The 10 Most Important Blood TestsMay 2006
By Penny Baron
The Life Extension Foundation receives hundreds of calls a week from people who ask, “What can I do to improve my health and longevity?” Our response is that we basically “have no idea.”
The reason we ostensibly appear so ignorant is that unless we know what your blood looks like under a microscope, there is no way for us to identify what steps you should take to protect your health and enhance your well-being.
Annual blood testing is the most important step aging adults can take to prevent life-threatening disease. With blood test results in hand, you can catch critical changes in your body before they manifest as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or worse. Having the proper blood tests can empower you to enact a science-based disease-prevention program that could add decades of healthy life.
Sadly, most annual medical check-ups involve the physician ordering only routine blood tests, if blood tests are ordered at all. Far too often, this blood work does not even test for important markers of disease risk. The consequences of failing to analyze blood for proven markers of disease risk are needless disability and death.
Blood tests have benefits that go far beyond disease prevention. For example, by monitoring levels of sex hormones, you can take decisive steps to enhance your quality of life, perhaps by correcting a depressive mental state, erectile dysfunction, abdominal obesity, or by improving your memory and energy levels.
In this article, we discuss the 10 most important blood tests that people over the age of 40 should have each year. Armed with the results of these tests, aging adults can work together with their physicians to avert serious health problems and achieve optimal health.
1. Chemistry Panel and Complete Blood Count
The Chemistry Panel and Complete Blood Count (CBC) is the best place to begin your disease-prevention program. This low-cost panel will give you and your physician a quick snapshot of your overall health. This test provides a broad range of diagnostic information to assess your vascular, liver, kidney, and blood cell status. The Complete Blood Count measures the number, variety, percentage, concentration, and quality of platelets, red blood cells, and white blood cells, and thus is useful in screening for infections, anemias, and other hematological abnormalities.
The Chemistry Panel provides information on the status of your cardiovascular system by testing for total cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein), LDL (low-density lipo-protein), triglycerides, and the total cholesterol/HDL ratio.1
The Chemistry Panel also measures blood glucose, which is critically important for detecting early-stage metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and coronary artery disease. In light of the rapidly growing epidemic of diabetes and other related metabolic syndromes, monitoring your fasting glucose levels is as important as knowing your cholesterol.
Also included in the Chemistry Panel is an assessment of critical minerals such as calcium, potassium, and iron.
An important contributor to blood clotting, fibrinogen levels increase in response to tissue inflammation. Since the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease are essentially inflammatory processes, increased fibrinogen levels can help predict the risk of heart disease and stroke.
High fibrinogen levels not only are associated with an increased risk of heart attack, but also are seen in other inflammatory disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the kidney).
In a recently published study from the University of Hong Kong Medical Center, researchers identified increased levels of fibrinogen in the blood as an independent risk factor for mortality in patients with peripheral arterial disease. When left untreated, peripheral arterial disease increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death. This 2005 study followed 139 men and women with peripheral arterial disease for an average of six years. Death from all causes increased with elevated fibrinogen levels: 80% of patients with a fibrinogen level above 340 mg/dL survived for less than three years. Researchers concluded that increased fibrinogen was an independent risk factor for mortality in this patient population.2
In the February 2006 issue of the Journal of Thrombosis and Haemostasis, researchers reported an association between increased levels of fibrinogen and risk for venous thrombosis (blood clots).3 A recent study from Greece found an association between higher fibrinogen levels and the presence of multiple coronary lesions in patients who had suffered an acute myocardial infarction.4
A combination of lifestyle and behavioral changes—such as quitting smoking, losing weight, and becoming more physically active—may help to lower fibrinogen levels to the optimal range. Nutritional interventions may also help to optimize fibrinogen levels. You and your physician may wish to discuss the use of fish oil, niacin, and folic acid, along with vitamins A and C.
3. Hemoglobin A1C
One of the best ways to assess your glucose status is testing for hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c).5 This test measures a person’s blood sugar control over the last two to three months and is an independent predictor of heart disease risk in persons with or without diabetes.6 Maintaining healthy hemoglobin A1C levels may also help patients with diabetes to prevent some of the complications of the disease.7
According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2005, type I diabetes patients who monitored their hemoglobin A1C (HbA1c) levels were able to achieve tight glucose control, thereby significantly lowering their risk of a cardiovascular disease event.7 Long-term elevation of blood sugar, a hallmark of diabetes, is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
The American Diabetes Association recommends testing HbA1c levels every three to six months to monitor blood sugar levels in insulin-treated patients, in patients who are changing therapy, and in patients with elevated blood glucose levels. Since HbA1c is not subject to the same fluctuations that normally occur with daily glucose monitoring, it represents a more accurate picture of blood sugar control.8
In a recent study, 1,340 type I diabetic patients were followed for a total of 17 years. Patients were randomly assigned to either intensive orconventional diabetic (blood glucose) control. In the group receivingintensive treatment, hemoglobin A1C levels were significantly lower and the risk of nonfatal myocardial infarction, stroke, or death from cardiovascular disease decreased by 57%. The decrease in HbA1c values was “significantly associated with most of the positive effects of intensive treatment on the risk of cardiovascular disease.”7
Nutritional therapies may help to optimize hemoglobin A1C levels. You and your physician may wish to discuss the use of chromium, cinnamon, and coffee berry extracts.