PUMPING IRONY: Numbers Game

The numbers say I’m at high risk for heart disease and all sorts of nasty complaints, but do the numbers tell the whole story?

Last week I had an interesting conversation with a registered dietitian, who was kind enough to take a look at the results of the lab tests I mentioned a while back. The upshot was that the numbers suggested I was at risk of heart disease and metabolic syndrome, my sex hormones were out of balance, and I was overstressed, deficient in vitamin D, maybe had some thyroid and digestive issues.

Other than that, however, I am fit as a fiddle.

Actually, the conversation began with my dietitian congratulating me for living such a healthy lifestyle, which got me to wondering what she might say to a client who wasn’t exercising every day, getting plenty of sunshine, and eating pretty well. I understand that there’s always room for improvement, and that these consultations are designed to push you a smidgen closer to optimally healthy choices, but I gotta say that, as much as I appreciate the fact that my employer wants to help us all be optimally healthy, I’m not one to respond very readily to numbers-based metrics.

For example, my VLDL-3 cholesterol reading was 10 milligrams/deciliter. The optimal reading is less than 10. So, if my number was 9, I’m assuming it would not be a “strong predictor of heart disease.” My cortisol (stress hormone) level was measured at 17.8, which according to the original lab report is well within the healthy parameters (6.2 – 19.4), but according to my dietitian falls outside the “optimal functioning values” established by an e-book called Consumer’s Guide to Interpreting Laboratory Testing. Same goes for my vitamin D levels, which at 46 nanograms/milliliter falls well within the guidelines set by the lab (32–100) but are “lower than optimal” according to my dietitian.

There are other similar curiosities, but I won’t bore you with the details. My point is that these numbers are simply numbers, and they can be interpreted in various ways. Indeed, some physicians argue that these sorts of direct-to-consumer lab tests should never be used for a diagnosis. As J. Edward Hill, MD, a former chairman of the American Medical Association, told the New York Times a few years ago, ”’The first thing I try to teach medical students is that about 90 percent of diagnoses can be made accurately by taking a good history and good physical exam. When you do testing, it is to confirm your suspicions.”

I’m not saying these tests can’t be instructive. I’m pretty convinced that I’m dealing with a certain amount of inflammation on a regular basis, and my prostate certainly ain’t what it used to be. Plus, it’s entirely possible that I’m carrying more stress than I’d like to admit. But I’m not going stress myself further by worrying about having a heart attack this week or next. In fact, I’m not going to worry about a thing as long as I feel as good as I feel today.

I can see a few changes I can make to my diet and exercise regimen, and there might even be a supplement or two that would do me some good, but overall I feel like I’m on the right path, no matter what the numbers say. If I keel over from cardiac arrest tomorrow on my way to work, feel free to have a good laugh on me. I’d be laughing too.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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