As we get older, many of us become more committed to taking better care of ourselves, and trying to boost our health and fitness. But, often it can still be difficult to be sure exactly what condition our bodies are really in – or whether we’re at risk of developing certain diseases. While it’s normal to spend time and money ensuring our cars don’t break down, we don’t always do the same for our bodies… and yet investing a bit of time to undergo routine health checks can not only assure us that we’re in good health, but also has the potential to save lives.
Because age is a risk factor for many diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and most forms of cancer, it can be helpful to learn more about the different health checks that are often recommended for people over 50. Of course, just because there’s a health test available, this doesn’t always mean that it will be the right choice for you – but knowing which tests are out there allows us to make informed decisions about our health, and feel confident that we’re taking precautions.
1. NHS health check
For a more general health check, there’s a free NHS Health Check, which is made available to all people aged between 40 and 74. NHS health checks can tell you whether you’re at higher risk of developing certain health problems like heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and stroke. You should receive a letter inviting you to a health check every five years.
During your NHS health check, you’ll have your cardiovascular risk calculated and explained: this relates to how likely it is you may develop conditions related to the heart or circulation – like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, and certain types of dementia. You’ll also be given advice on how to protect yourself against these diseases, and if you’re over 65, the common signs and symptoms of dementia will also be explained to you.
The NHS Health Check can identify potential health problems before they have the opportunity to do lasting damage. A recent study by Queen Mary University of London found that up to 8,400 heart attacks and strokes were prevented because people had the NHS health check, so this is well worth taking advantage of. To find out more, head over to NHS Health Check.
2. Eyesight checks
Eye tests aren’t only about whether you might need glasses or a new lens prescription – they’re also an important way to spot the early signs of health issues you might not be aware of. For example, diabetes can lead to retinopathy, which causes long-term damage to your sight. If your blood sugar levels are too high for a long period of time, the delicate blood vessels in your eyes can become damaged – but this is a problem an optician should be able to spot during a routine eye test.
Eye tests can also spot the early symptoms of glaucoma, which is the second most common cause of blindness in the world. Glaucoma can affect anyone, although people aged 60 and over are more at risk, and it must be diagnosed as early as possible to help protect your sight. Age-related macular degeneration (AMD), which causes blurred vision in the middle of your eyes, is another condition that can sometimes be spotted during a routine eye test. For more information on glaucoma, age-related macular degeneration, and other eye conditions to look out for, have a read of our article 10 age-related eye problems you should know about.
To protect your eyes as much as you can in your day-to-day life, it can be helpful to ensure you’re getting enough omega 3 fatty acids. These contain docosahexaenoic, which is a vital component of our eye’s retina, and when we don’t get enough, it can lead to vision problems. Getting enough omega-3 is also linked to a lowered risk of macular degeneration. To find out more, check out our in-depth guide: Omega-3: What is it and why do we need it?
3. Cholesterol testing
Knowing whether or not your cholesterol is high – and if it is, taking steps to control it – can add years to your life. Cholesterol is a type of fat that can build up in the arteries and increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases, including a heart attack, atherosclerosis (narrowed arteries), and stroke.
It’s important to remember that there are no symptoms of high cholesterol, so you could have it without knowing. The only way to be sure is to have a cholesterol test, which all adults over 50 should have every four to six years. If you already take medication to reduce your cholesterol, you should have a cholesterol check once a year.
You can have your cholesterol measured with a simple blood test at your GP surgery – and if you do have high cholesterol, you can lower it by yourself by eating a healthy diet containing plenty of fruit and veg, getting regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight.
For inspiration on how to get active and increase your fitness, check out the Healthy Body section of the website – and to get ideas for healthy meals and snacks, you may want to read our articles, 14 quick and healthy snack ideas and 12 healthy recipe ideas.
4. Bowel cancer screening
In the UK, bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, and most people diagnosed with it are over 60. For this reason, everyone who’s registered with a GP and aged between 60 and 74 is entitled to bowel cancer screening every two years. While bowel cancer screening doesn’t actually diagnose cancer, it can identify potential issues before any symptoms start to appear – and the sooner the cancer is detected and treated, the better the chances of survival.
Bowel cancer screening is generally done from your own home: a faecal immunochemical test kit – known as the FIT kit – is sent in the post, and requires participants to send their stool samples to a laboratory for analysis. You should have the results within about two weeks, and if there are any abnormal results, you’ll probably need to do some follow up tests.
While the exact cause of bowel cancer is unknown, studies show that diets high in red or processed meat can increase the risk of developing bowel cancer. Smoking, drinking and obesity are also thought to be risk factors. To find out more about bowel cancer screening, head over to the NHS website – and to find out more about improving the health of both your gut and bowels, you may want to have a read of our article, 7 ways to improve gut health.
5. Osteoporosis scan
Osteoporosis (brittle bones) is a condition that weakens bones and makes them prone to fracture. How likely you are to develop osteoporosis depends on factors like how much calcium your bones have acquired over the years, how much you exercise, whether you drink much alcohol or smoke, and whether you’re underweight. Because decreased oestrogen levels can lead to bone loss, post-menopausal women are also more likely to develop osteoporosis.
If you believe you might be at risk of developing osteoporosis, you should speak to your GP. They may recommend that you get a DEXA scan, which is a painless and non-invasive x-ray that measures bone density and signs of osteoporosis. To learn more about different ways to protect your bones, you may want to check out our article, 9 ways to improve bone health.
6. Breast cancer screening
Around one in eight women in the UK will be diagnosed with breast cancer at one point in their life. Most women will receive their first invitation to attend a breast screening unit between the ages of 50 and 53, and then this screening continues every three years until the age of 70. However, you can still request a screen yourself every three years after the age of 70, if you wish.
Breast cancer screening is also called a mammogram: it involves an x-ray being taken of each breast, and the results will be sent to you and your doctor within two weeks. Most experts believe breast screening is beneficial in picking up the first signs of breast cancer – and the earlier the cancer is found, the better the chances of surviving it are.
To find out more, you can head over to the breast cancer screening section of the NHS website.
7. Blood pressure check
Blood pressure checks are one of the most common health tests around, and incredibly important. Blood pressure is the measure of force of your blood within your arteries, and high blood pressure – also known as hypertension – can weaken your heart and damage your arteries, thereby increasing your risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke and kidney disease.
Because there are no clear symptoms of high blood pressure, the only way to be sure you have it is by having your blood pressure taken – and luckily, this is quick and painless. Normal blood pressure ranges from 90/60 to 120/80, and if your blood pressure is high (140/90 or more) for several weeks, your GP will probably diagnose you with high blood pressure and discuss with you how to lower it.
The most convenient way to check your blood pressure is to book an appointment at a local pharmacy – you can find your nearest one on the NHS website. If you’ll have to take regular blood pressure readings, it may be worth buying your own blood pressure machine: you can buy these online from Amazon, or from pharmacies like Boots and Lloyd’s.
Generally, treatment to lower blood pressure includes lifestyle changes, like exercising more and changing your diet. If these don’t work – or your blood pressure is unusually high – you’re likely to be prescribed medication. If you’re looking for some fun and accessible ways to be more active, you may want to read our articles, 17 creative ways to increase your daily step count, or 10 different sports and activities to try.
8. Abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) screening
AAA screening is a way of checking if there’s any swelling in the aorta, which is the central blood vessel that runs from your heart through to your stomach. This bulge or swelling is called an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA,) and it can become dangerous, and eventually rupture, if it isn’t spotted early on. There are often no symptoms of an AAA before it bursts, so a test could potentially save your life.
Aneurysms are more commonly seen in men than women, and for this reason men over the age of 65 are offered screening for AAA in the UK. Screening isn’t usually offered to women or men under 65, though if you think you need AAA screening, you can request it: smoking is the biggest risk factor for aneurysms, though high blood pressure, high cholesterol and family history can all increase the likelihood of developing an aneurysm.
The screening test itself is quick and painless, and involves having an ultrasound scan done of your stomach. You can find out more about AAA screening on the NHS website. If you currently smoke and would like to stop, check out the NHS stop smoking services. You might also want to read our article, 8 tips on how to break negative habits and develop positive ones.
9. Prostate cancer testing
In the UK, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. It generally develops slowly, so there may be no symptoms for many years. The causes of prostate cancer are largely unknown, but the risk factors increase as you get older, and most cases are seen in men over the age of 50. Prostate cancer becomes more common if you’ve had a father or brother affected by it, and obesity is also thought to increase the risk.
Symptoms of prostate cancer can include needing to urinate more frequently, having to rush to the loo, difficulty urinating or taking a long time, and feeling like your bladder hasn’t emptied fully. However, it’s important to note that these can be symptoms of other conditions too, and don’t necessarily mean you have cancer. There’s no single test for prostate cancer: the most common tests are blood tests, a physical prostate exam, an MRI scan or a biopsy.
There is currently no screening programme for prostate cancer in the UK. This is because it’s not proven that the advantages would outweigh the risks, and the screening process isn’t always accurate. However, if you’re experiencing any symptoms of prostate cancer, or you have a family history of it, you should speak to your GP about your options. It’s also important to be aware that you are entitled to a PSA test if you’re over the age of 50, and have considered the pros and cons of the testing. To find out more about prostate cancer testing, head over to the Prostate Cancer website.
10. Cervical cancer screening
Each year, around 3,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed in the UK – although since the cervical screening programme was introduced in the 1980s, the number of cases has dropped by around 7% each year. Cervical screening can help protect against cancer by spotting abnormalities which, if left untreated, could develop into cervical cancer.
Women aged 50 to 64 are offered a NHS cervical screening test every five years. Women over the age of 65 aren’t usually invited for screening unless they haven’t been screened for several years, or if they had any abnormal results in recent tests. Test results are received within two weeks; most are normal, but for around one in 20 women the screening will show some abnormal changes (not necessarily cancerous) that require further investigation.
The highest risk factor for developing cervical cancer is previously being infected with human papillomavirus, and almost all cervical cancer cases occur in women who’ve been infected with HPV. Smoking and having a weakened immune system are also thought to increase the risk of developing cervical cancer.
To learn more about cervical screening, head over to the NHS website – and to find out about different ways to boost your immune system, you may want to check out our article, 10 ways to boost your immune system.
11. Hearing checks
In the UK, around 40% of people over 50 will experience some form of hearing loss. This is because as we get older, the tiny hair cells inside our ears become subject to wear and tear, although other factors, like regularly listening to loud noises or a family history of hearing loss, can also play a part. Hearing usually deteriorates gradually, which makes it difficult to pinpoint when the problems began.
You can book hearing tests with your GP. Alternatively, Boots also offers a free hearing test. This 15 minute appointment includes a general check of ear health and a hearing screen, where you’ll listen to sounds through headphones and be asked to respond. If there are any issues with your hearing, this test should identify them, and then you can book in for a full hearing test. After the age of 50, it’s recommended that you book hearing tests every two years.
Due to the recent pandemic, there may be extended waiting times for certain appointments and screenings, so if you haven’t received a letter that you’re expecting, try not to worry. You can call your GP to arrange a health check or screening, but do be aware that the current waiting time for non-urgent referrals is up to 18 weeks. You can find out more about NHS waiting times here.
While it’s important to be aware of risk factors, and to get any potential issues checked out as soon you notice them, when it comes to health, prevention is always better than cure. Many of the most common health problems and diseases can be avoided by making lifestyle changes, like quitting smoking, cutting back on alcohol and losing weight (if you’re overweight). Making sure you get regular exercise, eat lots of fresh fruit and veg, and cut back on sugary, processed foods also goes a long way in boosting your overall health, and reducing the likelihood of developing certain diseases.
To get inspired to eat a healthier diet, you can head over to the Food & Drink section of our site to find some delicious, health-boosting recipes – or for something more specific, check out our articles, 12 healthy recipe ideas and 10 popular diets to try.
To find out more about nutrition and make sure you’re eating a healthy diet, you might also want to check out our guides to specific vitamins and minerals, like iron, omega 3, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
If you need a dose of motivation to get moving, why not check out our Healthy Body section, where you can find out about low-impact exercises like tai chi and power walking? Or alternatively, you can discover fun and varied exercise classes that you can do from the comfort of your own home.
Are you planning on getting any health checks booked in soon? Or have you had any tests or screenings done recently? Or maybe you have some health tips and advice you could offer to other readers? Join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.