The saying ‘prevention is better than cure’ becomes even more important as we age. Just as we take the car in for regular services, getting regular health checks, screenings and staying up-to-date with vaccinations is an important way to keep your health on track, writes Belinda Peters.
Getting regular health checks is an important way to maintain general health and wellbeing. While it’s recommended that everyone gets a general check-up every year, there are a range of specific health checks and screenings you should be getting at regular intervals to pick up early warning signs of disease or illness.
Start with self-check
Before you even step foot into the doctor’s surgery, it’s important to remember that preventative health starts at home. You are in the best place to notice changes to your body, so incorporating some regular checks into your daily routine can help you become more aware of any changes that seem untoward.
Keeping an eye on your skin and monitoring any moles or freckles that change in shape, size and colour becomes increasingly important as we age. For women, becoming familiar with breast self-examination is an important skill. Likewise, for men checking the testicles should become a regular ritual. When you notice any changes you can raise your concerns with your GP, who can run tests if needed.
Listen to your heart
Cardiovascular disease affects one in six or 3.72 million Australians and kills one Australian every 12 minutes. Heart health checks centre on checking your blood pressure, blood cholesterol and weight and will examine lifestyle issues such as exercise, diet, smoking and alcohol consumption. Blood pressure should be tested every two years or more frequently if you’ve had a previous heart condition. Blood tests to check cholesterol levels and triglycerides are usually conducted every five years over the age of 45 and more frequently if you are at high risk of cardiovascular disease.
The eyes have it
Over the age of 50, a general eye examination is recommended every two years and every year over the age of 65. Your optometrist can test for glaucoma and monitor any changes to your eyesight that might warrant wearing glasses or a change to your prescription if you already wear glasses.
Checking bone health
The bone density or DEXA scan helps determine the health of your bones and both men and women over the age of 50 should be tested regularly according to their doctor’s advice. The Garvan Institute and Osteoporosis Australia have released the Know Your Bones tool at knowyourbones.org.au that can help assess your bone health and likelihood of fractures. It then provides a report that can be discussed with your doctor.
Testing for diabetes
With the risk of Type 2 diabetes increasing with age, a fasting blood sugar level test is recommended every one to three years, depending on your other diabetes risk factors.
Early screenings are available for some of the most prevalent cancers, including bowel, breast, cervical and prostrate.
Those over 50 should get a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) that checks a stool sample for blood every two years. This can be conducted by a home testing kit available from Bowel Cancer Australia. Those with a high risk of bowel cancer should have a colonoscopy every two to five years.
Women aged 50 to 74 who have no personal or family history of breast cancer should have a screening mammogram every two years and women up to the age of 70 should have a pap smear every two years. For men, an annual digital prostate examination is recommended.
While the flu injection is widely discussed every year around flu season, there are other adult vaccination programs to be aware of. As well influenza vaccine, the National Immunisation Program (NIP) offers the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination free to all Australians over the age of 65.
Professor Robert Booy, Infectious Diseases Paediatrician and Immunisation expert from the University of Sydney, said it is important for Australian seniors to be vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia, as preventing an episode of infection could add years of high quality life to their natural lives.
“With Australian children, we’re achieving 93 per cent pneumococcal vaccine uptake. However, among equally vulnerable seniors, we are failing to achieve even 50 per cent pneumococcal vaccine uptake, which could achieve up to five more years of high quality life for an individual,” Prof Booy said.
From 1 November, 2016 the Shingles vaccination will be available for free to those aged 70 to 70 years. While not funded under the NIP, people over 65 years are also advised to have a diphtheria-tetanus-whooping cough booster, if they have not received one in the previous 10 years.