AARP: 10 TESTS TO AVOID AT THE
According to the March 2014 AARP
Bulletin, doctors are warning that some of the medical tests routinely
taken by Americans do more harm than good, waste billions of health care
dollars annually and could endanger your health or even your life. Some
of the tests that are overused by prestigious panels of doctors include annual
Pap smears, regular PSA tests, regular EKG’s, and even routine yearly
physicals. Doctors are saying that the overuse of such tests can lead to
dangerous side effects, pain, radiation exposure, unnecessary surgery, even
The American Board of Internal
Medicine Foundation asked more than 50 medical societies—of family
doctors, oncologists, cardiologists, and other specialists—to identify tests
and treatments that are often unnecessary. AARP is a consumer partner
with this campaign, called Choosing Wisely.
Wisely partner is John Santa, M.D., medical director at
Reports, and he says that these screening tests often yield false-positive
results that lead to a spiral of unneeded invasive procedures, medications and
even surgeries. If you have symptoms or certain risk factors, these tests
can be valuable—even life-saving—but they’re performed on far too many people.
stress tests, and other imaging tests, after heart procedures:
Many people who have had a heart bypass, stent or other
heart procedures want to be reassured that their hearts are functioning
properly, which is understandable because they feel as if they’ve had a brush
with death. A common way to reassure their patients is for doctors to
perform tests like a nuclear stress test or other tests, to make sure their
hearts are beating strongly. But according to William Zoghni, M.D.,
performing these tests every year or even every two years in patients without
symptoms rarely results in any change in treatment. “More testing is not
necessarily better,” he says.
In fact, it can lead to unnecessary invasive procedures
and excessive radiation exposures without helping the patient improve.
Instead, patients and doctors should focus on what does make a difference in
keeping the heart healthy: managing weight, quitting smoking, controlling blood
pressure and increasing exercise.
or exercise stress test
A survey of nearly 1,200 people ages 40 to 60 who have
never had heart diseases or any symptoms found that 39% had an EKG over the
previous five years, and 12% said they had an exercise stress test. The
problem with this is that someone at low risk for heart disease could be 10 times
more likely to get a false-positive result than to find a real problem, says
John Santa of Consumer Reports, which conducted the 2010 survey. This
could lead to unnecessary heart catheterization and stents. Instead, have
your blood pressure and cholesterol checked. If you’re at risk for
diabetes, have your blood glucose level checked, as well.
screen for prostate cancer
Cancer is always scary, but the PSA test often finds
slow-growing cancers that won’t kill men. “The evidence is extremely
convincing that in a man with usual risk and no symptoms, the PSA test causes
more harm than benefit,” says Reid Blackwelder, M.D., president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
He also says that as a result of the test, men often have ultrasounds, repeat
lab tests and even biopsies for a problem that isn’t there—an estimated 75% of
tests that show high PSA levels turn out to be false alarms. When men do
have treatments like surgery or radiation, 20-40% end up with impotence,
Not all doctors agree with AAFP’s recommendation against
routine PSA screening, but many agree that the test is overused. Even the
Urological Association, which supports the use of PSA testing, says
that it should be considered mainly for men age 55 to 69. TheAmerican Society of Clinical Oncology recommends against PSA testing
for prostate cancer screening in men with no symptoms when they are expected to
live less than 10 years. A recent study published in the journal Cancer
found that Medicare spent almost $450 million a year on PSA screenings,
one-third of which was for men over the age of 75.
PET scan to
diagnose Alzheimer’s disease
Until recently, the only way to accurately diagnose
Alzheimer’s was during an autopsy. In the last few years, doctors have
begun using PET scans with a radioactive dye to look for beta-amyloid protein that
is found in the brains of people with the disease. Although this test has
promising use for research, there are serious questions about whether it should
be used on those who complain of fuzzy memory. PET scans in older people
consistently find the protein in 30 to 40% of people whose memories are just
Although beta-amyloid plaques are present in all of
those who have Alzheimer’s, it’s not known if or when everyone with the plaques
will develop the disease, says Peter Herscovitch, M.D., president-elect of the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging.
What’s more, even if a PET scan could accurately diagnose the disease,
it’s untreatable. If you’re concerned about your memory, the better
course would be a complete medical evaluation by a doctor who specializes in
diagnosing and treating dementia. Many other medical conditions, like
stokes, thyroid deficiencies and vitamin deficiencies can cause the same
symptoms, and these are treatable.
X-ray, CT scan or
lower back pain
Unfortunately, back pain is incredibly common—80% of
people will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. It can be
both excruciating and debilitating. Of course, people want to know what’s
wrong with them. Here’s the catch: The best imaging machines in the
world often can’t tell them what’s wrong. Many older people with no back
pain can have terrible-looking scans.
Most back pain goes away in about a month and imaging
tests tend to lead to expensive procedures that often don’t help
recovery. One study found that people who got an MRI during the first
month of their back pain were 8 times more likely to have surgery than those
who didn’t have an MRI—but they didn’t get relief any faster. If you
don’t feel better in a month, talk to your doctor about other options like
physical therapy, yoga or massage. But if you’re experiencing numbness or
weakness in your legs, you have a history of cancer or you have had a recent
infection, see your doctor as soon as you can.
Yearly Pap tests
The yearly Pap smear is
a common part of women’s health checklists, but it doesn’t need to be.
Women at average risk only need them every three years, since cervical cancer
generally takes 10 to 20 years to develop. If women have also had
negative tests for the human papillomavirus (HPV),
which is now known to cause the cancer, they only need a Pap test along with
the HPV test every five years. And women older than 65 who have had
several normal Pap tests in a row can stop having them altogether. Do
note, however, that a yearly visit to an ob-gyn stays on the to-do list.
Bone density scan for women before age 65 and men before
For the estimated 10 million people—mainly women—in the U.S.
who have osteoporosis,
bone-strengthening medications can lower the chances of breaking a bone.
But many experts argue that for those age 50 to 65 who have osteopenia—mild
bone loss—testing and aubsequent drug prescriptions may be a waste of time and
money. Not only is the risk of fracture often low, medications like Fosamax (alendronate) and Boniva (ibandronate) have been linked to
throat or chest pain, difficulty swallowing, heartburn, muscle pain, bone loss
in the jaw and thigh-bone fractures. And there’s scant evidence that
people with osteopenia get much benefit from the drugs.
To help keep your bones strong, try walking and
weight-bearing exercises, says Blackwelder. Get enough calcium and
vitamin D in your diet. If you smoke, quit.
Follow-up ultrasounds for small
Many women receive repeated ultrasounds to verify that
ovarian cysts have not become cancerous, but current research says that these
tests are not necessary. For one thing, premenopausal women have harmless
ovarian cysts regularly. For another, about 20% of postmenopausal women
also develop harmless cysts.
“The likelihood of these small simple cysts ever
becoming cancer is exceedingly low,” says Deborah Levine, M.D., chair of the
American College of
Radiology Commission on Ultrasound and a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School.
In postmenopausal women, only cysts larger than 1
centimeter in diameter need a follow-up ultrasound. For premenopausal
women, who typically have benign cysts every monthly when they ovulate, cysts
smaller than 3 centimeters aren’t even worth mentioning in the radiologist’s
report, Levine says.
Colonoscopy after age 75
Most people should have screening for colon cancer at
age 50 and then every 5 to 10 years after that, if the first test is
normal. By age 75—if you’ve always had normal colonoscopies—you can stop
taking this test altogether. That should be good news, because a colonoscopy can
cause serious complications in older people.
“Just the preparation for colonoscopy can be
exceptionally harsh,” says James Goodwin, M.D., director of the Sealy Center on Aging at University of Texas Medical Branch,
who studies overuse of colonoscopies. Some patients become incontinent or
experience weeks of pain, diarrhea and constipation. In worst cases, the
procedure can perforate the colon. Despite such risks, recent studies
have found that substantial numbers of people over 75, even over 85, are still
getting screening colonoscopies.
To protect your colon, eat plenty of fruits, vegetables
and whole grains for fiber. Cut down on fatty foods, red meat and
processed meats. Lose weight if you’re overweight and exercise.
Sound familiar? It should, because that’s the best advice for protecting
the rest of your body—and mind—as well.
There’s little evidence that having an annual checkup
can keep you healthy. Many tests that doctors regularly perform—to
diagnose anemia, liver disease or urinary tract infections, for example—don’t
make sense unless there’s a reason to suspect a problem. “A healthy
52-year-old does not need to see the doctor once a year,” says Jeremy Sussman,
M.D., an internist for the VA system and assistant professor at the University of Michigan
who was on the
of General Internal Medicine task force for making the ChoosingWisely recommendation.
“We certainly don’t think people should never see
doctors—quite the opposite. We question the value of seeing someone for
the sake of seeing someone.” Your specific needs should determine how
often you go to the doctor’s office, he adds. If you have an illness that
needs treatment, you should see your physician. And do talk to your
doctor about how often you need to have your blood pressure and cholesterol
tested. “Our real point is, don’t do these things for the sake of a calendar,” he says. “Do them for the sake of
Health and Wellness Associates