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5 Easy Self-Exams That Can Save Your Life

These quick diagnostic tests can tell you if it’s time to see a doc

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Give yourself a checkup in between doctor visits.
Illustrations by Laura Breiling

There’s nothing like the relief that comes when you have a trouble-free checkup. So why not give yourself one now? In between regular doctor visits, you can perform a few quick diagnostics just to see how clean your machine is running. Pass all five tests, and you can breathe a little easier about your health. Find a problem? You can nip it in the bud.

1. Eye Check

If you want to know a man’s soul, look him in the eye. If you want to know your own body, go ahead and look yourself in the eye.

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What you want to see:

  • Firm eyelids, even lashes and no swelling or redness.

If you see: 

  • The red, irritated surface of the inner lid, it could be Ectropion, an age-related condition in which the lower lid droops, exposing the inner surface. It can lead to corneal damage and should be treated. 
  • A bump on your eyelid and missing eyelashes: A persistent bump that’s gotten bigger, darker and thicker could be cancer and needs to be looked at. With cancers, you often lose your eyelashes, too, so that’s another sign to watch for. 
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Check your skin for changes and signs of skin cancer.

2. Skin Check  

Run your eyes and your fingertips over your skin, and ask a family member to check your back. Make sure you use your sense of touch as well as sight.

What you want to see and feel:

  • An even texture across individual body parts and no noticeable changes in your skin’s appearance. Pay particular attention to your face, ears, scalp, neck and back.

If you see or feel:

  • A new mole or one that’s changed shape or color: Any skin growth that’s asymmetrical, has uneven borders or coloring or is larger than a pencil eraser should be checked for melanoma. (2A)
  • A small, sandpapery patch of skin: You may have actinic keratosis. Have it checked out; 10 percent develop into skin cancer. (2B)
  • A shiny pink or brown bump: If it has a raised, rolled border, and it wasn’t there the last time you looked, have it checked for basal cell carcinoma, the most common skin cancer. (2C)

3. Balance Check

Stand on a flat, nonslip surface, with your arms folded across your chest. While standing on your preferred leg, raise the other foot off the floor a few inches, making sure the foot remains parallel to the floor and isn’t resting against the standing leg.

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spinner image Balance Check

Time how long you can keep the leg raised before it touches the floor as you lose your balance (or after 30 seconds). Do the test twice, once with your eyes open and once with them closed.

What you want to see:

  • The ability to hold your balance with your eyes closed. Science suggests that those who could perform this task had lower rates of mortality from all causes than those who could not.

If you see:

  • That you can’t hold the position at all with your eyes closed: Consider talking to your doctor about doing a deeper dive into your overall health and fitness. In a study of 53-year-old men and women conducted at University College London, those who could balance on one leg with their eyes closed for more than 10 seconds were more likely to survive over the next 13 years of the study.
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The health of your hair can give clues to your overall health.

4. Hair Check

Sure, it would be great to feel those long tresses blowin’ in the wind once again, but if your hair has become as sparse as, say, hit songs by Bob Dylan, don’t get too concerned. Most people’s hair gets thinner after 50, and it’s usually a result of genetics and hormonal changes rather than poor nutrition or some other factor. But sometimes our hair can indicate that something larger is at play.

What you want to see:

  • Little if any sudden change. If you are under stress, had major surgery, experienced sudden weight loss or started a new medication (for high blood pressure or arthritis and more), these may increase hair thinning. 

If you see:

  • Extra hair on your brush or in the sink: If your locks lose density quickly, say over three to six months, you may have an underlying condition such as anemia, iron loss or thyroid disease. “You’ll notice more hair in your brush, in the shower drain and on your pillow,” says dermatologist Chris G. Adigun, of the Dermatology & Laser Center of Chapel Hill, in North Carolina.
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5. Heart Check

Place two fingers on the side of your windpipe. Count the beats for 15 seconds, then multiply by four to get your beats per minute (bpm).

What you want to feel:

  • A resting heart rate of 60 to 100 bpm. (Very fit people may have rates below 60 bpm.) (5A)

If you feel …

  • Your heart rate rising at work or when you think about work: You might want to consider whether your stress levels are too high. Studies have linked work stress to diabetes, obesity and heart disease. (5B)
  • A rate of more than 100 bpm: Consult your doctor. A rapid heart rate, or tachycardia, may be caused by a number of factors, including alcohol, anxiety or cardiac issues. (5C)

— Stephen Perrine contributed to this report.

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