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By definition a screening is a test or exam that is able to find a condition before any symptoms have appeared. When a condition is found in this way it is much more likely to be treatable and curable. So health screenings are, literally, ways to save your life. If your particular family history predisposes you to a certain illness, then the screenings are doubly important. Certain risk factors such as being overweight or having a compromised immune system may also be indicators leading you to be proactive in scheduling your health screenings. It goes without saying that you need to have regular eye, hearing and dental check-ups plus an annual physical for general healthcare but that is not enough. Here are the “Big Five” screenings that everyone needs as they grow older.

1)  Bone Scan
A bone scan is done to check for a condition called Osteoporosis which means the bones have thinned or lost density over time. The condition is a “silent disease” meaning it has no recognizable symptoms. Many people find out they have osteoporosis after breaking a bone. A simple MRI scan of the backbone and pelvis is done quickly and easily. If the scan shows a marked decrease in healthy bone and bone density there are treatments to replace the losses. A diet rich in calcium and vitamin D plus exercise are the best ways to keep bones healthy. It is especially important to have this scan done as a screening after the age of 65. If osteoporosis runs in the family the scan should be done after age 50.

2)  Diabetes Test
Diabetes is a condition in which the blood retains too much glucose. Insulin is a hormone which aids the process of glucose in moving from the bloodstream to the cells. In Type 1 Diabetes the body does not make insulin and in Type 2, more common form of diabetes, the body doesn’t make enough insulin or it doesn’t use it adequately. In any case the test for diabetes is a simple blood test and everyone should be screened for it as they grow older. Many people have diabetes without displaying symptoms and the dangers of living with untreated diabetes are many. If you do have diabetes it is extremely important that you learn to manage your blood sugar.

3)  Blood Pressure Test
Blood pressure is the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. It is highest when the heart pumps and that is called the systolic pressure. In between heartbeats the pressure is lower—the diastolic pressure.  Ideally your two numbers should be 120/90.  When one has high blood pressure there are usually no symptoms, which makes the screenings even more important. Failure to treat high blood pressure can result in stroke, heart attack or heart failure, or kidney failure. Once recognized, high blood pressure is easily treated with a variety of medicines.

4)  Cholesterol Check
Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance found naturally in our bodies. We need some of it. But when there is too much cholesterol in our blood it can begin to stick to the walls of our arteries causing plaque which can narrow or even block them. The formation of this plaque in our arteries is a top contributor to heart disease. The test for cholesterol levels in the blood is done with a fasting blood test. It’s important to become informed on the various kinds of cholesterol and how to treat the problems caused by plaque build-up.

5)  Colon Cancer Check
Because colon cancer is the fourth most common form of cancer in both men and women, it is highly important to have regular colon check-ups. The most common screening done is called a colonoscopy and involves a small scope searching the colon for any signs of abnormal growths, inflammations or ulcers. The colonoscopy is done under mild sedation after a period of fasting.  Given the importance of the screening, the mild discomfort involved is acceptable.

In addition to these five very important screenings women should have their annual mammogram and men should regularly be checked for prostate cancer. As the old adage says, it’s better to be safe than sorry. So don’t put off your regular visits to your doctor and be proactive in protecting your own health by asking for the appropriate screenings to ensure you have many more active senior years ahead!