14 Costly Health Problems and How to Catch Them Early

GOOD FOR WHAT AILS YOU

A daunting medical diagnosis is bad enough, but the prospect of massive medical costs can also devastate family morale. Even with insurance, a high deductible and coinsurance can add up quickly. In some cases, early detection can help prevent both disease progression and high medical expenses. Here are some early warning signs and symptoms of 14 serious health conditions.

MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS

This disease causes the immune system to attack the central nervous system, leading to degenerative muscular functioning and potential loss of vision and mobility. Healthline reported in 2013 that drugs for treating multiple sclerosis can cost between $4,000 and $6,000 a month. Early warning signs to watch out for (especially for people with a family history of MS) include pronounced numbing and tingling sensations, chronic pain, and muscle spasms, as well as less obvious symptoms such as trouble swallowing, blurry vision, memory or concentration impairment, hearing loss, and major depression. Seeing a doctor and getting treated immediately after any inkling of these symptoms can potentially improve a patient's outlook by slowing the disease's progress and lowering relapse rates.

KIDNEY PROBLEMS

Chronic kidney disease affects 26 million Americans, and the average cost of treating each patient can rise to more than $70,000 a year, according to figures cited by the National Kidney Foundation. Kidney problems often defy detection until they're life-threatening. It's essential to know the uncommon early warning signs: lower back pain, a metallic taste in the mouth, swelling in the ankles, dizziness, skin itching and rashes, feeling cold, and leg pain. Of course, changes in urination can also signal kidney problems including infection, chronic kidney disease, and kidney stones.

ACID REFLUX

Hoarse coughing, difficulty swallowing, a bitter taste in the mouth, pain when lying down after eating, an excess of saliva -- these seemingly isolated symptoms, when considered together, may strongly imply acid reflux, in which stomach acids move into the esophagus. The burning in the chest is painful enough to be mistaken for a heart attack and should not be ignored or dismissed as run-of-the-mill heartburn. A government study showed 3.1 million hospitalizations in 2005, costing more than $6,500 on average (about $8,000 today, adjusted for inflation). Some sufferers can get away with over-the-counter medications; those who need more help -- likely after a doctor's upgraded diagnosis of gastroesophageal reflux disease -- are looking at prescription medications costing anywhere from $142 to $414 a month (or less for generics), according to wholesale prices gathered a few years ago by a U.S. Department of Health & Human Services agency.

DEMENTIA

Patients with the deterioration of cognitive processing known as dementia, which commonly takes the form of Alzheimer's disease, have far higher medical costs than those with other illnesses -- more than $60,000 in out-of-pocket expenses compared with about $34,000, according to a 2015 study of Medicare beneficiaries. The analysis, which appeared in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, points to another cost: an estimated $83,022 (not to mention the emotional toll) for each caregiving family. Although the disease is incurable, progress can be slowed with drug therapy. Watch for lapses in memory, frequent trips and falls, and detached staring, as well as some more subtle or surprising behaviors: impulsive shoplifting or other petty criminal behavior, ritualistic hoarding, slow walking, trouble chewing crunchy foods and fluctuations in taste buds (such as suddenly craving a previously disliked food or even eating inedible things), failure to understand sarcasm or irony, and drastic personality shifts.

HIV

Studies indicate that the lifetime cost of treating the human immunodeficiency virus can top $400,000, but early action after exposure and infection can radically lengthen a patient's life and result in an almost symptom-free existence for years. Early treatment typically involves antiretroviral therapy with drugs covered by insurance, which can keep people with HIV out of hospital treatment and delay the onset of AIDS. It's best to get tested immediately after potential exposure to HIV via sexual contact or needle sharing. Symptoms showing up two to four weeks afterward could easily be shrugged off as a less serious ailment such as the flu: fever, fatigue, sore throat, rash, joint aches, swollen glands, and headache.

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ADDICTION

Abuse of drugs or alcohol can cost people money to support the habit, jobs, relationships, homes, self-respect, and ultimately their lives. Loved ones potentially see their own savings chipped away, whether the addict is using or in recovery. Recovery.org warns that a 30-day inpatient rehab stay ranges from $2,000 to $25,000, while outpatient treatment can cost up to $10,000 and a simple detox runs $300 to $800 a day. Although there are free options, it's best to identify early warning signs of addiction before it gets a vise grip. These include disregard for hygiene or healthy eating; impulsive and risky behavior; more intense methods of taking a drug; sudden changes in weight, sleep, or appetite; secrecy, fighting, and sudden mood swings; and failure to perform at work.

AUTISM SPECTRUM DISORDER

Autism spectrum disorder ("spectrum" indicating that severity varies) now affects an estimated one in every 68 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Clinicians usually don't diagnose children officially until age 2, but caretakers can watch for signs in infants starting at six months. ASD often manifests as a lack of typical behavior -- children may not smile, respond to their names or others' emotions, imitate others' behavior, coo or make "babytalk," or hold eye contact. Early detection and intervention can lessen a child's symptoms and result in higher functioning levels later, according to the advocacy group Autism Speaks, saving on therapies that cost caregivers between $1.4 million and $2.4 million over a lifetime.

LUNG DISEASE AND LUNG CANCER

Lung cancer claims more lives each year in the U.S. than any other type of cancer, with treatment surpassing $60,000 in the first year alone, according to the National Cancer Institute. Screening those at high risk and detecting lung cancer early can aid in patient recovery. In addition to coughing, look out for clubbed fingertips (painful, bulging fingernails and arthritis-like pain that makes motor skills difficult); constant cold or flu symptoms; mood swings; breast growth in men; unexpected weight loss; and pain in the abdomen, shoulder, back, or chest.

BREAST CANCER

Insidious and hard to detect, breast cancer was expected to be diagnosed in about 232,000 women and cause about 40,000 deaths in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society, while a 2009 analysis found that lifetime treatment costs range from $20,000 to $100,000. The American Cancer Society urges screening and self-checks for lumps or abnormalities that can turn out to be cancerous, as well as mole growth, changes in bladder or bowels or blood spotting, a sore that won't heal, weakness or fatigue, itchy breasts, and a lump or swelling in the armpit.

OTHER CANCERS

Each cancer has its own specific symptoms, but there are general symptoms that warrant a medical exam -- especially when experienced together. These include weight loss, fever, fatigue, pain (although this is often a sign that the cancer has already spread), and changes to the skin, whether it becomes darker, yellowish, red, or itchy. Another alarm bell: excessive hair growth in unexpected places. Letting warning signs go can result in massive medical bills for aggressive treatment. Depending on the type of cancer, medication alone can cost $24,000 to $36,000 a year out of pocket on top of insurance premiums, according to U.S. News & World Report, which cites numbers from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

HEART DISEASE

Between common sense and heart disease's prominence as the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S., most people know that chest pain and shortness of breath, plus shooting pain in the arms, requires immediate medical attention. But be on the alert for less obvious signs of heart distress or impending heart attack. These include bleeding gums; swelling of the feet or lower legs; erectile dysfunction; snoring and sleep apnea; yellow bumps on the skin (xanthomas, which can indicate deposits of fat under the skin); and squeezing pain -- angina -- in the shoulder, upper back, neck, or jaw. Medical care for established cardiovascular disease costs an average of about $19,000 a year, according to a 2010 study in The American Journal of Managed Care, and avoiding hospitalization reduces that by about 30 percent. For some people, a daily, low-cost aspirin regimen can lower the risk of a heart attack.
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TYPE 2 DIABETES

People at risk for for this type of diabetes, including the elderly and obese, can prevent it altogether with significant changes in exercise and diet. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2013 found that the lifetime cost of treatment averages about $85,000 and concluded that intervention to delay or prevent the disease can bring substantial savings. Symptoms might seem innocuous separately but add up to cause for alarm. They include excessive thirst, tingling feet, slow healing of cuts and scrapes, urinary tract infections, loss of bladder control, and fatigue.

BRAIN TUMOR

No surprise here, but it's by no means cheap to treat a brain tumor. Radiation treatment for nonmalignant cases runs in the tens of thousands of dollars, while treating a complicated malignant tumor can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Catching a brain tumor early can improve a patient's prognosis. In addition to headaches and possible seizures, early signs and symptoms include changes in smell, vision, or hearing; unexplained weakness in limbs or on one side of the body; and inexplicable changes in personality or likes and dislikes. Depending on the type of tumor, the person might be unable to look up or might see growth in their hands and feet. Women might begin lactating with no warning or experience a change in their menstrual cycle.

DEPRESSION

Depression commonly results in missed workdays and reduced productivity, according to the CDC, which could put depression sufferers at risk for job loss and financial hardship. Although patients may be reluctant to seek treatment, mental health services such as psychotherapy are covered by insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act, and many clinics have a sliding scale for prescription medication, or even free treatment. The warning signs of clinical depression include some behaviors that may not be obvious: loss of interest in hobbies, social activities, and sex; significant weight loss or gain; insomnia or oversleeping; reckless behavior such as gambling, reckless driving, or dangerous sports; and unexplained aches and pains. Head off depression before it becomes debilitating.