Health: Tests that prevent severe disability or death

It’s been said that if the U.S. Constitution were rewritten afresh, it would not stress the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of health. Today, when people get together, discussions eventually turn to health concerns, such as losing weight, blood pressure, bone density or other issues. Now there are tests to indicate the condition of your health. And if tests show an early abnormality, rule #1 is prevention. Rule #2 is never forget rule #1.

Blood Pressure

Hypertension is one of the main causes of heart attack, so what number should you try to maintain? Dr. William Dale, spokesperson for the American Geriatric Society, says “regardless of age, North Americans should shoot for a blood pressure of 130/80. But if you’re over 65 then 150/90 should be fine.” Over this number does not always mean medication.

Dr. Steven Nissen, chief of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, suggests it’s prudent to first change your lifestyle such as losing weight, exercising 90 minutes weekly, and reducing salt intake below 1,500 milligrams daily. He adds a diet of more fruit, vegetables, high fiber cereal, fish, and poultry may lower blood pressure as much as medication.

As I’ve advised for years, good health is all about lifestyle. Or as a Chinese proverb says, “He who takes medicine and neglects to diet wastes the skill of his doctor.”

Blood Sugar

Today 25% of North Americans over 65 suffer from Type 2 diabetes (better called Lifestyle diabetes). Years ago, Type 1 diabetes, due to genetics, was the main problem. The Diabetes Association recommends everyone should be screened at age 45. A test called HbA1c evaluates what happens to blood sugar over a long period of time. Levels below 5.7 are considered normal. So what should you do if it’s higher?

You must lose weight and the reward is significant. Dr. David Lam, medical director at the Mount Sinai Diabetes Clinical Diabetes Institute in New York, writes in Consumer Reports on Health that patients with pre-diabetes who dropped 7% of their weight, slashed their risk of diabetes by 50%. This should make everyone take notice, as it means a decrease in the risk of coronary attack, blindness, kidney failure and amputation of legs.

Bone Density

Women 65 and older and men 70 and older should have a bone mineral density test done. Your doctor can determine whether your bone density is normal, shows a slight decrease in density (osteopenia), or looks like Swiss cheese (osteoporosis) with risk of fracture.

The American Journal of Nutrition advises women older than 50 and men older than 70 to take 1,200 milligrams of calcium daily, 600 IU of vitamin D daily and follow a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, high fiber cereals, skim milk, and nuts, along with 30 minutes of lifting weights and walking more. This will slow bone mass loss within a year and decrease the risk of a broken hip and possibly spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair, or death.


Large bowel malignancies are the third most commonly diagnosed cancers today. So it’s prudent to give colon cancer your attention, and earlier is better than later. If you wait for symptoms, you may already be in serious trouble. My advice is to get a colonoscopy as early in your midlife as possible. The fecal occult blood test (FOBT) detects blood in the stool, the signal of a problem, but this test can miss an early cancer.

It’s been said if you don’t take care of yourself, the undertaker will. We must all remember that the greatest wealth is our health. And that looking after yourself is not being selfish. It’s a matter of survival.

Dr. W. Gifford-Jones can be reached at

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