6 Essential Health Screenings for Older Adults
As we age, we need to be more vigilant about our health. The older you get, the more important it is to have regular visits with your primary care physician (PCP) and stay on top of health screenings. While some of these screenings are recommended by doctors for all adults, others are specific to seniors. No matter where you fall on the age spectrum, it’s important to know what your body needs and how best to keep it healthy.
1. Regularly check your blood sugar levels
Blood sugar screenings are important for anyone over 65, and even more so if you have a family history of diabetes. High blood sugar (hyperglycemia) may cause kidney, eye, nerve and heart problems over time. Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) may cause fainting, memory problems and death. Ask your doctor about scheduling regular blood sugar screenings.
2. Know your cholesterol numbers
Knowing your cholesterol numbers from a blood test can help prevent heart disease, but it’s not always easy to know what those numbers mean. The two types of cholesterol used in tests are low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol; and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), also known as “good” cholesterol.
LDL is often referred to as “bad” because too much LDL in the body can lead to plaque buildup on artery walls, which narrows arteries and reduces blood flow. Too little HDL puts you at risk for heart disease because HDL helps remove excess cholesterol from your blood vessels.
3. Get a colon cancer screening
A colon cancer screening is recommended for people over 45, but if you’re over 60 it’s especially important to get one. Colon cancer is the second most common cancer in the United States, and it’s more likely to be found in people who are older than 75.
There are several tests that can help find colon cancer early:
A colonoscopy—a doctor uses a long tube with a lighted viewing device on the end to examine your entire lower bowel for polyps or other changes. It also allows them to remove suspicious areas of tissue for testing.
Flexible sigmoidoscopy—similar to a colonoscopy but shorter; only examines part of your large intestine (the rectum and lower part of your small intestine). You may need this test if you’ve had adenomatous polyps removed from your large intestine before and want another look at them after some time has passed, or if there are no problems with any previous endoscopic procedures performed on your large intestine (such as an appendectomy).
Fecal occult blood test (FOBT)—an inexpensive stool test that detects hidden blood in stool samples by using special chemicals on them which turn pink when they come into contact with hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells). This can indicate bleeding ulcers or cancers such as colorectal cancer.
4. Protect against bone loss with a bone density scan
Osteoporosis is a degenerative disease that causes bones to become weak and brittle, making them more susceptible to fractures. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that men over 70 and women over 65 have a bone density test every two years. If you or your family have a history of osteoporotic fractures, talk with your doctor about getting tested earlier—you may even consider starting at age 60.
To get this test done, visit your primary care physician. A technician will use X-rays to take images of your spine and hips; then they’ll send these scans off for analysis by a radiologist who will interpret the results based on established standards for measuring bone health (the T-score and Z-score).
5. Ask about lung cancer screenings
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women, but it can often be diagnosed early and successfully treated if caught soon enough. Lung cancer screening is recommended for people who are at higher risk for lung cancer because of their age or family history.
For people at high risk for lung cancer (such as those with a history of smoking), screening is a low-dose CT scan that helps doctors see how much calcium has built up in your lungs over time. This test can find tiny areas of irregular tissue that suggest there might be early signs of lung cancer so they can be treated before they become more serious problems.
However, this test isn’t recommended for people with lower risk factors—like being younger than 55 years old or having no family history of the disease—because false positives may lead to unnecessary treatment, which could actually increase your risk of dying from other diseases rather than treating your lung issues.
6. Detect prostate cancer early with a PSA test
Prostate cancer is the most common type of cancer found in American men, after skin cancer, and about six cases in 10 are diagnosed in men who are 65 or older. A PSA test measures the amount of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in your blood. PSA is a protein produced by the prostate gland, and it can be used to detect cancerous tumors.
The National Cancer Institute recommends that men over age 50 have a PSA screening test at least once every two years. If you’re African American or have a father or brother who died from prostate cancer before age 65, talk to your doctor about whether you should get regular screenings earlier than age 50.
If your PSA test comes back abnormal, your doctor may order further tests such as MRI scans or biopsies to determine if cancer is present and how far it’s spread.
Screening saves and prolongs lives
It’s important to stay on top of your health as you age. Remember to keep up with age-specific screenings and make sure you have a doctor or provider you trust. You can find out when you need certain screenings when you talk with your doctor or primary care provider. It’s also a good idea to know if they have any tests that can help detect preventable conditions in their office, like blood pressure checks or cholesterol tests.
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