Why Tracking Health Too Closely Could Actually Work Against You

04/10/2015 01:59 pm ET

Billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently took to Twitter to give his 2.8 million followers a little unsolicited health advice: Get a lot of medical tests.

But before you have a spigot plugged into a vein, you may want to consider the advice of actual medical professionals first. Not only does unnecessary medical testing not reduce one's risk for illness or death, it can create a "potential for harm," according to The Society of General Internal Medicine.

Unnecessary blood tests in particular can increase the potential for false positives or the identification of an abnormality that may not actually pose a health risk, which in turn can lead to needless diagnoses and treatment.

"I don't know of a single study that supports the idea that checking your blood quarterly improves your health in any way," Dr. John Mafi, a research fellow in general medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, told The Huffington Post. "All of the research suggests, when you're healthy, that excessive screening doesn't help and that over-diagnosis and over-treatment might actually harm."

Case in point: If you do an MRI of the back for 100 healthy people with no back pain, a whopping 90 percent of them will reveal at least one abnormality.

"It's unbelievable how sensitive these tests are," said Mafi, who has studied back pain. "People will get an MRI, they'll have an abnormality, that abnormality might have nothing to do with their back pain, yet because they have an abnormality in the back and because they have back pain, there's pressure on the specialists to give treatment that actually won't help them."

Dr. Harry Cho, director of quality and patient safety at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, noted that medical tests are rarely black and white, and are never completely accurate.

"Each test has its benefits and risks, and this depends on which symptoms and diagnoses the physician is investigating," Cho told The Huffington Post in an email. "The answer to how often someone needs blood work is, it depends. It depends on age, medical history, current condition, guidelines, what blood test you're looking to test, etc. But it definitely should not be 'everything available' and 'quarterly' for someone who's healthy."

Some doctors have even suggested that annual physicals might be unnecessary for people who are in good health and who are not experiencing any symptoms of disease, because of the cost and the possibility of false positives.

The idea of tracking every aspect of one's personal health has become increasingly commonplace. Beyond the doctor's office, so-called fitness wearables, the Apple Health Kit app and services like WellnessFX are increasingly putting a wealth of personal biometric data at our fingertips.

But is tracking every eyelash that falls or minute-to-minute fluctuations of one's cholesterol doing us more harm than good?

The jury is still out on whether "quantified self"-style biometric data collection -- through health apps, quarterly blood tests or services like uBiome or 23andMe -- carries any real health benefits.

If nothing else, excessive health monitoring may foster an unhealthy preoccupation with one's physical and mental state. Dr. H. Gilbert Welch, a professor of medicine at Dartmouth College, told NPR:

"What I'm worried about is allowing health to be defined as some set of biometric measurements ... Health is about more than a bunch of physical measurements. It's about a state of mind, and we have to be careful not to undermine that state of mind. Ironically, part of health is not being too focused on it ... Much better for people to develop good relationships, have good friends, be outside, eat well -- find things that produce meaning in their lives."

All of this is without considering the financial costs. Mafi pointed out that if everyone got quarterly blood work done, it would cost the healthcare system billions of dollars.

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