Our lead GP, Dr Luke Pratsides, explains how often you should take a blood test and what the greatest silent health threats are to each generation.
Just because you’re young and fit doesn’t mean you’re immune to all health conditions. Even if you feel perfectly well, you should still get a health check. Several common conditions (for example, high cholesterol and prediabetes) are largely symptomless and can only be flagged with a blood test.
You might find the idea of taking a blood test is unnerving but with recent developments, you only need a small quantity of blood to measure an abundance of critical health biomarkers - including liver function, vitamin deficiencies and hormone levels. You can even do a health check at home with a simple finger prick blood test. Post it to the lab and get results within 48 hours.
We know what you’re thinking: what am I looking for? Dr Luke explains exactly which conditions you should keep an eye on for each decade of your life...
Why you should get a health screening in your 20s
“For men in their 20s, it’s important to check the function of critical organs - that means your kidneys, liver and thyroid,” explains Dr Luke.
“Sometimes, a blood test flags up underlying health conditions, which the patient had no previous knowledge about. High cholesterol is surprisingly common and even young, fit and otherwise healthy people might have the condition without realising it. A blood test also measures levels of HbA1c, which indicates whether you’re diabetic, or at risk of developing diabetes.
“Another reason a man in his 20s should take a blood test is to identify any nutrient deficiencies. Measuring your levels of common nutrients such as B12, folate, ferritin and vitamin D will help you to understand if you’re absorbing what you need from your diet.”
Selecting a blood test that measures the most critical health conditions can be confusing when you’re faced with medical jargon. So, for the following conditions, this is what you need to look out for:
- eGFR blood test for kidney function
- LFT or ALT blood test for liver function
- TSH or TFT blood test for thyroid function
- U&E blood test for magnesium
- Lipid blood test for high cholesterol
- HbA1c blood test for diabetes
- Ferritin blood test for ferritin deficiency
A single blood test can measure several health biomarkers so there’s no need to take one for each condition.
So, if you’re a man in your 20s, what’s the best way to take care of your health?
“In your 20s, the most important thing is to be mindful of how healthy lifestyle habits can set you up for good health and longevity for the future. Keep your weight in check by avoiding too much sugar and fatty foods which could put you at risk of diabetes or heart disease in the future. Exercise is crucial to develop a good physical reserve and prevent cardiovascular disease. Developing habits of regular exercise in your 20s means you’re more likely to carry on exercising into middle and older age to help maintain healthy muscles and bones, which in turn, will help maintain mobility into older years. It’s important to limit alcohol to no more than 14 units a week and avoid recreational drugs - excess of either can cause long term mental and physical health problems,” advises Dr Luke.
Why you should get a health screening in your 30s
“When you’re in your 30s, you should get your blood pressure measured as well as a blood test,” explains Dr Luke. “As a general rule, the earlier health problems are picked up, the easier they are to treat and the better the overall outcome. Whilst most men in their 30s are completely well, one of the things men in their 30s are at higher risk of is testicular cancer. Therefore, men should regularly check their testicles for any lumps. If you find a lump, never ignore it and see your GP urgently. Your GP can arrange an examination and ultrasound scan to confirm the diagnosis. If the diagnosis is cancer, the earlier it’s treated, the better the outcome.”
Why you should get a health screening in your 40s
“In your 40s, regular blood tests become increasingly important. Health risks heighten with age and you’re increasingly likely to develop diabetes or cardiovascular disease,” says Dr Luke. “It’s important to have your blood checked for cholesterol and HbA1c (which gives an understanding of your blood sugar over a period of months to calculate the risk of diabetes) together with your weight, height, and blood pressure. These measures can give you an idea of your risk of heart attacks, strokes, and diabetes.”
“For people with a family history of heart disease, you should get an ECG test, which checks your heart's rhythm and electrical activity. The test will help to identify if there’s restricted blood flow to your heart. Regular exercise and a diet that’s low in fat and sugar are crucial if you want to tackle serious health complications.
“It’s important to focus on your cardiovascular health and if you experience any chest pain you should get this investigated urgently. In particular, any chest pain that’s worse on exertion can be a sign of a blocked coronary artery that could lead to a fatal heart attack. If you ever have persistent or worsening chest pain that’s like someone’s sitting on your chest, or there’s any radiation of the pain to your left arm or jaw, this could be a sign of a heart attack and you should call 999.
“Home blood pressure monitors are relatively cheap and can now track your blood pressure through your smartphone and provide an average blood pressure over time. This average blood pressure reading is what doctors use to decide if people with high blood pressure require medication,” says Dr Luke.
Why you should get a health screening in your 50s
“You should continue to pay close attention to your cardiovascular health throughout your 50s. It’s also important to think about the hormonal changes that occur in your body when you reach 50. It’s normal for men to experience a decrease in testosterone levels after they hit 40 - by about 1% per year. For most men, this won’t cause any noticeable changes but for others who are affected more severely, a testosterone deficiency will cause symptoms such as low libido, erectile dysfunction, mood swings, depression and fatigue. This hormonal shift has been theorised as an explanation for the male version of menopause, also known as ‘andropause’. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, a blood test will help you to get to the root cause.
“When you reach 50, you’re at greater risk of developing cancer. Men have particularly high rates of bowel cancer.
“Warning signs of bowel cancer include:
- Changes in bowel habits that continue for over 2 weeks (diarrhoea or constipation)
- Feeling of incomplete bowel emptying
- Bleeding from the back passage
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
“Men are also particularly vulnerable to prostate cancer. The prostate is a small male-specific gland located between the penis and bladder. As men age, the risk of benign prostate enlargement (BPH) increases, with around one in five men affected in their 50s. Having an enlarged prostate can put pressure on your bladder, increasing the frequency and difficulty of urination. Treatment depends on the severity of the condition but you’ll most likely be recommended lifestyle changes or medication.
“BPH does not put you at greater risk of developing prostate cancer but the two conditions can cause similar symptoms, so men in their 50s must be vigilant when it comes to both BPH and prostate cancer. Warning signs of prostate cancer include:
- Blood in urine
- Increased need to urinate
- Urinary incontinence
- Difficulty passing urine
- Feeling the bladder isn’t completely empty
- Lower back pain
- Unexplained weight loss
“You must seek medical advice urgently if you’re suffering from any of the above symptoms.”
Why you should get a health screening in your 60s
“In England, everyone aged 60 and above is offered a bowel cancer screening home test kit every 2 years, which is a sample of stool that’s tested for microscopic traces of blood. Positive cases will be offered further tests that often include a colonoscopy. It’s crucial to participate in the screening programme so that any cancer can be picked up early and give you the best possible chance of successful treatment.
“If you’re concerned you might have symptoms of prostate cancer, get a PSA blood test and arrange further investigations with your GP, including imaging and sampling of the prostate.”
The bottom line
Blood tests give you a critical insight into your health and should be taken no matter how old you are. Even young people are vulnerable to developing health conditions and shouldn’t hesitate to take a test. As you get older, make sure you’re vigilant about cardiovascular disease and cancer - health issues that are increasingly common as you age.
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