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8 cancer and heart tests you need

Consumer Reports' advice on which screenings to put on your list

Last updated: December 2014

 

Contrary to popular belief, not everyone needs a complete head-to-toe physical each and every year. And that's coming from the folks who should know: the American College of Phy­s­icians, the American Medical Association, and the Society of General Internal Medicine. But you should keep tabs on the screening tests for heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases that are recommended for you. And the end of the year is a good time to make sure you are up to date on the tests that make sense for you.

Below is our list of the tests that most healthy people need, and how often they need them, based mainly on recommendations from the independent U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Note that some tests, such as those for prostate cancer or CT angiography for heart disease, aren’t included here because research shows they’re not very helpful for most healthy people. (Read more about our recommended screening tests for cancer and screening tests for heart disease.) People with symptoms, risk factors, or chronic diseases should ask their doctor whether they need other tests and whether they should be tested sooner, more often, or more extensively.

“If you are up to date, pat yourself on the back,” says Marvin M. Lipman, M.D., Consumer Reports chief medical adviser. “If you’re not, put ‘make a doctor appointment’ on your to-do list for the new year.”  

 

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1. Blood pressure

What test: A reading of your systolic (upper) and diastolic (lower) number.

Who needs it: Everyone.

How often: At least every two years; annually if your readings are at or above 120 over 80. Read more about how to prevent and control high blood pressure, our reviews of home blood pressure monitors, and our Best Buy Drugs recommendations for treating high blood pressure.

2. Cervical cancer  

What test: A Pap smear (an analysis of cervical cell samples) and the human papillomavirus (HPV) test (to detect the virus, which can cause the cancer).

Who needs it: Women ages 21 to 65.

How often: A Pap smear every three years. Women ages 30 to 65 can go five years between tests if they have HPV testing with their Pap smear. Read more about screening for cervical cancer (PDF).

3. Cholesterol test

What is it: A blood test to measure LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol levels as well as triglycerides, an artery-clogging fat.

Who needs it: Men 35 and older and women 45 and older who have other coronary risk factors, such as high blood pressure or a history of smoking.

How often: At least every five years. Read more about how to prevent and control high cholesterol levels and our Best Buy Drugs recommendations for treating high cholesterol.

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This top-rated blood glucose meter costs about $20.

4. Diabetes

What test: A blood test to measure your blood glucose level.

Who needs it: People with any of these risk factors: systolic (upper) blood pressure over 135 or diastolic (lower) pressure over 80; obesity (with a body mass index of 30 or higher); or LDL (bad) cholesterol over 130.

How often: Every three to five years. Read more about how to prevent and control diabetes, our reviews of home blood glucose meters, and our Best Buy Drugs recommendations for treating diabetes.  

5. Breast cancer

What test: A mammogram.

Who needs it: Women ages 50 to 74. Women in their 40s and those 75 and older should talk with a doctor to see whether testing makes sense for them based on their risk factors.

How often: Every two years.  

6. Colon cancer

What test: Colonoscopy (an exam of the entire colon with a flexible scope), sigmoidoscopy (an exam of the lower third of the colon), or a stool test.

Who needs it: People ages 50 to 75.

How often: Colonoscopy every 10 years; a sigmoidoscopy every five years plus a stool test every three years; or a stool test every year. Read more about how to prevent and treat colon cancer.

7. Osteoporosis test

What test: Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (a DXA scan) to measure bone density.

Who needs it: Women 65 or older. Men 70 and older should talk with their doctor to see if it makes sense for them.

How often: Once; the need for follow-up tests will depend on the results of the first one. Read more about how to build strong bones and our Best Buy Drugs recommendations for how to treat osteoporosis.

8. Abdominal aortic aneurysm

What test: Abdominal ultrasound to detect a potentially deadly ballooning of the main artery that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body.

Who needs it: Men ages 65 to 75 years who smoked at some point.

How often: Just once, unless results of first test are abnormal.

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