For Older Adults: What Screenings Do You Need?

One important component to living a long and healthy life is to get preventive health screenings for serious diseases. If your doctor finds a disease early, the problem is often easier to treat and may cause less damage. In addition to celebrating milestone birthdays, consider them reminders for certain important health checks.

Note: Screening means testing for a condition before there are signs or symptoms of disease. If you already have symptoms of any of the following, be sure to see your doctor right away. 

Here's a timeline for health screenings through the decades:

  • Breast cancer. Mammograms use X-rays to look for breast cancers when they are still small. The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends annual mammograms for women starting at age 40. Talk with your doctor about frequency, as well as other possible imaging tests if you have a family history of breast cancer. Mammograms are the best way to detect early cancer, but all women should also know how their breasts feel normally and report any changes to their doctor. Clinical breast exams should be done yearly in women after age 40. 

  • Prostate cancer. The ACS suggests that men talk with their doctor at age 50 about whether they should be tested for prostate cancer. This screening involves a blood test measuring a substance called PSA. It may also include a rectal exam of the prostate. African-American men and men with a father or brother who had prostate cancer before age 65 should have this talk at age 45.

  • Osteoporosis. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) suggests that women be screened for osteoporosis starting at age 65. Your doctor might advise you to start at a younger age if you are at high risk for bone loss or a broken bone.

  • Colorectal cancer. The ACS suggests that both men and women be screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 50. The gold standard diagnostic test is the colonoscopy. If no precancerous polyps are found, you may not need to have it the test repeated more than once every 10 years. If you have a family history of colon or rectal cancer, you may need to be tested earlier. Talk with your doctor about this. 

  • Diabetes. The National Institutes of Health suggests that everyone age 45 or older think about being tested for diabetes. Consider starting at a younger age if you're overweight and have other factors that put you at higher risk for diabetes, such as an elevated blood glucose level, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or family history of diabetes.

  • Cholesterol. The USPSTF suggests that men have cholesterol screenings starting at age 35. Women should begin at 45 if they're at high risk for heart disease. Both men and women should consider getting this blood test at an earlier age if their risk for heart disease in particularly high.

  • Blood pressure. All adults should be screened for high blood pressure once a year. If the blood pressure is in the low normal range, it can be extended to every two years. 

  • Abdominal aneurysm. Men should have a one-time screening for abdominal aortic aneurysm between ages 65 and 75 if they have ever smoked, the USPSTF suggests. This ultrasound test looks for a weak, bulging spot in a major blood vessel in the abdomen. The USPSTF doesn't recommend the screening in older men who haven't smoked or in women.

  • Cervical cancer. Women should be screened at least every three years. After age 65 or after a hysterectomy for benign disease, women may stop having Pap smears as long as their previous Pap smears were normal and they are not otherwise at high risk for cervical cancer. 

Screenings are just one step you can take to prevent disease later in life. Other crucial steps include:

  • Avoiding tobacco

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat dairy

  • Getting at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week

  • Drinking alcohol only in moderation, if you drink at all