health screening

The Importance of Health Screenings As You Age

Health screenings to detect diseases and chronic conditions before symptoms occur are critical to your medical care as you age. They may involve physical exams, blood tests, questionnaires, and other tests. 

Screenings are proven effective at reducing cancer deaths and preventing the development or progression of other health conditions, like osteoporosis, diabetes, and hypertension. 

This article discusses how women can benefit from regular health screenings.

Why Screenings Are Important As You Age

Regular health screenings improve the chances of finding cancer or other diseases early, when they are easier to treat. This can lead to better health outcomes and quality of life. 

Health screenings also encourage lifestyle changes. If you discover that you are at risk of certain diseases, your healthcare provider will discuss steps to take to protect yourself. Lifestyle factors may include a healthy diet, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and avoiding tobacco

Effectiveness of Health Screenings

Health screenings are effective at detecting diseases early. This improves treatment options and overall health. It is estimated that if cancer screening guidelines were followed in 100% of cases, it would prevent 2,821 deaths from breast cancer, 6,834 deaths from cervical cancer, and 35,530 from colorectal cancer over a lifetime.

Mammograms

Mammograms use X-ray pictures to detect or diagnose breast cancer. They can be used as a screening tool or to diagnose cancer in those with symptoms. Mammograms can detect breast cancer early before a lump can be felt in a physical exam. When breast cancer is caught early, it is easier to treat. 

Women ages 45 to 54 should plan to get a mammogram annually. Women 55 and older can get a mammogram every two years. Talk with your healthcare providers to determine if a mammogram is needed sooner.

During a mammogram, your healthcare provider will assist you in placing each breast between two X-ray plates. This provides a better picture of the breast and allows less radiation to be used. Be sure to tell your healthcare provider if you are pregnant. Your healthcare provider will notify you if any abnormalities were detected.

Additional tests may include another mammogram, breast ultrasound, or breast tissue biopsy

Mammogram Rates

About 12% of people who have a mammogram will receive an abnormal result. Of those abnormal results, just 5% of individuals go on to be diagnosed with breast cancer. This is helpful to remember if you are feeling nervous about your mammogram results. 

Colonoscopies

A colonoscopy is a test used to detect colorectal cancer. This procedure involves inserting a long, flexible tube called a colonoscope into the anus to inspect the rectum and colon. A small camera provides pictures of the tissues, and samples can be taken if biopsies are needed. 

Colorectal screenings should begin at age 45 if you are in good health. For most adults, colorectal cancer screening is recommended until age 75. Talk with your healthcare provider about a screening schedule based on your health and risks. 

For most healthy adults over 45, colonoscopies are recommended every 10 years. If you are considered high risk for colorectal cancer, earlier or more frequent screenings may be needed. Your provider may recommend a CT colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy (FSIG) every five years as an alternative. Stool-based tests are also used to detect colorectal cancer. 

Gynecological Cancer Screenings

Gynecological cancers include cancers of the:

The only gynecological cancer that can be prevented through screening is cervical cancer. People ages 25 to 65 are advised to get a human papillomavirus (HPV) test every five years (even if you have been vaccinated against HPV) or a Pap test every three years. People 65 and older who have not had an irregular result in the last 25 years may be able to stop regular screenings. 

Cervical cancer used to be one of the most common causes of cancer deaths in women in the United States. Since regular screenings started, the U.S. death rate has significantly decreased. It’s important to note that most cases of cervical cancer are found in people who have never had a Pap test or HPV test. 

Cervical cancer is more common in younger people, with a median age of 50. Other types of gynecological cancers are more common in older individuals. The median age for being diagnosed with vaginal or vulvar cancer is 67. 

Blood Pressure

It’s estimated that hypertension affects 45% of American adults, and it is the most common chronic condition to be diagnosed during outpatient visits. Hypertension raises the risk of heart disease, stroke, and chronic kidney disease. Fortunately, hypertension can be treated with lifestyle changes and medication.

Regular blood pressure screenings are recommended for all adults 18 and older. A blood pressure reading can be taken in an outpatient healthcare office. 

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy substance that the body needs to make hormones. It also helps the body digest fats. Our bodies make all the cholesterol we need, but we also get it from our diet. High cholesterol is dangerous because it causes plaque buildup in the arteries, which raises the risk of heart disease and stroke. High cholesterol does not cause any physical symptoms, so screening is vital. 

Cholesterol levels can be checked with a blood test. For most adults, cholesterol screenings should start at 20 and be checked every five years. Your healthcare provider may recommend more frequent screenings if you are considered high risk.

Many people with high blood pressure (hypertension) or high cholesterol do not know they have it. Both of these factors can raise your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Type 2 Diabetes

Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects how the body uses sugar (glucose) for energy. It’s estimated that 13% of adults in the United States have diabetes, and 34.5% have prediabetes. Diabetes is a serious condition that raises the risk of kidney failure, blindness, and heart disease.

Type 2 diabetes is treatable; the earlier you find it, the easier it is to treat. Most healthy adults do not need regular diabetes screenings. Adults ages 35 to 70 who are overweight or obese may benefit from diabetes screenings. 

Your healthcare provider can screen you for type 2 diabetes and prediabetes by measuring your fasting plasma glucose (blood sugar level) or A1C level. Lifestyle interventions, like diet, exercise, and medications, are proven to prevent diabetes in those with prediabetes. 

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a chronic condition that causes the bones to become weak and brittle. The risk of osteoporosis goes up significantly after menopause and can lead to other health problems and increase hip fracture risk. Fortunately, osteoporosis can be treated, which means you can lower your risk of hip fracture. 

Osteoporosis screening is recommended for women 65 and older, as well as postmenopausal women who are younger than 65 with increased risk. 

The most common bone measurement test used to screen for osteoporosis is the central dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scan. This test determines your bone mineral density level and should be done every 15 years or more if needed. During a DEXA scan, expect to lie down for a few minutes while the machine scans your body. If your healthcare provider determines that your bone density is too low, medications can help improve your levels.

Mental Health

Mental health screenings are becoming a regular part of preventive care. Early identification of mental health conditions leads to better outcomes. About 50% of mental health screenings start at 14, and 75% begin by age 24. 

You will likely be given mental health questionnaires at your healthcare provider’s office. If your scores indicate a risk for anxiety or depression, your healthcare provider will ask you more in-depth questions before determining a treatment plan.

Hearing Loss

Hearing loss is a common problem for older adults. About 16% of American adults have trouble hearing. Hearing loss affects your quality of life and ability to function independently. 

For most healthy adults, regular screenings are not needed. If you are concerned about hearing loss, your healthcare provider may recommend a test such as the whispered voice, finger rub, or watch-tick.

Vision

Vision screenings are a regular part of life for school-age children. Most healthy adults do not receive standard vision tests at their healthcare provider’s office. Regular eye exams from a specialist are recommended, though. 

An ophthalmologist or optometrist can conduct complete eye exams and diagnose vision problems. Talk with your healthcare provider about how often you need eye exams and how to follow up if you notice any changes in your vision.

Skin Checks

A skin cancer screening involves a visual exam by you or a healthcare provider. The goal is to inspect any moles, birthmarks, sores, or areas of discoloration

Skin cancer is the most common cancer type diagnosed in the United States. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common types. Melanoma is not as common but much more dangerous.

You should preform regular skin self-exams to check for signs of skin cancer, especially those who are at higher risk (people with a personal and/or family history of skin cancer). Your healthcare provider can make individual recommendations as to how often a person needs a skin exam.

If your healthcare provider is concerned about a mole or area of skin, they will take a skin biopsy and send it to the lab to be examined.

How to Get Screened

You may wonder how you will fit all of the health screenings into your already busy life. Talk with your healthcare provider about which screenings are most important for you and go from there. Fortunately, most health screenings are covered by insurance or Medicare. If you are currently uninsured, talk with your state's health officials about how to obtain these screenings. 

Summary

Health screenings are a proven way to detect many cancers and health conditions before symptoms appear. In general, the earlier a disease is found, the better. Early diagnosis and treatment usually lead to improved outcomes and quality of life. Talk with your healthcare provider about which health screenings are right for you.

A Word From Verywell 

Health screenings are quick, simple, and usually free of cost. However, they are not always stress-free. Many of us feel overwhelmed and anxious while waiting for test results. It’s natural to want to put off certain screenings from time to time. Remember, screenings can improve your health by finding problems early. Once you schedule and attend your yearly health screenings, you’ll likely feel a sense of relief.

24 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH
Carrie Madormo, RN, MPH, is a health writer with over a decade of experience working as a registered nurse. She has practiced in a variety of settings including pediatrics, oncology, chronic pain, and public health.