Why you should be having an annual health check

You’re probably familiar with the need to keep a regular (often annual) check on certain aspects of your body’s biochemistry – especially if you’re on particular treatments or suffering from certain conditions. For example, it’s important to monitor kidney function if you have high blood pressure or average glucose levels (HbA1c) for people suffering from diabetes.

But over recent years, two other benefits of having yearly health checks aside from simply monitoring are being recognised:

  1. Encouraging people to adopt a healthier lifestyle
  2. Assisting in the earlier diagnosis of cancer

“Knowing your numbers” is certainly a powerful motivator to improve your health. As a GP I have often witnessed the benefits of working with patients to track their liver tests in encouraging them to moderate their alcohol consumption. For others knowing their average glucose levels using the HbA1C test (an indicator of their future risks for developing type 2 diabetes) seems to be a particularly powerful motivator to loose weight. On my own part, being aware of my own cholesterol levels and seeing how this could be affected by simple lifestyle issues has kept me going to the gym for the last 5 years!

Diagnosing cancer at an early – and curable – stage is what all of us with an interest in screening would love to achieve. Unfortunately the traditional approach to screening focused on single health checks fails to recognise that many cancers evolve gradually over a period of time with quite subtle changes occurring in the body much earlier.

For example, although anaemia can be a sign of bowel or stomach cancer, recent research from Denmark and Sweden has shown that small alterations in your blood count often begin to happen two to three years before the cancer is first diagnosed. The laboratory would not usually alert GPs to any such gradual changes as they are focused on flagging up significantly abnormal individual results rather than alterations from your previous values.

Annual monitoring of men’s PSA levels and women’s CA125 levels – markers of prostate cancer and ovarian cancer – are also now seen as an important tool in improving the diagnosis – and the survival – from these conditions.

Two large research projects from the United States and the UK have now provided compelling evidence that we should pay as much attention to the changes in these markers as we currently do to their absolute values. I recently encountered a man who had undergone PSA testing and had been informed that his result was in the ‘normal range’. Fortunately, this individual had had the same test undertaken by the same laboratory exactly one year previously. When I compared the two results I noted that the PSA level had actually doubled over the year and I referred him on for specialist assessment. He is now being treated for early prostate cancer.

It’s important to remember that no screening test can claim to be 100% perfect. It’s also not a replacement for medical treatment nor does it give you cause to ignore basic guidelines on healthy living. For example, even if the results of your liver function tests come back as normal you should still not ignore basic guidelines on alcohol consumption. However, when used as part of your general approach to maintaining good health, screening has the potential to help with early diagnosis and avoidance of chronic conditions and future ill-health.