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5 Tests That Could Save Your Life

Surprising screenings that can pick up the early signs of illness

En español l You're familiar with blood pressure tests, cholesterol screenings and blood workups to analyze your health. But did you know there are lesser-known, noninvasive tests that often detect signs of an underlying disease? The five modified tests that follow may pick up warning signs of dementia, Parkinson's, even premature death. Try them, and if you perform poorly, bring your concerns to your doctor.

Health Report: Surprising Tests for Good Health, Oprah and President Obama

Can you name these famous faces? — Joel Kimmel

1. Name That Famous Face

What it detects: Dementia

How it works: Do you find yourself blanking out on names of famous celebrities or close friends? Researchers at Northwestern University recently published a study that found that the inability to recognize or name famous faces in midlife was associated with an increased risk for a form of dementia known as primary progressive aphasia (PPA). The rare disease usually affects adults ages 40 through 65, says the study's lead author, Tamar Gefen. PPA, marked by a loss of tissue in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain (the language centers), is characterized by a gradual deterioration in the ability to communicate with others.

What to do: While the test used in the study involved 20 faces, you can do this simplified version at home. Pick up a magazine and see if you can name the celebrities — like, above, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. You get two points for first and last names, one point for one or the other, and zero points if you draw a blank. If you miss a few, no big deal. If you find yourself struggling (PPA patients scored lower than 50 percent), ask your doctor or a neurologist for a cognitive evaluation.

2. Assess Your Sleep Quality

What it detects: Parkinson's disease

How it works: Many people equate Parkinson's disease with tremors, but more subtle symptoms may provide earlier clues. In a new German study, patients from a special clinic for early Parkinson's were given questionnaires to evaluate pain, sleep and gastrointestinal symptoms, and their olfactory function was assessed. Compared with a control group, the Parkinson's patients were more likely to suffer abnormal REM sleep (the dreaming stage), a loss of smell, and constipation.

What to do: Ask yourself these questions.

1. Do you act out your dreams through talking or fighting (a sign of a REM sleep disorder)?

2. Are you having problems with smell (especially pungent foods, such as garlic)?

3. Have you been dealing with constipation for a month or longer?

If you answered yes to all of these, you may want to see your doctor. While there are no lab tests to diagnose Parkinson's, your physician may want to conduct neurological and physical exams. Early diagnosis can mean better treatment.

Next page: Detecting Alzheimer's disease. »

Health Report: Surprising Tests for Good Health, open jar and smell peanut butter

Peanut butter test can help diagnose Alzheimer's disease. — Joel Kimmel

3. Smell the Peanut Butter

What it detects: Alzheimer's disease

How it works: Alzheimer's typically affects your sense of smell because the area of the brain that processes odors, the olfactory cortex, is the first to show signs of dysfunction. (Memory problems come later.) That's why Jennifer Stamps, a researcher at the University of Florida, developed the peanut butter test, the results of which were recently published in the Journal of the Neurological Sciences. Normal aging can affect your sense of smell, but peanut butter isn't an odor usually lost with time, Stamps says, making it a good tool for evaluating early Alzheimer's. In the study, researchers measured the distance at which participants could smell peanut butter through the left nostril compared with the right. Those with early Alzheimer's could not detect the smell until it was an average of almost 5 inches closer to the left nostril compared with the right.

What to do: It's hard to perform the test by yourself, so grab a partner. Close your eyes and ask your partner to hold a small jar of peanut butter 12 inches away from your left nostril while you hold your right nostril closed. Slowly move the jar closer until you're able to detect the smell. Now test your right nostril. You should be able to smell the peanut butter equally well in both nostrils. If you can't, see your doctor to rule out treatable conditions that affect smell.

Health Report: Surprising Tests for Good Health, sit down and stand up

Take the sit down, stand up test to detect early risk of death. — Joel Kimmel

4. Sit Down, Stand Up

What it detects: Early risk of death

How it works: A 2012 study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology asked adults ages 51 through 80 to do a sit-and-stand test to see how well they could sit on the floor and then stand up. Participants could get a maximum score of 10; researchers subtracted one point each time a hand, forearm or knee was used for support. Scoring just one point higher was associated with a 21 percent lower mortality, says study coauthor Jonathan Myers. "This is a strong measure of muscle strength, coordination, balance and flexibility, which are critically important to maintain with age, as they allow you to perform daily activities and also prevent falls, which can be devastating for older adults," he says.

What to do: Test yourself by sitting on the floor, legs crossed, then rising back up (you can use your arms for balance, but you shouldn't have to use them or your knees to boost yourself back up). If you have problems standing up without assistance, such as difficulty standing up from the dinner table, or notice issues with everyday activities, this may be a wake-up call to start or ramp up your exercise program. Begin with 30 minutes of daily moderate physical activity, like walking. If you're already a walker, add some strength or flexibility training.

Next page: Detecting likelihood of future disability. »

5. Open That Jar

What it detects: Likelihood of future disability

How it works: You might not think of grip strength as an important indicator of overall fitness. But low grip strength has consistently been associated with disability later in life, as well as with postoperative complications and premature death, according to Richard Bohannon of the University of Connecticut, whose review study on the subject was recently published in the Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy. While grip strength on its own doesn't affect your ability to climb stairs, for instance, it's a marker that is correlated with walking ability.

What to do: Physical therapists use an inexpensive machine called a hand-grip dynamometer to analyze grip strength, but you can measure your grip strength in other ways, Bohannon says. Open a tight jar lid. Pick up a gallon of milk and carry it across the room. Lift a long-handled pan with one hand. If you can't do these tasks successfully, you need to build your overall fitness.

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