diabetics can even get off their medications. A recently published meta-analysis of 864 type 2 diabetics found that 74% who arrived at the Pritikin Longevity Center on oral drugs no longer needed their drugs when they left the Center three weeks later. And 44% of diabetics on insulin shots were able to return home from Pritikin insulin-free. (Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005; 98: 3.)

5. Bone Density Testing

Osteoporosis, or thinning brittle bones, greatly increases the risk of serious fractures of the hip, wrists, spine, and ribs. Risk increases with age. And while osteoporosis mainly afflicts women –nearly 40% of women in their sixties have the disease – a full 20% of hip fractures occur in men.

Standard x-rays do not detect osteoporosis until one-quarter of bone mass is already lost. By then, susceptibility to fracture already exists. New technology called DEXA bone density testing, also known as bone densitometry, detects as little as 1% of bone loss.

“The only way to accurately predict increased risk for fracture is with bone densitometry, and it is the only way to monitor the success of therapy for osteoporosis and osteopenia, the beginning of bone loss,” says Dr. Rice.

“By accurately detecting bone loss with DEXA testing, we help our guests at Pritikin take the right steps to treat the disease before they’re at risk of fracture.”

6. Body Composition Scan

Your weight as measured by the scale is far from the whole story. “In fact, it can tell you the wrong story,” warns Dr. Rice. “If you’re replacing 10 pounds of fat with 10 pounds of muscle, that’s wonderful for both your health and physique, but the scale, which would still be showing the same weight, would make you feel you’d made no progress.”

By contrast, a DEXA body composition scan measures the two most important factors in weight control: percentage of body fat and percentage of lean muscle mass. By losing fat and gaining lean muscle mass, you’re burning more calories, which means you’ll reach your weight-loss goals faster. Plus, you’ll be looking better – leaner, fitter, more toned.

“At the Pritikin Longevity Center we’ve also found that the DEXA body composition testing is very motivating,” says Pritikin’s Director of Exercise Scott Danberg, MS. “Regardless of what the scale says, DEXA tells our guests that they’re on the right track. They can feel it, they can see it, and their DEXA results prove it.”

Says Michael Pouls of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, who dropped from a size 44 waist to a size 34 within a year after adopting the Pritikin Program, “I couldn’t believe how much body fat I had lost – and in just two weeks. My DEXA body composition scans gave me a tremendous ‘shot in the arm.’ I could see in black and white what a powerful effect Pritikin was having on my body.”

7. Blood Pressure Testing

It’s not fancy or high tech. But getting your blood pressure checked regularly could save your life. At least 65 million adult Americans – up from 50 million just 10 years ago – now have high blood pressure. And kids, heavier than ever, are being diagnosed with it like never before.

Hypertension (the technical term for persistent high blood pressure) dramatically increases the risk of many crippling and deadly diseases, including heart disease, dementia, kidney failure, blindness, and strokes.

The good news:  Diet alone is a powerful combatant against hypertension. Several studies funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute have found that the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches To Stop Hypertension) lowers blood pressure as well as or better than any drug. The DASH diet, similar to the Pritikin Eating Plan, promotes menus that are low in fats, salt, cholesterol, red meat, and sweets; high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans; and moderate in seafood, poultry, nuts, and low-fat or nonfat dairy foods.

With proper dietary intervention, blood pressure falls so dramatically, studies on the Pritikin Program have found, that many people no longer require anti-hypertensive drugs. In a meta-analysis of 1,117 hypertensives who attended the Pritikin Longevity Center, 55% returned home free of their drugs. Most of the remaining 45% had their dosages substantially reduced – and in just four weeks or less. (Journal of Applied Physiology, 2005; 98: 3.)

8. Sleep Apnea Testing

Are you obese? Do you wake up with a dry mouth? Are you fatigued? If so, the physicians at Pritikin recommend diagnostic testing for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a sleep disorder that is a leading cause of hypertension, right heart failure, and sudden death. With OSA, you stop breathing during sleep, and it can happen hundreds of times in one night. Having OSA also obstructs your efforts to lose weight.

To confirm a diagnosis of OSA, people normally need to spend the night in a sleep clinic for special testing. At Pritikin, overnight testing is conveniently set up in guests’ hotel rooms. “This testing, coupled with our outstanding program in CPAP therapy, is helping improve and even save lives on a daily basis,” states Dr. Rice.

There are many benefits to controlling sleep apnea, such as better blood pressure, more daytime energy, far less snoring at night, and much lower risk of heart-related problems and sudden death. “You’ll also shed weight more easily because your body is no longer fighting pound-producing hormonal disturbances caused by sleep loss,” says Dr. Sam Sugar, FACP, faculty member at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Director of the Sleep Services Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center.

“The best news of all is that losing just 10 to 15% of excess body weight improves OSA so much that it sometimes even disappears,” adds Dr. Sugar. “We see it happen all the time at Pritikin.”

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