Advances On Other Fronts

Diagnostic technology is constantly evolving in the effort to catch disease at earlier stages. Here's a look at recent innovations in screening for four diseases that threaten women but are treatable when caught early. Should you consider them?

Computerized Pap smears. Medical labs are whittling away at false negatives on this test for cervical cancer by digitizing slides and using software to help flag suspicious areas that human eyes may miss. The Food and Drug Administration has permitted the maker of one test, ThinPrep, to claim that it's better than conventional Pap smears at detecting certain lesions that tend to cause cancer in women under age 35. An extra screen that looks for changes in cellular DNA caused by the human papillomavirus, called an HPV DNA test, can improve the accuracy of testing among women over 30.

Digital mammogram and breast MRI. Digital mammography, which uses computers rather than film to store the image, has been shown to do a better job of finding breast cancer in women under age 50 and all women with dense breasts. If you aren't sure of the density of your breasts, ask your physician or the staff at the mammography clinic, doctors recommend. On the downside, digital mammograms are more expensive and not always covered by private insurance. Besides a mammogram, the American Cancer Society recommends that women at high risk get a supersensitive breast MRI each year. The scan, which uses magnets and radio waves to produce detailed images of breast anatomy, isn't for everybody: It frequently flags spots that aren't cancer.

CT colonography. New research suggests that virtual scans of the colon can detect dangerous precancerous polyps as accurately as colonoscopy does. Radiologists view 3D images of the colon and determine, based on size, if a polyp needs to be removed--which then means a return visit for a colonoscopy. Many experts argue that colonoscopy is the better option because polyps are removed during the procedure; there's no wait-and-see element. You have to undergo the same bowel-cleansing prep in either case, and insurance usually won't cover the $750 to $1,000 cost.

Vertebral fracture assessment. One effective way doctors screen for osteoporosis is by analyzing the bone density of the spine, hip, and wrist with dual energy X-ray absorptiometry. Adding a vertebral fracture assessment can check for actual spinal fractures. Though vertebral fractures are the most common type of osteoporotic fracture, doctors can easily miss them as they don't always cause pain. Since the 10-second scans provide clear views of plaque buildup in the abdominal aortic artery, which is near the backbone, they can point out early signs of cardiovascular disease, too.

By Adam Voiland