A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Recommended health screenings for older adults

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Regular check-ups, tests and screenings can ensure that we catch medical problems before they become serious.

As children, providers tell us or our parents when to come in to the doctor and what to expect in the months or years between our visits. However, as we age, this guidance becomes less concrete. Regular doctor visits do not become less important as we age; in fact, regular check-ups, tests and screenings can ensure that we catch medical problems before they become serious.

Difference between tests and screenings

For many patients, contact with providers starts when the patient has a change in their medical condition. This often sparks testing, which providers order when trying to find the cause of a symptom or concern.

On the other hand, screening is testing when no symptoms are present but you are at risk to develop a disease. This can be because of personal or family history or because of age. If the screening shows that a disease or illness is present, then providers can intervene and help you live longer or better.

In addition to regular wellness visits to your doctor, you should be screened for several potential diseases or problems as you age.

“The goal of health screening is to be proactive to detect and treat diseases early and manage any risk factors for disease that could potentially decrease quality of life or life expectancy,” said Dr. Aanuoluwa Abiola, a geriatrician at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “Screening is the key to prevention of disease development and progression. Older adults should still consider the recommended screening tests that align with each individuals’ health goals.”

Men vs. women

While men and women should all receive screenings at recommended ages and in regular intervals, Dr. Abiola explained that there is a gender factor in how men and women often approach screenings.

Women are typically introduced to general screenings at a much earlier age than men. For example, women are encouraged to receive a pap smear to test for cervical cancer every three years beginning at age 21. Therefore, adding additional screenings as you get older are often a simple health care addition.

On the other hand, men often do not have a reason to come in until they hit the ages for regular screenings. “Men may not seek medical care until later ages and often after symptoms or health concerns arise that could have been picked up earlier if routine medical visits were in place,” Dr. Abiola said. “This is a missed health improvement and prevention opportunity,”

As a solution to this discrepancy, health care is getting better at giving guidance to adults. This most often comes in the form of wellness checklists and screening reminders.

“The goal is to empower patients with information and knowledge regarding their health and promote health maintenance and wellness,” Dr. Abiola explained.

Adults of all ages can be screened for depression, risky behavior with alcohol or drugs and risks for heart disease such as diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol. This is all in addition to receiving recommended screenings at older ages.

When it comes to your health, the best thing you can do is stay on top of your appointments and recommended check-ups and screenings. You have resources available to you to take ownership of your health care. My Marshfield Clinic is your greatest resource for booking appointments, sending and receiving messages from your providers, getting reminders for appointments and upcoming screenings, and accessing your health records.

Recommended screenings for older adults

Adults should receive screenings at different stages in life. Here are a few common screenings to consider as you age.

Mammogram – A mammogram screens for breast cancer. Women should regularly get mammograms beginning at age 40. From 40-49, screening can occur every 2 years. Once you hit 50, you should receive a mammogram every 12 months.

Colonoscopy – A colonoscopy screens for colorectal cancer. Men and women should begin to get colonoscopies at age 45. Screening can occur every 10 years if average risk.

Depression –Depression screening looks for signs and symptoms of depression. Men and women should get screened for depression starting at age 12. However, this screening is especially important for older adults. As we age, many patients with memory problems experience social withdrawal and depression. Additionally, depression can lead to worsening memory or mimic more serious memory impairments.  Depression screening can catch the signs and symptoms so your doctor can work with you on treating the depression before it impacts your overall well-being.

While all older adults should receive regular screenings at the recommended intervals as they are able, screenings are occasionally not suggested. Most often, this happens in cases where patients may not live long enough to benefit from taking the risk of screening and potential treatments.

There is no set age at which you become “too old” for screenings. Rather, it is a decision made based on how active and healthy you will be going forward. Dr. Abiola said this is done though shared decision making where you and your doctor can decide together what makes sense for you and your health care.

Dr. Abiola explained that patients should discuss their personal goals and expectations as they age with their provider and family. These discussions should be documented in advance care documents. The most important of these is a document that specifies who is the durable power of attorney for health care. This person would help make health care decisions on a patient’s behalf if the patient is not able to speak for themselves. It is critical to determine a power of attorney so patient wishes are respected.

The screenings listed above are just a few of the most common recommended screenings for older adults. To learn more about what other screenings you need to schedule and when, what to expect, and how to manage advance care documents, speak with your provider or schedule an appointment.

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