Being proactive about your health is key to living a long, healthy life. Though it’s difficult to make choices now that benefit you later — especially when it’s an intangible benefit like not developing diabetes or heart disease — it’s important to make the effort anyway. It’s much more difficult (or sometimes impossible) to reverse a diagnosis than to prevent it in the first place.
In addition to maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in regular exercise and having routine checkups with your doctor, preventive screenings are a great way to be proactive about your health, especially when you hit age 50. There are screenings for several different conditions, and the earlier you catch a problem, the better chance you have of preventing complications or reversing the effects altogether. This is especially true with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
“Undergoing preventive cardiovascular screenings is basically getting a headstart against arguably the worst health condition a person can have,” says Jolene Caufield of Healthy Howard. “There is nothing a person can lose by subjecting herself to a preventive screening. These screenings give you a clearer picture of your future health.”
According to the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General, as much as $3.7 billion in medical costs could be saved annually in the U.S. if preventive screenings increased by 90 percent. Taking a look at the big picture, this tells us the preventive screenings that are happening are working as intended.
As with any medical procedure or assessment, it’s important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms or risk factors you might exhibit, and which screenings they would recommend before scheduling anything.
With that in mind, below are the top 10 preventive screenings people over 50 should consider:
Carotid artery disease is a condition in which plaque builds up inside the carotid artery, a blood vessel that carries blood up the neck, from the heart to the brain. Plaque is a combination of cholesterol, calcium and other cellular substances, and when it builds up, it narrows the passageways and hinders the flow of blood. Clogged arteries do not deliver blood to the brain as they should, but the real danger is the increased risk of a stroke. Strokes can occur when plaque breaks off, blocking blood flow to the brain, or when the artery clogs completely. Because people with carotid artery disease typically do not experience any symptoms until they have a stroke, it’s vital to be informed about your health and get screened if you exhibit any risk factors. When a stroke occurs, oxygen is cut off from the brain, and brain cells begin to die within minutes. If you are at least 50 years old, we recommend getting screened for carotid artery disease annually. Read more about additional risk factors here.
Atrial fibrillation is a form of irregular heart rhythm in which the top two chambers of the heart (the atria) do not beat in a regular way, causing them to allow blood to pool in the atria and cause a clot. When clots travel to the brain, a stroke occurs, so people with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke than people without. Many people live with AFib without knowing it, and the irregular rhythm can come and go. Over time, however, it is likely to become more frequent. AFib itself is not necessarily life-threatening, but the significantly increased risk of stroke (as well as heart failure) makes it a serious condition nonetheless. We recommend talking to your doctor about getting screened for AFib if you are 50 or above, or if you exhibit other risk factors.
Peripheral artery disease (PAD) refers to plaque buildup in the legs, restricting blood flow. As with carotid artery disease, the plaque causes the arteries to narrow and stiffen, which can cause pain in the legs and feet and even tissue death (gangrene). Unlike carotid artery disease, though, PAD does not lead to a stroke. If you exhibit symptoms like pain in your legs and feet (usually improved after resting); smooth, shiny skin on the legs or feet; skin that’s cool to the touch; wounds that are slow to heal; or any other relevant symptoms — or if you are aged 50 or above — we recommend talking to your doctor about getting screened for PAD.
An abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) occurs when the largest artery in the body, the aorta, balloons and stretches in the belly region. This weakens the walls of the artery, which means it can rupture or leak, causing internal bleeding in the abdomen, which is a very serious medical emergency. However, preventing this emergency is possible with an AAA screening. It is critical to know about the aneurysm before it ruptures so you can take measures to prevent it, especially because the patient doesn’t usually experience any symptoms until the leak or rupture occurs. Once you know you have an AAA, you can work with your doctor to come up with an action plan, which may include surgery or the less invasive treatment of endovascular repair, reinforcing the weak section of the aorta with a graft. We recommend getting screened for AAA if you’re 50 or over, or if you exhibit risk factors like high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
You may be more familiar with osteoporosis, a condition in which bone structure is lost faster than it can be replaced with new bone growth. That means the bone density is lower, making them more prone to breakage. In its early stages, many people don’t exhibit symptoms, so the first indication is often a broken bone. Osteoporosis affects 54 million adults in the U.S., and there are several ways to treat it. We recommend talking to your doctor about getting screened for bone density via a painless, state-of-the-art ultrasound when you hit age 50, or if you exhibit symptoms like a change in posture, sudden back pain, or loss of height.
Chronic kidney disease refers to a condition in which the kidneys are not functioning as well as they should to filter out waste. There is no cure, and treatment focuses primarily on making sure the condition doesn’t worsen. The primary causes for kidney disease are diabetes and high blood pressure, and each year the disease kills more people than prostate cancer or breast cancer. In the worst-case scenario, end-stage kidney disease patients require dialysis or a kidney transplant. It’s therefore very important to understand whether your kidney is functioning properly, especially when you hit age 50 or above.
An A1c screening is a finger-prick test that identifies your blood sugar level over the preceding two to three months and is used to determine whether or not you have pre-diabetes, type 1 diabetes or type 2 diabetes. Though type 1 diabetes is genetic and does not have a cure, pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes can be reversed with a healthy lifestyle and other treatments. Unfortunately, many people live for years with type 2 diabetes without knowing it. If left untreated, diabetes can cause kidney disease, poor circulation and vision loss, so it’s important to diagnose it early and treat it as soon as possible.
A complete cholesterol blood test, also called a lipid panel, is a simple finger-prick test that determines the amount of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood. Cholesterol is one of the primary causes of plaque buildup in the arteries, which leads to conditions like carotid artery disease and can cause blood clots, which can lead to a stroke. Keeping an eye on your cholesterol is a key to being proactive about your cardiovascular health, especially for people aged 50 and older.
Behind skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common form of cancer in men. The prostate gland is located just below the bladder and assists in semen production as well as producing a protein called a prostate-specific antigen (PSA). The PSA screening measures the level of this protein in the blood. If PSA levels are higher than normal, it could be an indicator of prostate cancer. (An official diagnosis would require further testing with your doctor, as other conditions like an enlarged prostate or infection could also cause higher PSA levels.) We recommend men aged 40 and over talk to their doctor about getting a PSA screening, especially if you have risk factors like a family history of prostate cancer or are African American.
Another cancer screening we recommend for adults aged 45 and above is a colorectal cancer screening. This screening uses antibodies to detect blood in the stool, which can be an indicator of colorectal cancer. This is an at-home test and does not officially diagnose colorectal cancer, as blood in the stool can also be an indicator of other conditions like polyps, stomach ulcers or hemorrhoids. Many people live with colorectal cancer for years without knowing it, so if you are at risk for the disease, it’s important to get screened. Other risk factors include a family history of the disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or Crohn’s disease.
Preventive care is the most important thing you can do to preserve and maintain your health. Don’t put off essential appointments just because the need doesn’t feel immediate. One test today can save you from severe consequences later.
If you want to get screened and assess your health, you can start by finding the Life Line Screening facility nearest you.