Find out the medical screenings older adults need each year
Annual wellness visits are important for so many reasons. For one, it’s a great time to go over health goals with a primary care provider (PCP). It’s also a chance to review the medical tests and treatments that might be needed over the year. Some of them may be the same as last year.
Here’s why people may need those same tests again: Medical tests, also known as screening tests, help providers check for conditions such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, cancer and diabetes. Screening tests and medication and vaccine reviews typically help catch conditions like these early before there are signs or symptoms.1
A person’s age also plays a role. “As you age, your body wears down faster than it used to. So, the sooner you address something, the easier it is to fix,” says Michael Hochman, M.D., a Los Angeles internist.
So, which tests can people expect their provider to suggest this year? Here is a list of the ones many people over age 65 typically have, either at their yearly visit or as soon as they can after.
Blood pressure check
“Some people can have high blood pressure and feel totally fine,” says Dr. Hochman. If left untreated, high blood pressure may raise the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Typically, blood pressure gets checked at an annual wellness visit or anytime a person sees a PCP. People may also check it themselves at a pharmacy or by using a home blood pressure monitor. Testing blood pressure outside of a provider appointment may be helpful. Then, people can alert their provider if their numbers regularly go over 130/80.
Height and weight
A PCP should also measure height and weight at the annual wellness visit. Providers look for changes in either direction. For instance, “a decrease in height can indicate osteoporosis, so I would want to refer patients for a bone density screening,” says Dr. Hochman.
Changes in weight are also important. Gaining too much weight may affect blood pressure, for instance.
But losing weight without trying may also be a cause for concern. For instance, losing 5% of one’s body weight or more in 6 to 12 months — so, for example, going from 140 pounds to 130 pounds — may be a sign of an underlying medical condition, such as a thyroid problem.2 Identifying this earlier may mean getting any necessary treatment as soon as possible.
A provider will check which vaccines a person has had, both that year and generally. It's important to get a flu shot annually to protect against the flu and its potential complications. Since there are a variety of flu vaccines and some may be better suited for older adults, a provider will help determine the right one for you.3
The provider should also check whether a person has been vaccinated yet against pneumonia and shingles. They also can explain the best timing for each vaccination.3
Mental health and cognitive screenings
“Just like height and weight, screening for depression is a simple test, but an important one,” says Dr. Hochman. At an annual wellness visit, a PCP should ask questions about your mood, including stress levels.5
A PCP may also check cognitive ability. This may include evaluating decision-making abilities and screening for signs of dementia.4 This will give the PCP a sense of any memory issues you may be having.5
Kidney and liver functions
Almost 80% of older adults take 2 prescription drugs, and 36% take at least 5.6 So if that sounds like your situation, a PCP may recommend additional tests to check that the kidneys and liver are doing all right handling the medications, notes Dr. Hochman.
Your provider may order blood work and urine tests to check the levels of certain proteins in the urine and blood and see if they’re within the normal range. You’ll most often get the results of these tests after your annual wellness visit.
Blood sugar screening
More than 20% of the 37 million Americans with diabetes don’t realize they have it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.7 For that reason, providers typically recommend screening people ages 35 and over for diabetes via a blood test that measures blood sugar, or glucose, levels. A provider may recommend the test at your yearly wellness visit, especially if you haven’t had it in the last 3 years.8, 9
Those with prediabetes should get their blood glucose levels checked every year, suggests Dr. Hochman. Prediabetes is when blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
About 1 in 3 adults have prediabetes.10 Prediabetes may turn into diabetes if people don’t make certain lifestyle changes, including losing weight and exercising more.10
Cholesterol is a fatty substance in blood. If a person has too much of it, they may have a higher chance of developing heart disease. That’s why it’s recommended that all adults over the age of 65 get their cholesterol checked every year.11
Ideally, a person’s total cholesterol levels should be less than 200 mg/dl.11 If they’re higher, the provider may recommend taking statins (prescription medication that can lower cholesterol) and making lifestyle changes, including eating a healthier diet and, if the person smokes, quitting.
Cancer screening tests
There are screenings for different types of cancer. People may have to get some of them every year, and some less often. A PCP will recommend the ones you need at your yearly wellness visit. The screenings include:12, 13
- Colorectal cancer screening: Every year if done via a stool sample test, or every 10 years if a person has a colonoscopy.
- Breast cancer screening: Mammograms every year or every other year, depending on risk factors and personal preference.
- Prostate cancer screening: A blood test every year or so to check for levels of a protein produced by the prostate called PSA.
- Skin cancer checks: Every year for people at high risk (fair skin, sunburn history).
The bottom line: When a PCP orders these tests, go ahead and check them off the to-do list. They’re a good way to help stay on top of your health until the next annual wellness visit.