The Health Tests Seniors Need
Blood pressure check
One in every three to four adults has elevated blood pressure, also known as hypertension. And many don’t know itl high blood pressure is often called a “silent killer” because it may not show symptoms until too late. This is why it is essential to have it checked regularly enough that you are aware of your levels, and any fluctuations.
The prevalence of high blood pressure increases with age: according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 64 percent of men and 71 percent of women between the ages of 65 and 74 have high blood pressure, compared to only 21 percent of men and 13 percent of women between 35 and 44.
When your blood pressure is higher than normal, you are at risk for stroke or heart attack as well as other problems. Have your blood pressure checked at least once a year.
Blood tests for lipids
Maintaining healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels will decrease your chance of a heart attack or stroke. If your test results show you have high levels of cholesterol or triglycerides, your doctor may recommend an improved diet, lifestyle changes, or medications—or a combination of these—to help.
It’s not the most comfortable-sounding test, but it’s important to receive a rectal exam and a fecal occult blood test (FOBT), which checks for trace amounts of blood in your stool that may not be visible to the naked eye. The FOBT could be the earliest way to detect something like colon polyps or cancer.
Colorectal cancer exam
Get a colonoscopy—a test where a doctor uses a camera to scan your colon for cancerous polyps—every 10 years (more frequently if polyps are found or if you have a family history of colorectal cancer). A digital rectal exam—where a doctor inserts a gloved and lubricated finger into your rectum—is also often used to check for polyps. A digital rectal exam, however, only checks the lower part of the rectum, whereas a colonoscopy scans the entire rectum. If caught early, it is highly treatable, but almost half of all colorectal cancer cases today are not caught until they have progressed to advanced stages.
Get a tetanus booster every 10 years. For people over 65, yearly influenza and are important to protect against the flu and pneumonia. (Some doctors recommend flu shots for people starting at 50, especially those who are chronically ill.) At age 65, you should also ask your doctor about a pneumococcal vaccine to protect against infection; this virus can result in a number of health issues, including sinusitis, meningitis, pneumonia, endocarditis, pericarditis, and inner ear infections. Everyone over 60 should also be vaccinated against shingles.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that all adults get a baseline screening at age 40. After this initial screening, your eye care provider will help you decide how often you should have follow-up visits. Most of the time this will mean yearly vision screenings if you wear contacts or glasses, and every other year if you don’t. Age increases the chances for eye diseases like glaucoma or cataracts as well as new or worsening vision problems. Presbyopia (where your eyes can no longer focus on close-up materials like a book), for example, is a naturally occurring change in vision that happens as you age.
Oral health will most likely become a concern as you age; severity of gum disease increases with age, and about 23 percent of 65- to 74-year olds have severe gum disease. Many older Americans also have other health concerns requiring them to take medications that have a negative effect on dental health, including antihistamines, diuretics, and antidepressants. These problems may lead to loss of natural teeth—approximately 25 percent of adults over 60 no longer have any natural teeth.
At one of your twice-annual cleanings ask your dentist to perform a periodontal exam. In a periodontal exam, your dentist will x-ray your jaw and inspect your mouth, teeth, gums, and throat for signs of potential problems.
Most of the time, hearing loss is a natural part of aging (although it can sometimes be caused by an infection or other medical condition). About one in three people over age 65 have some level of hearing loss. Get an audiogram—a check of your hearing at a variety of pitches and intensity levels—once every two to three years. Most hearing loss is treatable, although treatment options do depend on the cause and the seriousness of your particular hearing loss.
Bone density scan
An estimated 55 percent of Americans over the age of 50 either have or are at risk for osteoporosis. Despite its reputation as a women’s disease, men are at risk, too. A bone density scan measures bone mass (the amount of calcium and minerals in bones), a key indicator of bone strength.
Vitamin D test
Adequate levels of this important vitamin help protect your bones. It may also defend against heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. As you get older and your body has a harder time synthesizing the vitamin, you should consult with your doctor about potentially having this test performed annually.
For some people, the thyroid, a gland in the neck that regulates your body’s metabolic rate, may not produce enough hormones. This may translate to sluggishness, weight gain, or unusual achiness. But in men, it may also mean problems like erectile dysfunction. To check your level of the thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) and determine if your thyroid is under functioning, your doctor will need to do a simple blood test.
More than one million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year. The best way to catch it early: checking yourself once a month for new or suspicious moles and seeing a dermatologist once a year for a full-body exam.
Diabetes affects more than 23 million Americans every year, so it’s important to be screened for prediabetes and diabetes with a fasting blood sugar test, even if you don’t have a family history of the disease. The American Diabetes Association recommends that everyone—even those with no discernable risk factors—be screened beginning at age 45 for the condition.
Breast cancer risks increase with age. Not all doctors agree on how often women should have a breast exam and mammogram—some believe every two years is best—so be sure to talk to your doctor about what’s right for you. If your risk is also elevated because of a family history of breast cancer, your doctor may recommend an annual screening. The American Cancer Society recommends that women over age 40 have a clinical breast exam and a screening mammogram once a year. You can also perform a breast self-exam regularly without going to the doctor’s office.
Many women over 65 still need a regular pelvic exam and Pap smear. Some may not: women over the age of 65 who have had three normal pap smear tests in a row, and no abnormalities in the last ten years can talk to their doctors about stopping pap smear tests. Women who no longer have a cervix also may be able to stop getting pap smears.
Pap smears be the best way to detect conditions such as cervical or vaginal cancer, and the pelvic exam may shed light on other health issues such as incontinence or pelvic pain.
Prostate Cancer Screening
Prostate cancer can usually be detected early either by a digital rectal exam or by testing the amount of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in your blood. There is some debate amongst medical professional about when prostate cancer screening should begin, and how often it should be done. The American Cancer Society recommends that doctors start to discuss prostate cancer screening with male patients at age 50 who are at average risk for prostate cancer, age 45 for those at high risk, and age 40 for those at especially high risk.