Should You Get a Full-Body MRI Scan? Experts Weigh In


In August, Kim Kardashian and designer Zac Posen each posted photos on Instagram wearing dark gray scrubs while sitting on the bright blue bed of an MRI machine. These weren’t doctor-ordered visits to investigate a worrisome lump or a persistent headache. Both Kardashian and Posen were getting full-body MRI scans at Prenuvo, a Redwood City-based company with locations around North America that offers the scans for $2,499 for your full body (or $1,799 for head and torso and $999 for just the torso).

The scan is marketed as a non-invasive, total-body service that can check for hidden cancer and aneurysms, among other things. Spending multiple thousands of dollars every year or two for peace of mind is a growing trend, especially among celebrities and wealthy, well-being-minded people, with companies like Ezra, Neko Health, and SimonMed entering the “wellness MRI” market alongside Prenuvo.

As many Instagram commenters pointed out, though, this type of out-of-pocket scan is out of reach of most Americans, many of whom struggle to pay for even basic healthcare. (Just one: “wow thanks so much for sharing something 90 percent of the population can’t afford.”) While Kardashian claimed her post was #notanad, Posen included a discount code linked to his name, so it’s not clear if the celebrities—which also include Paris Hilton and Cindy Crawford—are being driven by endorsements or an interest in wellness.

Doctors and other experts worry these scans might lead to unnecessary tests and even surgeries, when most of the public would be better off focusing on lifestyle changes to prevent cancer, delay heart disease, and improve longevity, and use targeted MRI scans only to address specific concerns. Still, the promise is intriguing.

So is it worth the price?

What a Wellness MRI Actually Is

The full-body MRI at Prenuvo takes an hour, and like other MRIs, the experience involves lying completely still in a small tube while the machine makes loud banging, clicking, clanging, and whirring sounds. MRIs don’t use radiation or contrast dye, so the scan itself poses no health risk. The machines use a powerful magnetic field and radio waves to look for cancer and 500 other conditions, including aneurysms and cysts. Results from the company arrive in about two weeks, and if they discover something serious, Prenuvo alerts your doctor, even recommending a specialist if necessary.

Andrew Lacy, the CEO of Prenuvo, co-founded the company in 2018 with physicist and radiologist Raj Attariwala, M.D. Lacy says he had the idea earlier that year when he looked at himself in the mirror and realized he had no idea what was going on inside of his body. He wanted to answer the question: “Am I okay? Is there anything I need to know about what’s inside of me?” He found Dr. Attariwala, who was doing full-body MRIs in Vancouver, Canada, for people who had a family history of cancer or who were curious about their health, and got a scan.

“I learned more about my health after a one-hour scan than the health system had told me my entire life,” Lacy says. When he got his own full-body scan, he didn’t discover any life-threatening tumors or a looming aneurysm, but he did feel a sense of relief he describes as euphoric.

Lacy says these scans are particularly helpful for men, who, as he says, “suck at preventative health.” Men, in general, tend to ignore their symptoms and engage in high-risk lifestyle behaviors and as a result, cancer is diagnosed at a higher rate as compared to women. Lacy says they find cancer in about 4 to 5 percent of the people scanned, and aneurysms in 1 to 1.5 percent of patients. (Keep in mind that the people who’ve had these scans aren’t a randomized, controlled group, so those numbers might not apply to the general population.)

But these scans can’t check for everything. In fact, Prenuvo scans aren’t meant to evaluate the heart—they can’t detect blocked arteries there, although they can look for signs of atherosclerosis in other parts of the body, including the brain. Many people who pay thousands of dollars for a scan are looking for cancer, hoping to quell the fear they don’t have a lurking tumor that might prove fatal.

One and…Not Done?

One of the more perplexing things about the buzz around these scans is that while they do screen for cancer, they don’t exempt you from the usual screenings or other doctor visits. Lacy says they advise all patients to continue getting colonoscopies and skin cancer checks, because anything that a physician can look at with their own eyes, either directly or through a scope, is more accurate than any type of imaging.

So then what’s your $2,500 doing for you? The idea behind the full-body scans is to check for something that wouldn’t get caught in a regular, targeted screening—those that look at individual body parts—or that hasn’t grown enough to cause pain or a visible tumor. If you don’t find anything, the scan can offer peace of mind, at least for a year or two.

The problem is what happens when the scan discovers a cyst, lump, or other worrisome result. While Lacy says full-body MRIs can free you from thinking about your health, it’s very possible the procedure could uncover something that will make you suddenly extremely preoccupied with your health—sending you down a rabbit hole of tests, biopsies, even surgeries. The MRI can’t tell you if something is cancerous or not; you’ll still need a biopsy to confirm what the scan suggests.

Radiologists and cancer specialists don’t object to the MRI itself. Experts agree the MRI is a powerful diagnostic tool, but both the National Cancer Institute and the American College of Radiology recommend against whole body MRI screenings for people without symptoms, warning they could lead to overdiagnosis—discovering cancers that would not have caused problems and do not need treatment. “You find a non-cancerous thing that you would have lived with throughout your life, without any issues,” says Dakshesh Patel, M.D., a radiologist who is a medical director at the Keck School of Medicine Imaging Center at the University of Southern California. But they require additional biopsies or invasive procedures, which have risk factors, take up your time, and cause unnecessary stress.

The other drawback with a whole-body MRI, Dr. Patel says, is that it is only a snapshot in time. While you might get the all-clear that day, the scans have to be repeated every year or two. That could add up to something like $12,500 to $25,000 per decade.

While it’s difficult to resist getting lured into “what-if” thinking, especially given Maria Menounous’ dramatic story about finding a pancreatic tumor during her wellness MRI, it’s important to resist the emotional tug and remember that regular screenings—and paying attention to worrisome symptoms—are the recommendations for a reason.

Seeing Your Future?

Taking a look inside your body won’t help prevent cancer in five, ten, or 15 years, because full body MRI scans are diagnostic, not preventive. On this, the science is clear: The best way to prevent cancer is to focus on your daily habits.

“If you’re really focusing on wellness, and there are no symptoms, an MRI is just not necessary,” says Nathan Goodyear, M.D., an integrative expert in the cancer field. It’s much more productive to focus on lifestyle measures that help reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases, including exercise, sleep, and whole, unprocessed food. Dr. Patel also recommends taking care of your mental well-being, avoiding tobacco, and limiting alcohol consumption.

If you have an extra $2,500 to spend every year or two, a full-body MRI could satisfy your curiosity about what’s going on inside your body. It also could lead to months of doctor’s visits, tests and stress—to find out that you have a cyst. “If you do not really have any symptoms, like pain or like you feel a mass or anything like that, I would suggest not to get the MRI scan done,” Dr. Patel says. Even if “everyone” on social media is signing up.

Lettermark

Hilary Achauer is a fitness and health journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, Outside, and The Week, among others. Once an amateur boxer, she now spends her free time surfing, lifting weights, and trying to make a dent in the pile of novels on her nightstand.





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