You deserve to feel good. Just because you are older than 60, don't think you can't be independent, vital, and healthy.
But do you know what to do to stay healthy? The United States Preventive Services Task Force and other specialty groups have put together the following recommendations to help keep seniors healthy, happy, and safe. These are simple medical tests that can be done or ordered when you visit your regular doctor. Your doctor may recommend other tests based on your personal health profile.
- Blood pressure. You could be one of millions of Americans who have high blood pressure and don't know it. Get your blood pressure checked by a health care provider every year, even if your blood pressure is normal. You may need screening more often if your pressure is higher than normal or if you have other risk factors. Your heart, not to mention your arteries, brain, eyes, and kidneys, will thank you later.
- Stepping on the scales. Welcome to the weight gain triple whammy: Muscle is replaced by fat as we get older. Then, that fat goes to your waist! Also, you don't burn calories as well as before because your body's metabolism is slowing down. Take heed of any weight gain; you could be robbing yourself of good health.
Colorectal cancer screening. The task force recommends screening in adults beginning at age 50 and continuing until age 75. You may need to be screened earlier and more frequently if you have risk factors. Talk to your doctor to see what's best for you. The risks and benefits of these screening methods vary:
- Fecal occult blood testing (each year)
- Sigmoidoscopy (every 5 years) paired with fecal occult blood testing (every 3 years)
- Colonoscopy (every 10 years)
- Prostate cancer screening. The task force says there is moderate certainty that the benefits of screening for prostate cancer -- measuring a man's prostate-specific antigen (PSA) level -- do not outweigh the harms in men ages 70 and older. It recommends talking with your doctor about the pros and cons of screening if you are ages 55 to 69.
- For women, a breast exam and mammogram. Know this: Breast cancer risk increases with age. So it's especially important for you to get that mammogram. A mammogram is recommended every 1 to 2 years starting at age 40 or 50. Not all breast cancer experts agree. Talk to your doctor about when you should begin regular mammograms and how often you should have them.
- For women, a pelvic exam, Pap smear and HPV test. You may think it's crazy, but many women over 60 still need to get regular pelvic exams, Pap smears, or human papillomavirus (HPV) tests. Older women can get cervical cancer or vaginal cancer. And the pelvic exam can detect a host of other conditions that may affect your health and quality of life (think incontinence!). Pap smears are recommended for women every 3 years, an HPV test every 5 years, or both, up to age 65. If a woman is older than 65 and has had several negative Pap smears in a row or has had a total hysterectomy for a noncancerous condition like fibroids, your doctor may tell you that a Pap test is no longer needed.
- Protecting your eyes. Eye diseases, such as macular degeneration, cataracts, and glaucoma, are common with age. Screening can preserve and maximize your vision. Ask your eye doctor how often you need to have your eyes checked.
- Hearing test. At least 25% of people ages 65 to 74 have disabling hearing loss, most of which is treatable. That number increases to 50% with age. Get a hearing test if you are having any trouble hearing.
- Protect your bones. Osteoporosis is no joke. If you have it and you get a fracture -- especially of the hip -- you've significantly increased your risk of permanent disability or death. Get serious and ask your doctor to refer you for a bone density test. Women should have a bone density test at age 65. If a woman is at a higher risk, a screening test may need to be done at an earlier age. Talk to your doctor.
- Cholesterol screening. High cholesterol levels are a major reason why people have heart attacks and strokes. The good news, though, is that high cholesterol levels can be treated by diet and medications. That is why measuring your levels of total cholesterol -- HDL "good" cholesterol and LDL "bad" cholesterol -- is important to do regularly. Consider an advanced lipid test, which gives even more information on cardiovascular risk. Medicare will usually cover these blood tests.
- Vaccinations. People older than 65 should get a pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia. The CDC recommends the shingles vaccine for those over age 50 as well. Also, almost all adults should get an annual flu shot. A one-time diphtheria tetanus booster that also has pertussis vaccine (whooping cough) in it is recommended, followed by a diphtheria/tetanus booster every 10 years
- Aneurysm. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends one-time screening for abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) by ultrasound in men ages 65 to 75 who have ever smoked. Screening can be offered to women who have a strong family history of AAA repair or death due to AAA rupture.
Also important are the following tests:
- Blood sugar. Diabetes can be a life-threatening condition, but it doesn't have to be. The American Diabetes Association recommends that a fasting blood sugar test be done at least once every 3 years so you can catch diabetes early and manage it. You may need the test done more frequently if you have other conditions or have other risk factors for diabetes.
- Thyroid hormone test. Thyroid problems are easily missed. That's why some organizations, like the American Thyroid Association, recommend screening at least once every 5 years, especially for women. But the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says there is not enough proof that screening helps someone who doesn’t have any symptoms of thyroid disease. Your thyroid, that innocuous-looking gland in your neck, is the body's powerhouse, producing hormones needed for metabolism. Problems with the thyroid can cause hair loss, weight gain, weight loss, fatigue, and depression.
- Looking for moles. Remember this: Although the majority of your sun exposure occurred before age 18, skin cancers can take 20 years or more to develop. Luckily, most skin cancers are curable. The American Cancer Society recommends regular screening. Ask your doctor to check your skin if you have any unusual moles or skin changes.
- Dental exam. Gum disease can be an important sign of your overall health. Your teeth, gums, mouth, and throat need to be regularly examined by a dentist. Regular brushing with fluoride toothpaste is important if you want to keep your pearly whites gleaming. Consider using an electric toothbrush; it helps with cleaning and prevention of gum disease. And gum disease increases the risk of a heart attack. That's another reason to see your dentist regularly.
Don't forget that taking care of your health extends beyond visiting your doctor's office. The task force recommends that you do the right thing not only for your health, but for others as well by:
- Exercising regularly and watching your diet
- Not smoking, drinking alcohol excessively, or using drugs
- Wearing seatbelts with lap/shoulder straps
- Storing firearms safely
- Using smoke detectors
- Using a helmet on bicycles and motorcycles
- Practicing safe sex, using condoms
- Driving safely; no alcohol or drugs
- Setting hot water heaters at 120 F
- Learning CPR
- Being sensible, avoiding falls and injury
- Getting help for depression and anxiety
Medical screening tests are gifts that keep on giving -- you'll enjoy better health and you may add years to your life. And make sure you're up to speed on the health challenges that can crop up as you get older.