Each year, Dolores Miles notices that her bones become more brittle, her eyesight gets a little worse and she has more trouble walking up and down stairs.
“Age takes a toll on our bodies, and we must address that and accept that we’re not as healthy as when we were 25,” says the 71-year-old McKinney resident. Not only does she get an annual wellness exam, but she also regularly gets other health screenings, including a bone density scan, a colonoscopy and an eye exam.
Such recommended screenings look for irregularities and risk factors before you notice symptoms, yet most older Americans don’t get them, even though some health screenings are covered by insurance or Medicare. According to various medical groups, about 70 percent of Americans ages 50 to 64 have at least one chronic condition or disease, such as cancer or diabetes, that could be detected early, treated and even prevented through regular health screenings.
“Less than half of people 65 and older use preventive services,” says Dr. Namirah Jamshed, an associate professor of internal medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and a practicing physician. “There are many barriers for older folks. It could be something as small as they need somebody to take them, or it could be their personal beliefs or they don’t feel it will add to their overall well-being.”
Skipping recommended health screenings could mean missing an opportunity to prevent a chronic condition, successfully treat a disease that’s caught early and improve the quality of and possibly lengthen a person’s life, says Dr. Jennifer Orbegoso Attmore, who specializes in geriatric medicine at Texas Health Adult Care in Plano.
“Many therapies do make a difference if we intervene early, such as early identification of breast cancer can lead to targeted therapies to get the disease under control,” she says.
Start with an annual wellness exam, which is free under Medicare and most insurance and includes many health screenings, such as blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol levels, and tests that look for signs of infection, anemia and more, the doctors say.
Here are some other key recommendations from Attmore, Jamshed and national health experts at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, the American Heart Association and American Lung Society:
Diabetes: High blood glucose levels can cause diabetes, which can lead to other health problems. People ages 40 to 70 who are overweight or have high blood pressure should get tested at least every three years.
Blood pressure: High blood pressure can cause strokes, heart attacks and other issues. Get screened every year.
Cholesterol: High cholesterol increases your chance of heart disease and stroke. Get checked every four to six years, and more frequently if you use tobacco, are overweight or have a family history of heart attacks.
Colorectal cancer: Screening can find precancerous polyps in the colon or rectum and remove them, or find and treat early-stage cancer. Ask if you need a colonoscopy or a simpler at-home test. Get screened if you’re ages 50 to 75.
Osteoporosis: Bones can become more brittle as people age. Women should start getting a bone density test, such as a DEXA scan, at 65, the age when Medicare will pay for one screening every 24 months. Men should get screened around age 70, but Medicare may not pay for it.
Eyesight: Older adults are more prone to glaucoma and macular degeneration, but symptoms may not appear until an advanced stage. Poor eyesight can lead to falls and a decline in quality of life. If you’re over 50, get an annual eye exam.
Lifestyle screenings: Medical professionals are increasingly asking older adults questions that screen for depression, the risk of falls, nutrition, fitness and smoking.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm: If you’re 65 to 75 and smoke or have smoked, consider getting an ultrasound to detect bulging in your abdominal aorta that can burst and kill you.
Prostate cancer: A PSA test will indicate if your blood has high levels of a certain protein that increases the risk of prostate cancer. Talk to a doctor about when you should start screening.
Cervical cancer: Most cervical cancer is found in women who’ve never had a Pap test or have not had one recently, according to the American Cancer Society. Until age 65, women should get a Pap smear every three years and/or an HPV test every five years. Older women and those who’ve had a hysterectomy should consult their doctors.
Breast cancer: Early screenings can detect cancer before a lump can be felt. Women 55 and older should get a mammogram every other year, possibly more frequently for women with a family history or a gene mutation, such as BRCA.
After several friends who didn’t have regular mammograms were diagnosed with breast cancer, Linda Patterson of Highland Village gets tested every year.
“I want to be aware of anything that has developed,” she says. “I believe early detection of any medical condition is very important to the success of any treatment you might need.”
The fitness bonus: You may be able to work out for free
What better incentive is there to exercise than free gym membership or access to online fitness classes?
If you’re 65 or older, you may qualify for that and more.
Three fitness programs — Renew Active, Silver&Fit and SilverSneakers — are included with certain Medicare Advantage and Medigap plans offered by private insurers to help seniors stay healthy. Each provides free membership to many community and fitness centers across Texas, such as 24 Hour Fitness and Youfit, online classes and social clubs. Renew Active also offers online brain games, and Silver&Fit offers at-home fitness kits and a rewards program.
Tony Ueber, CEO of 24 Hour Fitness, said all three programs are popular. In Texas, about 15 percent of members over age 65 participate in one of those programs, he says.
“Fitness is essential to build a healthy immune system to help withstand disease,” Ueber says. “We know that the club community is an important ingredient in a club member’s fitness journey.”
Indeed, regular exercise combined with eating well and getting recommended health screenings provide many health benefits, can help prevent or control many age-related health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, and can prolong your independence.
About a year ago, retired school principal Delores Miles, 71, joined 24 Hour Fitness near her McKinney home through SilverSneakers. Because it’s free, “I’m more motivated since gym membership, especially for retirees, is a little pricey,” she says.
Miles worked out at home through the pandemic but returned to the gym last month to swim, walk on the treadmill and take senior-only classes after receiving her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
SilverSneakers and Silver&Fit let you check online to see if you’re eligible through your Medicare plan and find Medicare plans that include those programs. Those two websites plus Renew Active let you search for participating gym locations.
Renew Active: uhcrenewactive.com