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Simple Self-Exams That Could Save Your Life

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Want to increase your odds of a long life?

All it takes is an ounce of prevention along with a healthy dose of common sense.

The common-sense part means eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and a few other basic, healthy habits—like getting enough sleep and not smoking.

The ounce of prevention part is one you’ve probably heard before, too: It’s said to be worth a pound of cure.

When it comes to the deadliest diseases you can get as you age—cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure—you’re far better off if you see the signs early. And that’s true whether you’re already in the early stages of the disease, or are merely at risk.

Knowing and practicing these simple self-exams will ensure that you know when it’s time to see a doctor—and how best to correct course with treatment or lifestyle changes.

1. Your BMI (Body Mass Index)

Too much body fat can put you at risk for heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Not enough body fat, and you risk a lowered immune system and brittle bones.

You want a healthy amount of body fat. But how much?

Find out by calculating your body mass index (BMI). An online BMI calculator will use your height, weight, and sex—as well as other factors, like your waist-to-height ratio—to determine whether your weight is within the healthy range. Your doctor can do a more detailed test to see if the calculator’s estimate is correct. And if you’re having trouble controlling fat through diet and exercise alone, your doctor may have tips and resources that can help.

2. Your Nails

Your fingernails and toenails can tell you a lot about your health. Changes to their shape, color, texture, and growth can mean the presence of disease in your body. Dark lines under your nails are often a sign of melanoma, the most serious kind of skin cancer. Pale nails can indicate liver disease, heart failure, or anemia. Check regularly for changes and contact your doctor with any concerns.

3. Your Skin

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. It’s also the easiest to cure if caught early. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends monthly self-examinations from head-to-toe, in order to know all your moles and lesions and be on top of any changes in color or shape. As you check, keep in mind the ABCDE guidelines for melanoma:

  • (A)symmetrical: If you draw an imaginary line down the center of the mole, do the two sides match? If not, you’ve found an asymmetrical mole, which is considered more likely to be a melanoma.
  • (B)order: If the mole has smooth, even borders, it’s less likely to be dangerous. If it’s sprawling all over the place, that’s of greater concern.
  • (C)olor: Most moles are all one color, usually some shade of brown. Having a variety of different colors all in one mole is a melanoma warning sign.
  • (D)iameter: This is the distance across the center of the mole. How wide is it? If it’s bigger across than a pencil eraser, that’s cause for concern.
  • (E)volving: Most non-threatening moles look the same over time. If a mole is evolving—in size, shape, color, or height—let your doctor have a look.

4. Your Gums

Gum disease can be a serious health problem for adults, and has been linked to other diseases such as heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Whenever you brush and floss, check for:

  • Bleeding gums
  • Receding gums
  • Persistent bad breath or bad taste in mouth
  • Loose or shifting teeth
  • Formations of pockets between teeth and gums

These may be signs of periodontitis or its precursor, gingivitis. Gingivitis can be reversed and the progression of gum disease halted through proper plaque control, so catching it in this early stage is a real plus.

5. Your Privates

They may not be the easiest to talk about. But the truth is, those places you keep to yourself can also hide the early signs of cancer—and catching those signs early can be a lifesaver.

Women should do a breast self-exam once a month. The 5-year survival rate for Stage 1 breast cancer is 100%, whereas Stage 4 breast cancer is considered incurable. Catching the signs early can make a great difference. Men can get breast cancer too, so they should also contact their doctor if they notice anything unusual.

Men should check once a month for testicular cancer. It’s not as common as breast cancer is in women, but a testicular self-exam is easy and painless, and early detection is important to surviving this type of cancer.

Make a Self-Exam Plan

If you’re thinking you don’t have time to run through all these exams every single month, remember: You don’t have to do them all at the same time. Do one exam in the shower, and another whenever you trim your nails, or brush your teeth. Check moles when you have access to those full-length, angled mirrors in the locker room at the gym, or the dressing room at the department store. Be creative, and be consistent, and contact a doctor if you find anything that worries you.

When you do, you may save a lot more than a pound of cure.

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