8 medical tests every older adult should take
By Joy Manning
Help safeguard your health in retirement by taking advantage of these vital screenings. Plus, 6 health checks you may not know about — but should.
Preventive screenings are always an important part of taking care of yourself, but they become even more essential to your well-being later in life, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Why? Older adults are at a greater risk of conditions that develop slowly and don’t always cause noticeable symptoms, such as high blood pressure and colon cancer.
We know it’s a hassle to put another appointment on your calendar. In fact, the CDC reports that fewer than half of all adults over the age of 65 are up to date on standard health checks and other preventive measures (like immunizations), despite regular checkups. But these closer looks allow your doctor to help catch and treat many health issues before they become a big deal.
Here’s a look at 8 recommended medical screenings every older adult should get. Plus, 6 lesser-known health tests to ask your provider about.
Health check #1: Skin cancer
A basic skin cancer screening is as easy as a dermatologist or other health care provider inspecting your skin for suspicious spots and moles. But the benefit can be significant — you can detect melanoma (a type of skin cancer that kills more than 10,000 people a year) while it is in its early, most curable stage, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF).
The SCF encourages all adults to see a dermatologist once a year for a full-body, professional skin check. If you’re at an increased risk of skin cancer because you have fair skin, a history of tanning or family members who have had melanoma, ask your provider if you should be screened more often.
Health check #2: Blood pressure
Almost half of adults have high blood pressure, or hypertension, reports the American Heart Association (AHA). Yet many don’t realize that their blood pressure is elevated. That’s why it’s known as “the silent killer.” In fact, it’s the primary cause of death for nearly 500,000 Americans per year, according to CDC data.
The date on your birth certificate is its own risk factor for high blood pressure, notes the AHA. As you age, your blood vessels gradually lose some of their elasticity. That alone can contribute to increased blood pressure and raise your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Fortunately, a blood pressure check is perhaps the most simple screening on this list. It’s a routine part of your annual wellness visit and another good reason not to put off that appointment.
Health check #3: Cholesterol levels
Like blood pressure, your cholesterol numbers are an important measure of your risk of heart disease, according to the AHA. You’ll get your blood drawn at your doctor’s office or a lab and find out your total cholesterol numbers, as well as your HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol numbers.
Armed with this information, you can talk to your doctor about lifestyle choices that affect your cholesterol, including diet and exercise, as well as medications to get those numbers in the right place. High cholesterol has no symptoms, so a screening is the only way to know where you stand.
Health check #4: Fasting blood sugar levels
This is a screening for diabetes that the American Diabetes Association recommends you get at least once every three years. You’ll want to time this blood test for the morning, because you can’t eat before you get it.
One of the most important reasons to do this is that it will tell you if you are living with prediabetes. That can actually be good news because it gives you the chance to take steps to prevent full-blown Type 2 diabetes. The CDC reports that 1 in 3 American adults has prediabetes, and 84% of them don’t know it because they haven’t been screened.
If your doctor determines that you are at a high risk of developing diabetes, you may be eligible for two screenings each year.
Health check #5: Dental exam
Your dental health plays a key role in your heart health, according to the AHA. The connection isn’t fully understood, but the AHA states that gum disease is linked with a higher risk of heart disease. And the CDC reports that more than two-thirds (68%) of adults age 65 or older are, in fact, living with gum disease.
The solution? Visiting the dentist for regular cleanings and a checkup (in addition to twice daily brushing and flossing) can help keep both your mouth and heart healthy. Regular dental exams can catch small problems (like cavities), so that you can address them before they become bigger problems (like tooth loss).
Health check #6: Eye exam
These easy checkups help ensure that your vision is the best it can be. You can find out if you need eyeglasses, a new lens prescription or bifocals, for example. But it might surprise you to learn that even people with 20/20 vision need regular eye exams, per the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). That’s because an exam can also spot more serious eye health issues, like glaucoma or age-related macular degeneration, early. Both conditions can cause irreversible vision loss, says the AAO. Routine eye exams can also reveal small changes in the blood vessels behind your eyes, which can be a warning sign of high blood pressure or diabetes.
Health check #7: Hearing exam
We probably don’t need to tell you that with every turn of the calendar, it often becomes harder and harder to hear clearly. Age-related hearing loss is incredibly common: In the U.S., one-third of people between the ages of 65 and 74 struggle with the condition, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. That percentage increases to almost half for those age 75 or older.
Along with contributing to awkward conversations that involve asking people to repeat themselves, hearing loss can have some pretty serious health consequences. Not hearing well means you might miss out on important warning sounds like a smoke detector beeping. And recent research has found ties between hearing loss and a faster rate of cognitive decline. A study from Johns Hopkins University, for example, notes that over the course of 10 years, mild hearing loss doubles the risk of dementia.
Getting your hearing checked regularly can let you know how you’re doing and signal the need for a hearing aid, which can help improve your ability to talk and listen to others — and, therefore, your quality of life.
Health check #8: Colon cancer
Colon cancer is a very preventable, treatable disease, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). If you’re in good health and are younger than 76, you’re advised to have regular screenings, which can help your doctor catch and remove polyps before they progress to cancer.
Screenings for colon cancer come in several forms, including stool tests and visual exams, such as colonoscopies. Talk to your provider about your specific situation and make a plan for colon cancer screenings.
6 lesser-known health checks to ask your doctor about
These less-talked-about factors play an important role in healthy aging.
- Lifestyle. A quick check-in with your doctor about your daily habits can kick off behavior changes that can save your life. So when the providerasks about your alcohol use, tobacco habits or eating patterns, answer honestly. Your provider can recommend resources, such as a smoking cessation program, that can help you get healthier. It’s never too late for lifestyle upgrades.
- STDs. As long as you are sexually active, you need to think about screenings for sexually transmitted disease (STD). Cases of STDs among adults older than 65 have actually increased in recent years, according to the CDC. When someone who was married for decades begins dating again after divorce or the death of a partner, they may not be used to taking precautions. Often, doctors and patients alike are uncomfortable discussing these risks, so take it upon yourself to ask your doctor if you should consider STD screenings.
- Fall risk. Every year, 3 million older adults need to go to the hospital because of a fall, reports the CDC. Your provider can assess your risk of falling by asking you a few simple questions. You may be taking a medication that can cause dizziness that can be swapped for something else, for example. Or your provider could recommend a vitamin D supplement. (Vitamin D deficiency makes falls more likely.) You can help reduce your risk of falling by doing strength and balancing exercises and ridding your home of any tripping hazards.
- Hepatitis C. If you were born between 1945 and 1965, you’re in the age group with the highest incidence of hepatitis C, and you should be screened. Hepatitis C is a virus that can lead to serious liver problems. Screening is important because about half of the people who have it don’t know it. It can take decades for symptoms to develop.
- Depression. Mental health is a key aspect of your overall sense of well-being. Ask your provider for a depression screening if you’ve been dealing with sadness and not experiencing enjoyment from things that normally give you pleasure for two weeks or more. Depression is highly treatable, but you have to identify it first.
- Nutrition. Oftentimes as you age, your weight changes. When your body weight changes by too many pounds in either direction, it can be a problem for your health. A nutrition evaluation can reveal any shortfalls in your diet and get you on track to a way of eating that better meets your needs. That might involve a visit with a registered dietician or, if economic factors are keeping you from getting healthy food, a social worker.