Numbers dictate our lives. From how fast we drive to our checking account balance, numbers represent limits that should not be ignored. If you’re like most people, the numbers most vital to your well-being are also the most confusing: your blood test results.
Blood is a window to the body’s health, so it’s no wonder doctors rely heavily on blood tests to properly care for their patients.
“It’s especially important for older adults to have bloodwork done yearly, because it shows changes in the body before they turn into heart or liver disease, cancer or diabetes,” says medical laboratory scientist Naomi McMillan.
When you go in for an annual wellness visit to your primary care physician, you typically will go through a metabolic or chemistry panel; complete blood count, or CBC; and a lipid profile. But what does all of that even mean?
The metabolic panel is a group of blood tests that give an overall picture of your body’s chemical balance and metabolism, as well as a snapshot of the health of your kidneys, blood sugar levels and the levels of key electrolytes, such as potassium and sodium, says the National Institutes of Health.
The CBC is used to evaluate your general health status, and can also detect disorders such as anemia, infection and leukemia, based on the ratio of white to red blood cells. A lipid profile measures different types of cholesterol in your bloodstream: high-density lipoprotein, or HDL; low-density lipoprotein, or LDL; and triglycerides, or fats, which indicate heart disease.
According to NIH, your doctor will interpret your bloodwork results against reference ranges, or values, which factor in your age, gender and any disease or chronic condition you might have. A critical value is one that’s so far from the normal range that it could indicate a life-threatening condition.
To make sure you get the most accurate results from your blood tests, McMillan says it’s important to adhere to pre-testing guidelines, including fasting, proper hydration and taking your medication for the prescribed amount of time before your blood draw.
“All of those things can make a pretty big difference,” she says.
Once you’ve seen your results and identified any issues, it’s time to take action. Can you improve your numbers? The answer is yes.
Eating a balanced diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods that are low in fat and sugars is one essential key to improving your numbers, says certified exercise physiologist Shelby Conn.
The other key to improving your numbers is getting the right kind of exercise. You can work with a professional to create a fitness plan targeted toward your specific goals.
“(An exercise physiologist) can use lab results as baseline measures to create an exercise prescription for you,” Conn says. “(The physiologist) will monitor your progress against new labs every eight weeks, making adjustments along the way, taking into account other lifestyle or environmental factors that could affect improvement.”