With a car, if you don’t like the model, you can choose to replace it. You can even choose to upgrade it if you want, exchanging your Buick for a Bentley.
But with your body, you only get one.
And since it’s the only one you get, you should try to do everything you can to ensure it continues to serve you well by following a healthy regimen, which includes eating right, getting the proper amount of exercise and sleep, and going in for your regular, age-appropriate health screenings.
The primary purpose of screening tests is to detect medical problems or health risks while they are still manageable and controllable. By getting the right health screenings, services, and treatments (if required), you can increase your chances of living a longer, healthier life.
Prevention is protection
Acting on the Benjamin Franklin axiom that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” you should sit down with your doctor to discuss what screenings and tests he or she recommends for your age. Make sure to mention any new developments or changes in your health, which could prompt your doctor to move up the timetable for certain screenings.
After hitting the half-century mark in age, screenings take on even more importance. Treat them the way you might an upcoming major service for your car, remembering that it’s a lot cheaper to replace a five-dollar fan belt than paying for a whole new transmission. Early detection leads to more protection for you and your loved ones when it comes to your car and your health.
If you’re a procrastinator or don’t consider screenings a high priority, think again. For example, high blood pressure, which can be detected with an easy, non-invasive test taking less than a minute, is often called “the silent killer” because it typically has no symptoms until after it has done significant damage to the heart and arteries. If you think taking time out of your today to have your blood pressure checked is inconvenient or a waste of money, think of how inconvenient a heart attack or stroke would be.
Regular screenings may also flag your risk of acquiring certain diseases as you age. You can use this information to plan better so that if you do need an elevated level of care later in life, you’ll have a financial strategy already in place to help you cover the cost.
One such strategy to consider — if you’re 62 or older and own and live in your own home, where you enjoy substantial equity — is to open a reverse mortgage line of credit while you’re still healthy and not in need of long-term care.
Here’s how it works. After opening your reverse mortgage line of credit, you simply leave it untouched for five, 10 or even 20 years, until you really need it. By not using your reverse mortgage line of credit, not only are you not charged any interest during that time, but the unused portion of your line continues to grow. Your annual line of credit (LOC) growth rate equals the combination of your initial interest rate and your yearly mortgage insurance premium (MIP). So, for example, if, the initial interest rate on your LOC is 2.75% and the annual MIP is 0.50%, your line of credit will grow 3.25% a year (2.75% + 0.50% = 3.25%. Having this kind of line of credit provides peace of mind to cover life’s what-ifs and just-in-cases.
Also, unlike a HELOC, which you have to start repaying soon after the loan closes (at least the interest portion in most cases during the draw period), a reverse mortgage line of credit does not require repayment until you leave the home. You, however, must continue to maintain your home and pay your property taxes and homeowners’ insurance. Imagine the extra flexibility that could give you in your monthly budget. As with any financial decision, discuss how a reverse mortgage line of credit works — and whether one can work for you — with your trusted financial advisor.
Now, let’s look at a dozen health screenings that could potentially save your life:
Blood Pressure Screening
Blood pressure is the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels when your heart is beating (systolic) and when it’s resting (diastolic). When the pressure is too high, it can cause all sorts of problems, including a heart attack, stroke, and kidney problems. Nearly half of all Americans have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), but only 24% of those people have it under control. When your blood pressure is too low, it can cause dizziness and fainting and deprive your body of enough oxygen to carry out normal functions.
According to WebMD, if your blood pressure is in the normal range (120/80), get it checked at least every 2 years. For abnormal readings, your doctor may suggest more frequent screenings or recommend starting medications to get your blood pressure under control.
Colon and rectal cancer screening
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that adults age 50 to 75 be screened for colorectal cancer, the fourth most common cancer (after breast, lung and prostate cancer). If you have a personal or family history of polyps or colorectal cancer or have inflammatory bowel disease, you may be screened earlier (before age 50) and more often (every five years instead of every 10).
A colonoscopy, one of several tests used to screen for colorectal cancer, allows for the removal of precancerous polyps and can identify other abnormalities when they are highly treatable.
In 2018, some 140,000 Americans were diagnosed with the disease, and 50,000 died of it. Experts believe that adequate screening could have prevented perhaps 60% of those deaths.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force’s latest recommendation is that women between ages 40 and 74 should have a mammogram every two years.
Mammography is the process of using low-energy X-rays to examine the human breast for diagnosis and screening. The goal of mammography is the early detection of breast cancer, typically through the detection of characteristic masses or microcalcifications.
Again, your physician may recommend more aggressive screenings, based on family history or your genetic profile.
PSA and digital exam (male only)
The prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screen is a test that measures the protein produced by both cancerous (malignant) and noncancerous (benign) prostate tissue.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force suggests that men aged 55 to 69 talk to their doctor about having a PSA test. The digital rectal exam (DRE) may also be done as a part of your screening for prostate cancer.
Depending on numerous factors, including your age, race, family history, your current PSA level, and how quickly it has changed from your last screening, your doctor might recommend even earlier screenings. For example, African-American men have a higher risk than other males for prostate cancer at a younger age. Similarly, men who have at least one first-degree relative (such as your father or brother) who has had prostate cancer or at least two extended family members who have had prostate cancer, should also consult their doctor about a PSA screening while in their 40s.
The five-year survival rate for most men with local or regional prostate cancer is nearly 100%. For men diagnosed with prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of the body, the five-year survival rate is 30%. Hence, the reason for early detection.
Blood sugar screen
The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that adults age 45 and older get screened for type 2 diabetes (a disease that occurs when your blood glucose is too high), every three years by their health care provider.
Over 11% of all Americans have diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes can cause complications such as blindness, kidney disease and the need for limb amputation.
Bone density scan
The National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) recommends that you have a bone density test if:
- You are a woman age 65 or older
- You are a man age 70 or older
- You break a bone after age 50
- You are a woman of menopausal age with risk factors
- You are a postmenopausal woman under age 65 with risk factors
- You are a man age 50-69 with risk factors
A bone density test is the only test that can diagnose osteoporosis before a broken bone occurs. This test helps to estimate the density of your bones and your chance of breaking a bone. NOF recommends a bone density test of the hip and spine by a central (Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) DXA machine to diagnose osteoporosis.
Cholesterol/Lipid blood tests
The American Heart Association recommends that all adults 20 or older have their cholesterol and other traditional risk factors checked every four to six years. These tests measure your “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can be indicative of heart attack or stroke risk.
However, more frequent screening is recommended for people with certain risk factors. These include:
- Family history of heart disease or high blood cholesterol.
- Older age.
- Being male.
- Being overweight.
- A high cholesterol results in a previous test.
TSH (Thyroid-stimulating Hormone) Screening
A malfunctioning thyroid can point to a number of ailments, including heart flutters, insomnia, weight loss/gain, dry skin, constipation, hearing loss, depression and a host of other medical conditions, according to the American Thyroid Foundation. Therefore, if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you should consult with your doctor, who will likely schedule a thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test.
Thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), also known as thyrotropin, is produced by the pituitary gland in the brain and causes the thyroid to make thyroid hormone. When there is not enough thyroid hormone in the body, the pituitary makes more TSH, which tells the thyroid to make and release more thyroid hormone. An elevated TSH level means you have an underactive thyroid, which could be causing the aforementioned problems.
Pap test (female only)
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force says women ages 21 to 65 should have a Pap test every three years.
This test checks for cervical cancer, which is easy to treat when caught early. Although your risk of cervical cancer goes down with age, your need for routine Pap tests doesn’t stop with menopause.
You could also choose to get screened every five years once you turn 30 instead using human papillomavirus (HPV) testing or a combination of the Pap and HPV tests, if both tests are negative the first time you take them. If you have a higher risk of cancer, you may need a Pap test more often. Your doctor can recommend what’s best for you.
Skin cancer screen
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends monthly self-checks. If you spot anything on your skin that looks suspicious or out of the ordinary, see your dermatologist. Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, striking 1 in 5 people. Fortunately, 99% of all cases are curable with early diagnosis and treatment.
The USPSTF recommends yearly screening for lung cancer with low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) in adults aged 55 to 80 years who have a 30 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke or have quit within the past 15 years. A pack-year is smoking an average of one pack of cigarettes per day for one year. For example, a person could have a 30 pack-year history by smoking one pack a day for 30 years or two packs a day for 15 years.
LDCT is the only recommended screening test for lung cancer.
Screening should be discontinued once a person has not smoked for 15 years or develops a health problem that substantially limits life expectancy or the ability or willingness to have curative lung surgery.
Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm (AAA) test
The USPSTF recommends a one-time screening for men ages 65 to 75 who smoke or who have ever smoked. Doctors can consider offering screening to men ages 65 to 75 who have never smoked. Currently, there is not enough evidence to make a recommendation for or against AAA screening in women ages 65 to 75 who smoke or have ever smoked.
Most people who have an AAA show no signs or symptoms until it ruptures. A ruptured AAA often leads to death.
AAA screening is done using ultrasound. This safe and painless test uses sound waves to create a picture of the abdominal aorta.
According to the Duke Health System, it’s a good idea to get a yearly physical or wellness exam. It creates a healthy baseline for your doctors, from which they can make more informed prescriptions for care. Many screenings, like measuring your weight and blood pressure, are routinely performed as part of your physical. Your doctor can also order simple blood tests to diagnose the function of your organs and overall health.
Getting recommended screening tests is one of the most important things you can do for your health — and also one of the easiest. If you haven’t been screened lately, it’s time to make the call for your sake and your family’s.