If you were sick, you’d know it, right? It sounds like a ridiculous question, but there’s actually a long list of serious diseases that can be completely stealth for years or even decades before you notice them.
And, as scary as it sounds, by then it can be too late. “This is why preventive screenings are so important,” says Robert Wergin, M.D., a family physician in Nebraska and board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians. “In many instances, screenings are the only way you’d know that something is wrong.”
The sooner your doctor detects an issue, the sooner you can treat it and the greater your chance of slowing or curing it. Here are eight health woes that fly under the radar.
1. High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) is known as a “silent killer,” and for good reason. Often, it has no symptoms at all. Zero, zip, zilch. Untreated, high blood pressure can lead to heart disease and stroke.
While medications are available, one of the most effective changes you can make for bringing down your BP is following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. The eating plan is packed with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats and is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.
A landmark study of Americans with high blood pressure found that following the DASH diet lowered their blood pressure by nearly 12 points, on average. That’s a significant amount.
“Ask your doctor when you should have your blood pressure rechecked to make sure the changes you’re making are working,” Dr. Wergin says. “I often recommend three to six months for my patients, depending on their risk factors.”
2. High Cholesterol
You’ve probably heard of high cholesterol, but do you really know what it is? Cholesterol is a waxy substance your liver makes that circulates through your blood. It’s also found in foods, especially red meat and full-fat dairy products.
“Bad” cholesterol (known as LDL cholesterol) contributes to plaque. Plaque forms deposits inside your arteries and can cause them to become stiff and narrow, which can set the stage for a heart attack or stroke.
HDL, or “good,” cholesterol sweeps the bad kind out of your bloodstream and into your liver, where it gets broken down and removed.
While a junk food-filled diet and physical inactivity can contribute to high cholesterol, there’s also a strong genetic link. “Treatment really depends on the individual,” Dr. Wergin says. “If someone has a strong family history of heart disease, I might be more likely to use medications in addition to diet and exercise to make sure we bring high cholesterol under control.”
Government data estimate that more than 9 percent of the population has diabetes — and of those, 28 percent don’t know they have it.
How can that be? “Diabetes is extremely common, extremely serious and also extremely silent,” says Samuel Altstein, D.O., a family medicine physician with Mount Sinai Health System in New York City. “By the time you feel something you could be having a heart attack, losing your vision or needing to have your foot amputated.”
That’s why it’s so important to have your blood sugar checked. The United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently updated its guidelines to recommend people who are overweight get screened for prediabetes — a condition in which your glucose levels are higher than normal, but not yet high enough to be diagnosed with diabetes — starting at age 40.
The sooner you intervene with diet, exercise and medications, if needed, the greater your chances for preventing or delaying Type 2 diabetes down the road.
4. Lung Cancer
Each year more people die of lung cancer than colon, breast and prostate cancers combined, according to the American Cancer Society. And more than 50 percent of people with lung cancer die within a year of being diagnosed.
One of the reasons the disease is so deadly is because by the time you have symptoms it has likely spread, making treatment options fewer and less effective.
But there’s good news: A new screening for lung cancer is improving survival rates. With a low-dose CT scan doctors can detect tiny nodules that could signal cancer in its earliest stages when treatments are most effective. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the low-dose CT scan reduced deaths due to lung cancer by 20 percent.
The USPSTF currently recommends annual screenings with low-dose CT scans in adults ages 55 to 80 who have a 30 pack-year smoking history (meaning an average of one pack per day for 30 years or two packs per day for 15 years). The same goes for people who currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years.
5. Hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is a virus that affects the liver and can lead to liver cancer, cirrhosis, liver failure or even death. But about 80 percent of people with hep C don’t have any symptoms at first.
Today, hepatitis C is most likely to be spread by needles and syringes used to inject illegal drugs. Consider screening if you’re a current or former injection drug user (even if you stopped many years ago or only used once), if you were born between 1945 and 1965 or if you received a blood transfusion or organ transplant prior to July 1992.
“Fortunately, there are some new, very effective medications that can stop the progression of the disease and even eliminate the need for a liver transplant,” Dr. Wergin says.
6. Colon Cancer
While a colonoscopy and the prep involved aren’t exactly a picnic, they sure beat the alternative. For people diagnosed with stage I colon cancer, the five-year survival rate is about 92 percent. That’s compared with 11 percent for people who have stage IV colon cancer that’s spread to other parts of the body.
During a colonoscopy, not only is your doctor looking for signs of cancer, but if you have a polyp — an abnormal growth that could lead to cancer — your doctor can remove it then and there, Dr. Altstein says.
While the general guideline is to receive a colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at age 50, talk to your doctor about when you should start screenings — especially if you have a family history of the disease.
“If a patient has a close family member who was diagnosed with colon cancer, I may recommend starting screenings about 10 years before their relative was diagnosed,” Dr. Wergin says. “They probably had polyps for a period of time before their diagnosis.”
7. Human Papillomavirus (HPV)
The sexually transmitted infection is so common that nearly all sexually active people will get it at some point in their lives. For most, it won’t cause any symptoms and will resolve on its own.
However, HPV can cause changes in cells that can lead to cancer. The link between HPV and cervical cancer gets a lot of attention (two types of HPV are responsible for about 70 percent of cervical cancers), but the virus is also responsible for 95 percent of anal cancers, 70 percent of cancers that affect the mouth, 65 percent of vaginal cancers and 35 percent of penile cancers.
Pap smears are used to detect HPV and signs of cervical cancer, so discuss with your doctor when and how often you should get screened.
If you have kids, talk to their doctor about HPV vaccine options, which are often given as early as age 9. It may seem ridiculously young, but the idea is to vaccinate kids (boys and girls) before they’re ever exposed to the virus. “With HPV, we’ve shifted from screenings to prevention,” Dr. Wergin says.
The first sign many people get when they have osteoporosis, which occurs when the bones become brittle, is a fractured bone due to a fall.
In addition to aging, osteoporosis can be caused by smoking, excessive alcohol use, inactivity, obesity and long-term use of certain medications, including steroids.
Currently, the USPSTF recommends women start bone-density screenings for osteoporosis at age 65. (There aren’t any standard recommendations for men, so discuss it with your doctor.)
To prevent the disease, be sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D (1,000 to 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 600 to 800 IU of D per day, depending on age) and incorporate resistance training several times per week. An analysis of 43 studies on the topic concluded that strength training significantly reduces the rate of bone loss and resulted in fewer fractures compared with inactivity.
What Do YOU Think?
Were you ever surprised by a health problem that didn't have any symptoms? Did any of these conditions surprise you? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.