Make an appointment with the most important person on your health care team: yourself.
Who are the stars on your health care team? Chances are, you thought of your primary care physician or maybe your cardiologist. If you take a lot of meds or have struggled with pain or injury, your pharmacist or physical therapist probably came to mind.
But if you’re like most people, you forgot your MVP—the health care provider you absolutely can’t live without: yourself.
There’s no replacing your doctors, of course, but you’re truly on the front lines. To that end, it’s important to stop acting only like a patient and start thinking like a physician—observing and really listening to your body. You’ll be better equipped to ask the right questions at your next appointment and may help catch potential problems earlier.
Here are seven simple self-checks you can do from the comfort of your home today.
Health Check #1: Stretch Your Shoulders
Raise your arms up over your head. Now stick them out straight in front of you. If both movements make your shoulders scream, then you may have rotator cuff tendinopathy, a musculoskeletal issue linked to a heightened risk of heart disease, according to a recent University of Utah study.
“If there is pain in the shoulder joint that does not radiate much, then most of the time it is due to rotator cuff disease,” explains study author Kurt Hegmann, M.D., M.P.H. “The shoulder joint is relatively resistant to arthritis, other than rheumatoid arthritis.”
Even if you can pinpoint a trigger for your pain—say, you recently fell or lifted something heavy—there is still most likely an underlying cardiovascular component, says Dr. Hegmann. What’s the connection? Cardiovascular disease blunts your body’s blood supply, making your tendons more prone to thinning and weakening, he explains. That means rotator cuff tendinopathy could serve as a warning sign of ticker trouble—and should prompt you to ask your doctor to check your blood pressure and cholesterol.
Health Check #2: Touch Your Toes
Start your day with this gym-class throwback: Sit on the floor (or couch or bed) with your legs straight out in front of you, then bend forward slowly, reaching as far as you can. If you’re flexible—that is, you can reach past your toes—then your arteries probably are too.
In a 2009 Japanese study, older adults who were the most limber also had the healthiest arteries. That may be because your arteries and muscles are composed of similar tissue. “If your arteries are healthy, that means your muscles are going to be healthy,” says Joseph Flaherty, M.D., professor and associate director of geriatric medicine at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
Talk to your doctor about your heart health. The good news: Regular exercise can help protect you against heart disease.
Health Check #3: Stand Without Using Your Hands
Next time you’re sitting in a chair, try standing without using your hands to propel yourself. “I do this test in clinic a lot,” says Fernanda Heitor, M.D., a geriatrician at Northwestern University School of Medicine. “It gives us a lot of good information on hip flexors and balance.”
If you’re unable to stand up without a helping hand, the muscles that allow your hip joint to flex may be weak, which could make you wobbly and prone to falling. Low-impact physical activities, like walking, can help strengthen these muscles, although Dr. Heitor says physical therapy may be necessary to shore them up.
Health Check #4: Size Yourself Up
There are two numbers that shouldn’t shrink as you get older: your height and your weight (assuming you’re at a healthy weight). If you lose half an inch or more in height, you may be on your way to osteoporosis, thanks to deteriorating vertebrae in your spine, says Dr. Flaherty.
Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is important, but losing weight can also mean losing muscle mass—which can be worrisome if you’re part of the 70-plus crowd. “If you lose your muscle, that makes you weaker,” Dr. Flaherty says. “It may throw your balance off and increase your risk of falling and fracture.”
Make it a habit to step on the scale at least once a week, and measure your height on a regular basis. To lower your risk of osteoporosis, eat bone-building foods and do weight-bearing activities, such as walking, dancing, strength training, or even gardening. Strength training will also help keep your muscles strong, even if you’re trying to lose weight.
Health Check #5: Lower Your Lids
Pull down your lower eyelid: Is the tissue a healthy pink color or a light, white hue? If it’s the latter, you may have anemia, warns Dr. Heitor. “There are a lot of little blood vessels in that area, and it’s translucent.” That means you can see the blood flowing through, which will be brightly colored if it’s rich in red blood cells.
Although iron deficiency is perhaps the most well-known cause of anemia, the condition may also be a result of kidney disease, chronic inflammation, intestinal bleeding, or cancer, Dr. Heitor says. To check whether an iron shortage may to be blame, place a droplet of water on your fingernails. “If it doesn’t roll off, that is a telltale sign”—what’s known as a spoon nail—“of iron-deficiency anemia,” she says. Talk to your doctor, who can properly diagnose and treat you.
Health Check #6: Stick Your Tongue Out
When you first wake up, stick out your tongue and look in the mirror. If there are teeth marks on your tongue where it rests against your molars, then it may be blocking your breathing while you sleep. In a 2016 study in the Saudi Medical Journal, folks with these indentations were significantly more likely to have obstructive sleep apnea.
Or answer this question: Do I feel rested? If you’ve had eight-plus hours of shut-eye and the answer is “no,” then it may be time to ask your doctor about sleep apnea.
“It’s commonly missed because there’s still a lot of ageism among doctors,” Dr. Flaherty says. “If you tell your doctor, ‘I’m just so tired all the time,’ the doctor might say, ‘You’re old, what do you expect?’” So be prepared to state your evidence: how long you’re sleeping per night and how fatigued you are in the morning. Take this sleepiness questionnaire, and talk through it with your doctor.
Health Check #7: Examine Your Eyes
Age spots, crow’s feet, and … xanthelasmata? This funky-sounding word is the technical name for fatty deposits that can crop up on your eyelids. “They’re soft, yellowish plaques—they look kind of like butter,” says Dr. Heitor. “They’re usually not painful.”
But that doesn’t mean their presence is benign: People with xanthelasmata are at increased risk of clogged arteries, heart attack, and stroke, according to a 2011 British Medical Journal study. The reason: Xanthelasmata may be an outward sign that your body retains cholesterol, both beneath your skin and inside your arteries, the study authors say. Request a cholesterol check if one crops up.
One word of caution: Even if your total cholesterol comes back within the normal range, ask your doctor for a complete lipid panel to break down the ratio of LDL (often called “bad”) cholesterol to HDL (often called “good”) cholesterol, Dr. Heitor advises. In the absence of high total cholesterol, xanthelasmata could still indicate low levels of HDL cholesterol, “the scavenger particle that eats the bad cholesterol,” she says.