Headaches, fatigue, a dry cough and hair loss … sometimes such minor aches or pains are actually subtle signs of something more serious going on in your body.
But what happens if you don’t pick up on the signals or there aren’t any signs at all? The risk of developing a symptomless condition is something everyone needs to consider when managing their health.
“It’s so important to get more in tune with your own body, and be vigilant about annual exams and laboratory tests to battle the silent [symptomless conditions],” says New York–based cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of the Women’s Heart Program at NYU Langone Medical Center and a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
If any of the five symptomless conditions listed below run in your family, make sure you get regular medical care and take note of even the slightest changes in your health. For example, if you have family members with diabetes and a loved one becomes unusually thirsty or suddenly begins getting up during the night to urinate, it may be time to see a doctor. Sometimes such symptoms are often noted only in retrospect, after blood work shows elevated glucose levels, but awareness plays a key role in preventing and treating many symptomless conditions:
1. Heart disease
Clogging of the arteries is a process that generally begins silently. It isn’t until blood flow to the heart is significantly compromised that someone feels symptoms of a heart attack. What’s more, not all heart attacks produce symptoms. Silent myocardial infarctions (MIs), or silent heart attacks, have few if any manifestations. About one-fourth of all MIs are silent, according to the American Heart Association, and they’re more common in elderly, diabetic and heart transplant patients.
As with recognized heart attacks, the risk factors for MIs include smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity and having a family history of heart disease. Sometimes fatigue, malaise or chest discomfort starts in the days preceding a cardiac event, so if you or a loved one are at risk and experience even mild symptoms, don’t ignore them and call a doctor immediately.
2. Colon cancer
Undiagnosed colorectal cancer, commonly referred to as colon cancer, is termed a “silent killer” because people often don’t experience any indications of the disease until the cancer has progressed; abdominal pain or bloody stools are late-stage symptoms. Colorectal cancer often develops in the lower areas of the intestine, and if left untreated can grow through the intestinal wall and spread to other parts of the body such as the liver and lungs, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, it proves highly curable if diagnosed early.
The exact cause of colon cancer is still unknown, but doctors have found that it often starts out as noncancerous growths called polyps on the lining of the colon. Like the early stages of colon cancer, colon polyps also don’t produce any symptoms, which is why regular screenings like colonoscopies are crucial in detecting or preventing the disease.
Sometimes referred to as "impaired glucose tolerance," prediabetes means a patient’s blood sugar levels are higher than normal but not high enough to be called Type 2 diabetes. People with Type 2 diabetes almost always have prediabetes first but experience few outward signs. That can be dangerous because high glucose levels damage organs over time and increase a patient’s risk for heart disease.
According to the American Diabetes Association, in a few cases, people may develop a condition called acanthosis nigricans — darkened areas of the skin, particularly around the neck, armpits, elbows, knuckles and knees — that may indicate increased risk.
If you or a loved one is at risk for diabetes, be sure to get tested for prediabetes. Risk factors include obesity, hypertension, abnormal cholesterol levels, history of gestational diabetes and, of course, a family history of the disease. Losing weight can sometimes restore normal glucose levels and eradicate prediabetes.
4. Lung cancer
One out of four people with lung cancer has absolutely no symptoms when the cancer is diagnosed, according to the National Cancer Institute. In fact, in 25 percent of cases, lung cancer is identified accidentally when a chest X-ray is performed for another reason like a broken rib. In the remaining cases, lung cancer patients develop symptoms due to the direct effects of their primary tumor, which often don’t show up until the disease has advanced.
Two deceptive signs of lung cancer are a recurring dry cough or shortness of breath, and are often misidentified as symptoms of other conditions like bronchitis. In addition, wheezing or hoarseness may signal lung cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths. Although there’s no way to prevent it, you and your loved ones can reduce your risks, mainly by avoiding tobacco use.
Fertility naturally decreases as you age and up to 15 percent of U.S. couples are infertile, which is loosely defined as not becoming pregnant after a year of regular unprotected sex. Some infertile women may have abnormal or irregular periods, and some infertile men may experience hormone-related problems like changes in hair growth or sex drive. Sometimes an endocrinologist or family doctor can alert you to the possibility of fertility problems, especially if you or your partner suffers other health conditions, including obesity or endometriosis.
In many cases of infertility, there are no clues until a couple has trouble conceiving. Lifestyle advice for both men and women includes avoiding tobacco, drugs and excessive alcohol. Because it can take a number of months to a year for some fertile couples to conceive, infertility testing isn’t usually recommended early on.
What are your next steps?
Appreciating the significance of even the most subtle symptoms — or lack of symptoms — can be crucial in identifying many silent conditions before they worsen, particularly those that run in your family. While you can’t control your genetics, you can improve your chances of preventing, diagnosing or treating symptomless conditions by following our expert guidelines:
- Have yearly mammograms, colonoscopies, blood work, and other exams and lab tests done by a trusted health-care provider. Call to follow up about these tests in case the doctor’s office doesn’t get back to you.
- Discuss your medical history in-depth with your doctor. If your primary care physician doesn’t ask about your lifestyle, your family’s medical history and a complete list of medications, “It’s time to find another doctor,” Goldberg urges.
- Keep track of monthly or yearly doctor’s appointments and multiple pharmacy prescriptions. If you see more than one physician or take various medications for several conditions, make sure every specialist is aware of it, says Goldberg. Ensure that your caregiver and loved ones have this information, as well. “Someone has to be watching out for the whole patient,” she says.
- Exercise 30 minutes a day, every day, to optimize blood circulation and lower your risk of heart attack and cancers. Maintain a lean, healthy body weight.
- Stop smoking if you do.
Sip no more than one alcoholic drink per day, preferably one that’s rich in antioxidants like red wine.