12 Health Stats You Absolutely Should Know About Yourself
Original article published by Real Simple, June 18, 2020 on RealSimple.com
By Kristin Granero
Now more than ever, it’s important to care for your health—and it’s easier to do that if you know your body. Pay attention to these 12 health factors, and you’ll be able to pinpoint most new health issues in a flash.
Chances are, you keep track of some standard health stats—your height, your weight, perhaps even your blood type—but how much do you really know about your own body?
There can be real enlightening (if not life-saving) advantages to going beneath the surface when it comes to your health factors. From your mouth to your moles to your metabolism, medical experts say there are certain areas, numbers, and even letters that are more telling than you might think when it comes to assessing current—and perhaps minimizing or even avoiding future—health risks.
Read on as the pros share some of the seemingly small things that, if monitored and managed properly, could make a big impact on your well-being down the road. After all, with most things regarding health, doctors point out that early detection is key, and many of these assessments can be done yourself or with the help of an affordable device from the local pharmacy.
With the coronavirus crisis putting a renewed spotlight on health, remember that you are your own best health advocate. If you know these things about yourself now, if you get sick or are injured (regardless of whether it’s related to COVID-19), you’ll be better equipped to get the care you need in a timely manner.
1. Your blood type
Why it matters: Blood types (otherwise referred to as blood groups) classify blood based on the presence or absence of antigens (A or B) or antibodies that exist on a red blood cell. “There can also be a Rhesus (Rh) factor, a protein found on the covering of the red blood cells, which denotes the positive,” says Alexandra Kreps, MD, an internist at Tru Whole Care.
Knowing your blood type is important because it dictates the position you’re in to give and receive transfusions. “Someone who is O-, and therefore without an A or B antigen or Rhesus protein, can donate to all blood types, but can only receive blood from someone else who is O-,” Dr. Kreps says. “Conversely, someone who is AB+, and therefore without antibodies to cause a reaction with other blood types, can receive donations from all blood types, but only give to someone else who is AB+.”
Additionally, Dr. Kreps says research suggests associations between various blood types and certain health concerns. “For example, type O has been tied to higher rates of stomach ulcers and lower risk of blood-clotting issues and disorders, whereas—in descending order—B, AB, and A have been tied to a higher risk of pancreatic cancer,” she says. “Type AB has also been associated with a somewhat higher risk of dementia and cognitive impairment.”
Lastly, Dr. Kreps points out that some doctors (namely Dr. Peter D’Adamo, founder of the Blood Type Diet) have developed theories suggesting pairing certain blood types with certain diets can improve one’s digestion, increase energy, help maintain a certain body weight, and reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular events, though she suggests more research to fully support these theories.
Your action plan: To determine your blood type, Dr. Kreps recommends asking your primary care physician or hematologist for an ABO typing, which she says can be done with a simple blood test such as a complete blood count (or CBC).
“If you’re ever hospitalized and blood is needed, you will most likely have your blood type retested to confirm it’s accurate or, in an emergency situation, given O- since it typically has the lowest risk of causing a reaction with your own blood,” she says. Still, knowing ahead of time can only help.
2. Your blood pressure
Why it matters: Despite tremendous advances over the past several decades, cardiovascular disease (CVD) remains the single greatest cause of mortality and morbidity for men and women, says Michael J. Barber, MD, PhD, FACC, FAHA, FHRS, medical director at Strata Integrated Wellness Spa. “Over the past several years, there’s been an increased emphasis on the general public getting to know their numbers, starting with blood pressure,” he says.
According to Dr. Barber, the American Heart Association (AHA) defines a normal blood pressure as having a top number, or systolic blood pressure, of less than 120 mmHg and a bottom number, or diastolic blood pressure, of less than 80 mmHg. Blood pressure is elevated when the systolic readings range from 120-129 mmHg and the diastolic blood pressure is normal.
Dr. Barber says that an elevated blood pressure is significant because it often progresses into Stage I (systolic 130-139 or diastolic 80-89) and then Stage II (systolic over 140 or diastolic over 90) hypertension, which can eventually lead to a risk of atherosclerotic heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.
Your action plan: You can measure your blood pressure at home (see a quick tutorial from the AHA here), or visit your family doctor to help you assess your blood pressure. “In general, hypertension is asymptomatic, but if the blood pressure is higher than 180/120 and the person is experiencing symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, back pain, numbness, weakness, change in vision, or difficulty speaking, it is essential that the pressure be lowered and the person seek immediate medical attention,” Dr. Barber says.
Like Dr. Kreps, he also suggests learning your blood type, as he says certain ones (particularly A, B, and AB) have been associated with higher cardiovascular risk.
3. Your cholesterol levels
Why it matters: Dr. Barber says you’ll want to watch for high cholesterol levels because, though essential for survival, too much of a good thing can prove very bad, especially if combined with high blood pressure.
“Cholesterol acts as building blocks for cells, certain hormones, and bile production in the liver, but an overabundance can lead to plaque accumulation on the walls of the arteries resulting in so-called hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis,” he says.
According to Dr. Barber, the AHA advises total cholesterol (TC) should be less than 200 mg/dL. “TC is considered borderline high with readings up to 240 mg/dL. Anything above 240 is considered high, but these parameters often are considered too high for individuals with significant risks or known cardiovascular disease,” he says.
Dr. Barber says you typically want to see low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), or bad cholesterol, numbers on the lower end—less than 100 mg/dL—and high density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol, higher—ideally more than 60 mg/dL.
Your action plan: “Lipids can be measured using a simple blood test performed once or twice a year depending on the severity of the abnormalities and the approach taken to manage the problem,” Dr. Barber says.
He adds that these numbers can potentially be lowered with the help of lifestyle changes, such as avoiding smoking, exercising, and maintaining a healthy diet. “If lifestyle changes aren't enough, cholesterol-lowering medications or supplements may also help,” he says. “Talk to your doctor or provider about the best approach for your specific circumstances.”
4. Your triglyceride levels
Why it matters: Experts say triglycerides are a third, and perhaps more understated, factor to consider when evaluating cardiovascular risk. According to Steven Gundry, MD, a heart surgeon and medical director at The International Heart and Lung Institute Center for Restorative Medicine and author of The Longevity Paradox: How to Die Young at a Ripe Old Age, triglycerides are typically the first form of fat to surface from metabolism of sugars and starches.
Triglycerides raise LDL (bad cholesterol), especially small dense LDL and oxidized LDL, which starts the atherosclerosis process. The higher the triglycerides, the higher the potential for buildup, which can lead to heart disease. Making matters worse, as triglycerides rise, HDL (good cholesterol) falls, which can further increase that risk, Dr. Gundry says.
Dr. Gundry says most medical labs designate an upper limit of 150 or, more conservatively, 100. “In my 25 years of experience in preventing and reversing coronary artery disease, however, I’d say triglycerides should preferably be in the 40-50 range for maximal effect,” he says.
Your action plan: Dr. Gundry suggests having your triglycerides measured by a doctor, ideally along with your fasting insulin level. “Fasting insulin levels are the easiest way to measure insulin resistance, the driving factor behind diabetes and prediabetes,” he says. “Elevated insulin by itself stimulates smooth muscle proliferation in the wall of blood vessels, part of the early process in atherosclerosis, as well.”
He adds that reducing the intake of simple carbohydrates, including grains and fruit, can also help bring these numbers down.
5. Your thyroid levels and metabolism
Why it matters: Metabolism, the cellular reactions that nourish life, are affected by our hormone levels, with the body’s principle quarterback of metabolism being the thyroid hormone, says Sean Bourke, MD, founder and chief medical officer at JumpstartMD and diplomat of the American Board of Obesity Medicine.
“Thyroid levels often decline as we age, beginning in our mid-30s,” Dr. Bourke says. “Even levels at the low end of the normal range of this hormone can lead to difficulty losing weight, decreased energy, diminished mood, ‘foggy headedness,’ forgetfulness, feeling cold, constipation, or other symptoms, and can be associated with increased cholesterol, risk of heart disease, decreased heart function, and overall higher mortality.”
Your action plan: To better understand your thyroid activity, Dr. Bourke suggests having a panel of thyroid tests checked annually by your physician or endocrinologist, starting in your 40s.
“Ideally, the panel would include your Free T3 (or triiodothyronine, the biologically active form of thyroid), TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone), and Free T4,” he says. “Although not always ordered, Free T3 levels are of particular interest because that is the form of thyroid that binds to receptors on its target organs, and low normal levels of Free T3 often correlate with the above noted symptoms.”
If you discover low-normal levels of Free T3, Dr. Bourke says a combination of both T4 and T3 thyroid hormone therapy can help raise them. “In addition to improving quality of life, treatment can improve the cholesterol profile and heart function and may decrease risk of heart disease,” he says. “Be sure to have follow-up lab tests to confirm optimal levels and symptom improvement.”
6. The state of your mouth
Why it matters: According to Marc Lazare, DDS, MAGD, a NYC-based cosmetic dentist and president of the Academy of Biomimetic Dentistry, there is a definitive link between the mouth and the rest of the body, with many systemic diseases having oral manifestations.
“Researchers have concluded that the bacteria found in plaque (the primary etiological factor causing gum disease) is linked to coronary disease, and that people with periodontal disease are up to two times as likely to suffer a fatal heart attack and nearly three times more likely to suffer a stroke as those individuals without this disease,” Dr. Lazare says. Oral bacteria cause the platelets in the bloodstream to aggregate and form blood clots (thrombi) that can block blood vessels and infect heart valves, too, he says.
“More and more studies are also showing gum disease can also make diabetes worse, especially if you are a smoker, slowing the flow of nutrients and the removal of harmful wastes and resulting in weakening the resistance of the gums and bone tissue to the spread of infection which, if ignored, can lead to many other serious health dangers,” Dr. Lazare says.
Those with diabetes also tend to have a greater than normal risk of gingivitis (inflammation and bleeding of the gums) and periodontal disease (the disease that affects the bone and tissue surrounding your teeth) to start with, he says.
Your action plan: To minimize plaque buildup, Dr. Lazare says to make sure to brush well and effectively at least twice a day (ideally with an electric toothbrush), use a mouth rinse, floss with the proper technique, and clock in for your annual dentist visit.
“If you’re confirmed to have diabetes (or any of the other conditions I listed), you should talk to your dentist about more regular visits (every 3-6 months) to help maintain [your teeth and gums],” he says. “Be sure to consult them about any medications or therapeutic drugs that you may be taking, as they may decrease your salivary flow and adversely affect your teeth and gums. If you have a diminished salivary flow, then consider saliva substitutes and stay hydrated as much as possible.”
You should also avoid other risk factors such as smoking, chewing tobacco, and vaping.
7. The risks your moles carry
Why it matters: Moles (also called nevi), essentially pigmented skin growths, are quite common, with most showing up in early childhood and during the first 25 years of a person’s life, appearing symmetrical in shape, and remaining the same over time, says Steven Greenbaum, MD, a board-certified dermatologist practicing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and a spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation.
According to Dr. Greenbaum, atypical moles (also called dysplastic nevi), however, are worth a closer look. “Studies have shown that at least some malignant melanomas have their origin in atypical moles, which typically bear irregular features such as uneven borders and/or shifting in shape or color over time,” he says.
The higher the quantity, the greater the risk. “A certain number of clinically atypical moles will undergo transformation into malignant melanoma, thus individuals with many nevi have a statistically greater chance of developing melanoma which, if allowed to progress, can become disfiguring and even deadly,” Dr. Greenbaum says, adding that someone with 10 or more atypical moles typically has 12x the risk of melanoma.
Your action plan: Dr. Greenbaum stresses the importance of knowing, and paying attention to differences in, your body, ideally checking your skin carefully once a month. “You’ll want to be on the lookout for anything new, changing, or unusual,” he says. “More specific concerns include sores that don’t heal within three weeks, or that continue to itch, crust, scab, or bleed or a mole that increases in size and appears pearly, translucent, brown, black, or multicolored.”
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends visiting a dermatologist for a professional exam every year, and Dr. Greenbaum says those with a personal or family history of atypical moles or melanoma may be advised to see a dermatologist more often.
In the meantime, be sure to protect your skin. Dr. Greenbaum suggests a broad-spectrum SPF of 15—ideally 30 or higher for extended time spent outdoors—and sun-safe clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses for complete protection.
“Apply sunscreen before you get dressed, and then reapply to all exposed skin, remembering to get oft-overlooked areas such as the back of the ears, neck, scalp, hands, and feet, and take extra precaution when rays are at peak intensity, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” he says.
8. The curve of your spine
Why it matters: According to Steven Knauf, D.C., director of chiropractic and compliance for The Joint Chiropractic, nearly 3 percent of the U.S. population is affected by scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine. “Most people with scoliosis have a mild form of the disorder but, as conditions worsen, it can cause uneven hips, shoulders, prominent ribs, and even a shift of the waist, along with chronic back problems and loss of coordination and mobility,” he says.
Dr. Knauf says complications can also include lung and heart damage, as the rib cage can press against the organs, causing difficulties breathing and making it harder for the heart to pump.
Your action plan: While Dr. Knauf says there’s no clear cure outside of more invasive medical measures for scoliosis, there may be ways to provide relief and improve quality of life for those affected.
“Individuals can self-test or test their children at home,” he says. “Bending at the waist and reaching for the floor, examine the back from behind and from the front, looking for signs of asymmetry. Standing straight up and checking posture from the front, behind, and from the side can also help show signs of misalignment.” Try this checklist for an at-home screening.
If you suspect you have scoliosis, Dr. Knauf suggests seeing a chiropractor who can provide a diagnosis and determine the degree of curvature with appropriate imaging, then prescribe an individualized treatment plan.
“For those with less than a 40-degree curvature, it is vital to receive chiropractic treatment to deliver a gentle, non-invasive, non-addictive adjustment to help diminish, delay, or cease further degeneration in the spine,” he says.
9. The severity of your headaches
Why it matters: “Headaches can range from annoying to absolutely dreadful, with typical symptoms of headache including mild head pain to a debilitating and incapacitating migraine, and are the second most common reason Americans typically see their physicians,” says José Posas, MD, neurology officer for equity, diversity, and inclusion and program director at the Ochsner Neurology Residency.
Even more, Dr. Posas points out that, when paired with other symptoms, headaches can signal something more serious or even life-threatening.
“Concerning symptoms include loss of bowel control, blindness, facial drooping, arm or leg weakness, and loss of the ability to speak, understand language, or read,” he says. “Numbness or tingling of one side of the face, arm, or leg may warrant a clinic visit to a headache specialist. The physicians who evaluate you may decide on treatment options, or if you have concerning symptoms as listed above, they may decide on brain imaging techniques to rule out things such as a stroke or multiple sclerosis.”
Your action plan: Dr. Posas says the best defense is to know your enemy. “Use a pen and paper or a digital app (such as Migraine Insight, Migraine Monitor, Migraine Coach, or HeadApp) to help track headaches, triggers, frequency, severity, duration, and location,” he suggests.
Once you know your triggers, seek to reduce them if possible. “If you are having more than one headache a week, see a headache specialist to discuss treatment options for your headaches or migraines and, when combined with any of the other symptoms listed above, seek medical attention immediately,” Dr. Posas says.
10. Your blood glucose levels
Why it matters: It’s important to keep your blood glucose within a healthy range (70-140 mg/dL) to protect your tissues from the damage of elevated blood glucose, says Robby Barbaro, MPH, co-author of Mastering Diabetes.
“High blood glucose levels, also known as hyperglycemia, can cause inflammation, damaging vessels that supply blood to vital organs,” he says. “A reading of 200 mg/dL or above signifies Type 2 diabetes, with sustained hyperglycemia leading to further complications such as heart disease, stroke, chronic kidney disease, neuropathy, retinopathy, fatty liver disease, PCOS, and many other chronic diseases.”
Your action plan: According to Barbaro, you can easily test your blood glucose levels at home using a blood glucose meter purchased from your local pharmacy. “The best time to test is two hours after a meal-healthy elevation, which will demonstrate your ability to metabolize glucose,” he says. “If the result is above 140 mg/dL, you should contact your doctor. This is for everyone, even children. In the United States, about 1 out of 5 adolescents and 1 out of 4 young adults have prediabetes.”
Barbaro notes that people with higher weights have an elevated risk for impaired glucose tolerance. “Reducing your consumption of high-fat foods like red meat, chicken, and eggs, while increasing your intake of low-fat, plant-based, whole-foods, will optimize the function of your liver and muscle cells which will, in turn, bring your blood glucose down in the short and long-term,” he says.
11. The feel your breasts
Why it matters: Heather Richardson, MD, FACS, breast surgeon at the Bedford Breast Center in Beverly Hills, points out that every breast is different and can have varying levels of density and lumps. Because of this, it’s important to get familiar with what is normal for you in order to identify any suspicious changes and, ultimately, save your life.
“All breasts have a lumpy feel to the tissue because of the unique pattern created by the distribution of milk producing tissue and fatty elements,” she says. “Some breasts are composed of more fat that can have a softer, more even feel that is less complicated. If you feel your breast tissue is soft and even, make sure it stays that way with a monthly breast exam. If you aren’t comfortable with the texture of your breast tissue, talk to your doctor to see where you are on the spectrum of hardness (density) or unevenness.”
Dr. Richardson also cautions that if you have greater density (or more milk-making tissue and less fat), the tissue may be harder and more uneven on examination. “Women with uneven density or extremely dense breasts may have cancers that can hide in the thicker tissue, making them harder to detect on mammography,” she says. “Those women should know that they are at a slight disadvantage when it comes to mammography and that the addition of screening ultrasound may be recommended.”
Your action plan: Self-breast exams are an easy way to help keep track of any changes. “Look for hard, painless areas that may stand out, using the base of your fingers to navigate in multiple directions (up and down, then side to side, or around like a spiral, then out like the spokes of a wheel),” Dr. Richardson says.
If you do feel anything new in your breast tissue, Dr. Richardson suggests noting what size it was, where you were in your cycle, and the location in your breast tissue. “If the area is rubbery, tender, and feels somewhat slippery, it is most likely safe to recheck it over a period of weeks,” she says. “If you experience any rapid changes, such as redness in the skin, ulceration of the skin, or pulling in of the nipple, however, you should bring it to your doctor’s attention as soon as possible.”
Dr. Richardson says the best time to check your breasts is right after your period, when fluid shifts and swelling are typically at their lowest levels or, if you don’t have a period, around the same time every month. “Women between ages 40 and 70 should also schedule yearly mammograms,” she adds. “Women younger than 40 and older than 70 should talk to their doctor about what frequency of imaging is best for them.”
12. Your health history
Why it matters: In addition to assessing your current stats, experts recommend having a grasp of your medical history and being able to relay key details of it, specifically as relates to your medical records.
This includes everything from conditions and surgeries to allergies. “Having already encountered certain conditions can mean you’re more likely to have them return in the future, whereas others (such as chicken pox, measles, and mumps) can minimize or eliminate risks later on,” Dr. Kreps says. “You’ll also want to keep track of your shots, so you know if/when you’re due for any additional ones.” Most vaccine needs are dictated by various ages, she says.
Dr. Bourke points out that one shouldn’t underestimate the power of knowing your family (or genetic) health history, as well. “Certain proclivities can be passed on through generations, such as a tendency toward diabetes or weight gain, thyroid abnormalities, sometimes cancer risk, and more,” he says. “This is equally true for deadly and relatively common risks, like those for heart attacks—#1 cause of death in the country—and strokes—#5 cause of death in the country.”
Lastly, your racial background can also come into play. “Several racial groups are at increased risk of diabetes, including Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans,” Dr. Kreps says. “African Americans can also be at increased risk of certain blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease, and those from certain areas of the world—including Italians, Middle Easterners, Greeks, Southern Asians, and those of African descent—are more susceptible to another blood disorder known as thalassemia.”
Your action plan: Dr. Richardson suggests asking current and past doctors for personal records or information you don’t have readily available. You should also talk to as many relatives as you can to get your family health history.
“Ask them if they’ve had any hospitalizations or surgeries, or if they have any chronic conditions that they see a doctor for regularly,” she says. “It’s important to note especially rare cancers or diseases, and at what ages they were affected. Recognizing patterns of especially young people or clusters of family members with similar cancers, such as breast, ovarian, melanoma, or thyroid cancers, can raise alarm for a possible genetic mutation.”
Dr. Richardson says some more specific things you’ll want to know are if anyone in the family died suddenly and unexpectedly, which could be potential concern for heart disease, stroke, or issues with increased blood clotting; had problems with unexpected bleeding, especially during dental procedure or minor surgeries, which could be a clue to a clotting disorder that may be shared in the family; or had bone, liver, or lung cancers many years ago, which could have started as colon, breast, or prostate cancers that then traveled to other sites.
If there are patterns of cancer, like pancreatic, colon, melanoma, breast, ovarian, or certain types of thyroid cancers, Dr. Richardson says genetic testing can be performed with a saliva or blood sample. “If there are mutated genes that are contributing to these diseases, additional imaging to catch disease at its earliest can be lifesaving,” she says. “In some instances, the risk of cancer is so high that removal of the organs can prevent the cancer from occurring and be the upmost protection and preservation of health.”
For patterns of stroke, heart attack, or blood clotting disorders in the family, Dr. Richardson suggests regular blood tests or preparation prior to undergoing surgical procedures may help prevent blood loss or clotting of blood, reducing your risk of a pulmonary embolism. “Your doctors may have a greater sense of urgency in managing blood pressure, cholesterol, and sugar levels if diabetes is present in your family to decrease the future risk of stroke or cardiovascular disease, as well,” she says.
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