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Biometric Screenings: What do the results really mean?

As part of an ongoing effort to help people achieve lifelong well-being, Humana will offer a series of articles from personal health coaches and physicians, such as Dr. Thomas James, that offer suggestions and information that can help you develop a plan to live a healthier, happier life. Dr. James’ first article, which appears below, focuses on the potential benefits of undergoing annual biometric screenings.

More and more employers are offering biometric screenings so, like many of you, I recently underwent this annual testing. But what do the results really mean? Well let’s look at the specific areas that are measured and what those measurements can predict about our future health. These predictions are not hocus-pocus but are based upon studies and health histories of real people like me – and you. The screening results can help us develop a plan to live healthier, happier lives.

Tobacco use
I guess we all know that people who smoke are more likely to get lung cancer than those who haven’t smoked in the past six years. But smoking is also associated with other conditions such as stroke and heart disease, chronic lung disease, and multiple other cancers outside of lung cancer. If you add in obesity and diabetes, a smoker has a very high likelihood for heart disease.

BMI (Body Mass Index)
A BMI less than 25 is probably normal, but anything above that would be classified as overweight. In fact, anything above 30 is, frankly, obese. Why does this matter? Think about it: We are asking our hearts to work overtime – and too hard – if it has to pump blood through more tissue than nature intended. It will wear out faster. That’s why people who are obese have a greater chance of an earlier heart attack. Many of us have a tendency to think this is all something to worry about in the future, so we tell ourselves it’s OK to go ahead and eat that tempting treat today because we’ll exercise and eat better tomorrow. But a lot of my patients have second thoughts about delaying making changes when they begin to understand how much their unhealthy lifestyle may be affecting the ones they love. How does it affect them? For starters, it can cause them to worry, increase family health-care costs, limit participation in fun family activities and could ultimately reduce the amount of time we have with our loved ones. If creating a healthier life for yourself is not incentive enough, remembering what it could mean to your loved ones may be the extra push you need to make changes today. It’s never too late – or too early – to exercise and eat a more healthful, balanced diet.

Cholesterol
Medicine used to think that heart disease was all about cholesterol. A total cholesterol level over 200 was bad news. But now we know that total cholesterol is only part of the story. There are those who have high HDL (High Density Lipoproteins or “good cholesterol”) that is so dense it doesn’t stick well to the sides of the blood vessels and less likely to cause hardening of the coronary arteries. On the other hand, the LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein or “bad cholesterol”) can set up inflammation in the blood vessels that makes coronary artery disease more likely. But it is what we cannot measure in the blood that counts the most. That is your genetic tendencies. If you come from families where everyone ate fried chicken and French fries and lived to be 100 then you come from a family with a genetic background that gives you more latitude in what you eat. I don’t. My family has a history of earlier atherosclerosis, so I do pay attention to my total cholesterol, LDL and HDL levels. For that reason, I also try to keep working on my diet, exercise, and weight. Why further stack the cards against myself?

Blood sugar
If we figure that 8 percent of Americans—that is one in 12 of us—have diabetes, and only half of them know it, then that means that there are some 4% or 120,000 people who have diabetes and don’t even know it. The complications of diabetes may take five, 10 or even 15 years to develop once a person starts having high blood sugars. But all of us who see patients know people who have lost vision, had to go on dialysis, or had an amputation. This is not to scare people, but we all should be aware of our risk factors and prevent major problems before they happen.

The knowledge we gain by taking a few minutes to get a biometric screening each year leaves us better equipped to make behavioral changes that allow us to live healthier, happier and longer lives. That is good news for us – and for our loved ones.

Dr. Tom James is Corporate Medical Director for Humana’s National Network Operations. He also chairs the Health Plan Council for the National Quality Forum and is a work-group participant for the AQA,  AMA-PCPI, and MAP Work Groups on Patient Safety and the Dual Eligibles.  Dr. James, who is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Pediatrics, received his undergraduate degree from Duke University and his medical degree from the University of Kentucky, and served his residencies at Temple University Hospital, Pennsylvania Hospital, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He remains in part-time clinical practice of internal medicine-pediatrics and has nearly 30 years of experience in health benefits having served as medical director for several companies, including HealthAmerica, Maxicare, Sentara, Traveler’s Health Network, and Anthem, in the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and South.

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