Health Screenings You Need If You're 50 And Older
How often do you need a colonoscopy? A mammogram? Learn the guidelines for these important health tests, then book an appointment with your doctor.
The Road to Good Health
How often do you need to get a colonoscopy? Every five years? Ten years? What about a mammogram? You may think you know all the health tests you need, but guidelines are constantly changing. Keep yourself healthy and up-to-date with this guide for people over 50. Read it, then make the appointment with your doctor and be proactive about your health.
1. Checkup & Vaccinations
How often do you need to get one: Once a year.
What you should know: An annual checkup is a must. It is often the key to preventing illness or early detection of health concerns—it also gives you the chance to talk to your doctor about your weight, lifestyle changes, and what to expect over the next five years.
2. Blood Pressure
How often do you need it checked: Every two years if it’s normal. At least once a year or more if it’s 120-139/80-89 or higher, according to the National Institute of Health.
What you should know: Blood pressure checks are essential because many people who have high blood pressure don't know it. And as you age, it becomes more likely that you can have high blood pressure. High blood pressure can raise your risk of heart disease and stroke. Women who have blood pressure greater than 120/80 mmHg are at increased risk for coronary heart disease, according to the National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute. If you have heart disease, diabetes, kidney problems, or certain other health issues, you'll need to have your blood pressure checked more frequently.
How often do you need it checked: The American Heart Association and the National Cholesterol Education Program recommend anyone over 20 get a baseline measure at least once every five years. However, men over 40 and women over 50 should be tested more often. Many doctors suggest you get tested annually.
What you should know: You want to keep in mind three numbers: your total cholesterol number, and your LDL (bad cholesterol) and HDL (good cholesterol) levels. Your cholesterol levels are considered healthy if your total cholesterol is under 200 mg, LDL is under 160 mg and HDL is 60 or above, according to The Mayo Clinic. Cholesterol numbers are also particularly important for people with a family history of heart disease, high blood pressure, or stroke.
One more thing to keep in mind: If your doctor suggests testing for cholesterol more frequently, there may be an advantage. Studies show that when patients know they'll be tested more often, they're more likely to stick to a heart-healthy diet (or to take their cholesterol-lowering medication).
4. Dental Exam
How often do you need it: Twice a year.
What you should know: Sorry, there's no way around this one. The American Dental Association recommends a check up every six months, not only to get a professional cleaning, but also to detect and prevent tooth decay and gum disease. Also, many doctors now believe that what’s going on inside your mouth is a good indicator of your overall heath.
5. Eye Exam
How often do you need it: According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology everyone should get a baseline exam at age 40, then every 2 to 4 years after that until age 54. At age 55-64, people should get their eyes checked every 1 to 3 years. People 65+ should have their eyes checked every 1 to 2 years.
What you should know: Many people put off getting their eyes checked because they see it as less important than, say, a mammogram or a colonoscopy. However, doctors won't just be checking your vision — people over 50 should be checked for cataracts (a clouding of the eye lense), glaucoma (damage to the optic nerve), and macular degeneration (when images begin to appear blurry).
How often do you need it: Once a year.
What you should know: Mammograms x-ray the breasts and detect early signs of cancer. How frequently women should have mammograms is a source of much debate. Some medical groups including the National Cancer Institute suggest that it is most beneficial (and cost-effective) to have the test once every one to two years, but The American Cancer Society still recommends women get a mammogram once a year starting at age 40. Talk to your doctor about what makes sense for you.
Women at higher risk (family history, genetic predisposition) should get an MRI along with their mammogram. In addition to a mammogram, a complete clinical breast exam by a gynecologist or appropriate health-care provider is recommended every year for women older than 40, and every 3 years for patients in their twenties and thirties.
7. Pap Test
How often do you need it: The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women 30 years to 65 years have a Pap test and HPV screening every five years. Or they can have a Pap Smear every three years. Women over 65 who have had three negative pap tests in a row, or two negative co-tests in a row within the past 10 years, can stop getting pap tests.
What you should know: A Pap screening helps test for cervical cancer by finding abnormal or precancerous cells in the cervix. An HPV screening tests for the virus that causes these cancers. One more note: For women going through menopause, the American Cancer Society now recommends that regular checkups include not only a Pap Test, but also information about the risks and symptoms of endometrial cancer—and they strongly encourage women to report any unexpected bleeding or spotting to their doctors.
How often do you need it: Starting at age 50, every five years or 10 years depending.
What you should know: According to the American Cancer Society, both men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should use one of the screening tests below starting at age 50 as a preventative health measure. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you, but you may need to start screening earlier, if you have a family history of hereditary colorectal cancer syndromes or any other risk factors.
You should have one of the following tests:
Tests that mainly find cancer and polyps include:
• Flexible sigmoidoscopy (have one every 5 years)
• Colonoscopy (have one every 10 years)
• Double-contrast barium enema (have one every 5 years)
• CT colonography which is a virtual colonoscopy (have one every 5 years)
Tests that mainly find cancer but not polyps:
• Fecal occult blood test (FOBT) (have one every year)
• Fecal immunochemical test (FIT) (have one every year)
• Stool DNA test (sDNA) (talk to your doctor how often you should have this test.)
9. Prostate Exam
How often do you need it: Baseline reading at 50, then talk to your doctor.
What you should know: The prostate is a walnut-sized gland near the bladder that is essential for reproduction. Prostate cancer can affect your urinary and bowel function as well as fertility. There's some controversy about the most-effective frequency of prostate checks. Many physicians suggest getting a baseline check at age 40, while others such as The American Cancer Society, suggest that health-care professionals should discuss the pros and cons of early-detection prostate-cancer testing with men and offer annual testing, starting at age 50. African-American men and those with a family history of prostate cancer should discuss screening at age 45.
10. Bone Density Test
How often do you need it: Women older than 65 and men older than 70 should have a baseline bone density test (DEXA scan).
What you should know: A bone density test tells how much calcium and minerals are in your bones, and can detect whether or not you are at risk for osteoporosis (a condition where the bones become brittle and fragile.) As with some other tests, there has been some controversy in recent years as to how often you need a bone density test. Until recently, women over 65 and men over 70 were advised to get a bone density test every two years. But this year the U.S. Preventative Task Force released a study that if you are a woman and your baseline test is normal you can go up to 15 years until your next test. The study found that the benefits of screenings for men were men inconclusive. Once you get your baseline, talk to you doctor about how often you need a follow-up.