From cradle to grave: five pathology tests you will likely have through your life

No sooner are you out of your mother’s womb than someone is drawing blood from you and carting it off to a lab for analysis.

Congratulations, you just had your first test, but certainly not your last. The testing of blood, urine and tissue continues throughout a person’s life-cycle.

And it’s a good thing too. Pathology tests are there to pick up on any health concerns nice and early, when they are at their most treatable.

Whatever stage of life you’re at – from being freshly minted to being longer in the tooth – pathology tests are there to help you monitor the inner workings of your body for optimal health.

We run through five tests everyone is likely to have through their lifetime.

Babies | Heel prick test

‘Hey, I didn’t ask for this!’ This is true, sorry fresh baby, but the heel prick test is very important. Taken 48-72 hours after birth, the heel prick test is looking for several conditions:

  • Phenylketonuria (PKU) – a condition in which the liver doesn’t allow for the breakdown of the amino acid phenylalanine (a building block of protein) and if left untreated can lead to intellectual disability
  • Hypothyroidism – the thyroid helps regulate your metabolism. An underactive thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones and can significantly impact intellectual development and a baby’s growth
  • Cystic fibrosis – this condition leads to the production of too much mucus, which clogs the lungs and pancreas, preventing them from functioning properly
  • Galactosaemia – a condition that prevents a baby from breaking down galactose in milk, galactosaemia can cause liver damage and sometimes be fatal
  • Various metabolic disorders – involving amino acid, organic acid and fatty acid oxidation, these disorders can have serious and even fatal effects if not treated

All aged | Full Blood Examination

The no-frills, all-rounder of the blood testing world, the full blood examination (FBE) or full blood count (FBC) is an exam you might have at various stages and for various reasons:

  • Anaemia – a low red blood cell count may indicate anaemia
  • Various organ diseases – a high red blood cell count may indicate heart, lung or kidney disease, low numbers of white blood cells may indicate liver or spleen disorders
  • Leukaemia – high levels of white blood cells may point to leukaemia
  • Eclampsia – a high haematocrit count may indicate eclampsia
  • Iron deficiency – smaller sized red blood cells may indicate iron deficiency

Middle-age | HbA1c or type 2 diabetes test

Anyone around middle-age will want to speak to their doctor about whether they should be having this test, with diabetes growing at enormous rates across the world.

If you are over 35, have a waste over 100cms (95 for some ethnic groups), or exercise less than 2.5 hours a week, you will want to seriously consider this test.

A person can go for seven years without showing any symptoms of diabetes, during which time it can be causing serious damage to your kidneys, heart, eyes and extremities.

Later middle age: cholesterol

By the time you’re past the half-way mark of life, there’s a good chance you’ve dispatched your fair share of cheeses, lasagnas and choc-tops and might want to check your cholesterol.

The cholesterol test looks for several types of lipids:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – also known as the bad cholesterol, high levels of LDL cholesterol is linked to heart disease and stroke
  • High-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol – this good cholesterol helps clean your arteries from fatty build-ups. High is good.
  • Triglycerides – high triglycerides can be a pointer to cardiovascular disease or diabetes.

Older age: urine and stool tests

Examining poo and wee is not just for children and comedians. A lot can be determined about someone’s health by looking at urine and stool samples.

Technically these are two types of tests that we’ve lumped together for the sake of convenience.

  • Urinalysis– like the FBE, a lot can be determined by a urine test, or urinalysis. Conditions which can be picked up through a urine test include urinary tract infections (UTIs), kidney disorders, liver disease, or diabetes.
  • Bowel cancer screening – for Australian citizens between the ages of 50 and 74, the federal government sends a free bowel cancer screening test. If caught early, 90% of bowel cancer cases can be successfully treated.

Of course, the above list of tests is by no means comprehensive. There are a multitude of pathology tests performed everyday to help detect medical conditions and to help monitor the treatment of those who already have medical conditions.

Medical scientist and Pathology Awareness Australia ambassador, David Nielsen explains the importance of pathology testing through the life cycle.

‘A lot of people’s experience with medicine is usually with a doctor at the local GP clinic or at a hospital.

‘But there is a whole world of medical diagnosis going on behind the scenes in pathology labs. Every year there are 500 million tests conducted in Australia,’ said Mr Nielsen.

‘And while pathology accounts for just 3% of the annual healthcare budget, 70% of medical treatment decisions rely on pathology.’