Why you need it: Although your risk of cervical cancer decreases with age, your need for routine Pap tests doesn’t necessarily stop with menopause. One in 125 women will get cervical cancer — and more than 20 percent of cases are found in women over 65. However, these cancers rarely occur in women who are vigilant about getting tested. That’s because the procedure, which involves collecting a sampling of cervical cells from the cervix, can discover precancerous changes to prevent cancer from developing. The HPV test, another screening tool, detects the presence of HPV, the virus that causes cervical cancer.
Need a nudge? Beyond the Pap test, a pelvic exam can assess other parts of your gynecological health. Your ob-gyn will look for signs of ovarian cysts or early-stage endometrial cancer — and can also address menopause-related issues such as hot flashes or vagial dryness, as well as issues like low libido, or UTIs.
5. Skin Cancer Screening
When you need it: The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends yearly professional skin exams, along with monthly skin self-examinations. The greater your risk of skin cancer, the more important regular skin checks are. Older adults are particularly vulnerable since a lifetime of sun exposure can significantly up your odds. Armed with a dermatoscope, a combination magnifying glass-and-flashlight, a dermatologist will do a head-to-toe exam, taking an extra-close look at any suspicious spots that are hard to see with the naked eye, and, if necessary, removing a piece of tissue to be biopsied.
Why you need it: Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., affecting 1 in 5 Americans by age 70. Experts estimate that 450,000 new cases are diagnosed each year — 10,000 of which are melanomas, the most aggressive form of skin cancer. (Basal and squamous cell cancers, more common forms of skin cancer, are less deadly.) Melanoma can appear suddenly and spread quickly, so early detection is critical. In fact, it can become life-threatening in as little as six weeks. The estimated five-year survival rate for patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 99 percent; the survival rate drops to 66 percent when the disease reaches the lymph nodes. For that reason, it is crucial that you stay vigilant and contact your doctor if you see any unusual changes in your skin. (Look for lesions that are asymmetrical, have irregular or ragged borders, are multicolored, are larger than a pencil eraser in diameter, or that change over time.)
Need a nudge? Yes, at-home skin exams are important: About 44 percent of melanomas are discovered by doing self-exams. But a professional once-over can add an extra layer of protection. While skin cancer usually appears on parts of the body exposed to UV light, melanoma can appear in places that haven’t been exposed to the sun. A doctor will be able to suss out hard-to-see spots, like your back, scalp, buttocks, and behind your ears.
6. Cholesterol test
When you need it: The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that adults 20 or older have their cholesterol checked every four to six years, provided their risk remains low. People with cardiovascular disease, for instance, may need their cholesterol assessed more often. Those taking cholesterol-lowering statins also need follow-up testing of their lipid levels to monitor their response to the medication, typically a month or two after starting the drug.
Usually ordered by a primary care doctor during routine physical exams, the cholesterol test is a blood test that measures several different types of lipids, or fats, in your blood — among them, total cholesterol (the total amount of cholesterol in your blood), low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol, which helps remove LDL cholesterol from your blood.
Why you need it: At least 48 percent of U.S. adults have some form of cardiovascular disease, according to the AHA, and heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women. For men, the risk starts to climb at about age 45, when 1 out of every 100 men develop signs of heart disease; by age 55, the risk has doubled, and continues to increase. For women, the risk also goes up with age, particularly after menopause.
Advances in home-monitoring systems, such as watches that measure heart rate and cholesterol testing at pharmacies, make it easier to track the health of your ticker. But although these assessments are important tools for detecting elevated digits — and potential heart problems down the road — in-person testing is still important. For one thing, your numbers don’t tell the whole story: Your doctor will also want to take your age, gender, family history, and risk factors (such as smoking and diabetes) into consideration when determining possible treatments.
Need a nudge? A Cleveland Clinic survey from earlier this year found that 42 percent of Americans put on weight during the pandemic (25 percent gained more than 20 pounds) and three-quarters reported feeling more stressed because of COVID-19. What that means, notes doctors: At a time when fewer of us are being checked out for heart disease or stroke, many of us may be at greater risk for those very conditions.
7. Eye exam
When you need it: The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) recommends that adults get a complete eye exam at age 40, when changes in vision usually start to appear. Those who have an eye disorder or risk factor should consult with their eye doctor about how often to get checked. Those who’ve undergone cataract surgery, for example, need regular checkups to monitor the health of your eyes. The American Diabetes Association recommends that adults with diabetes have a dilated eye exam every year, unless instructed otherwise. Also, if you wear eyeglasses or contact lenses, you should visit your eye doctor for a checkup every one to two years to make sure your vision hasn’t changed before purchasing a new pair. Those 65 and older should schedule an exam every year or two.
During a routine exam, your eye doctor will usually check your eyesight and peripheral vision, then whip out a lighted handheld microscope (or slit lamp) to inspect the outer eye and structures at the front of the eye (such as the cornea and lens) for signs of a cataract. For a look further inside, eye drops will be used to dilate your pupils, making it easier to examine the back of the retina and optic nerve.
Why you need it: According to the CDC, the leading causes of blindness and low vision in the U.S. are age-related eye diseases, such as cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and macular degeneration. It is important to diagnose them early when they are treatable or, in some cases, curable.
It’s estimated that by age 65 over 90 percent of people have a cataract, and half of those between the ages of 75 and 85 have lost some vision due to a cataract, according to UCLA Health. The prevalence of diabetic retinopathy has increased significantly over the past two decades, due to an increase in the disease. Glaucoma, which occurs when fluid pressure builds inside the eye, potentially damaging the optic nerve, is particularly concerning. There are often no early symptoms, which is why 50 percent of people with glaucoma don’t know they have the disease. By age 40 about 1 in 200 have glaucoma, increasing to 1 in 8 at age 80.
Need a nudge? Annual appointments with your ophthalmologist or optometrist are critical for maintaining your vision, sure, but their benefits go well beyond keep your eyes in working order: A close inspection of the inner workings of your orbs can reveal a host of systemic disorders — sometimes before there are symptoms anywhere else. One example: heart disease. Eye exams can detect a number of cardiovascular conditions, such as clogged arteries, says Brian Stagg, M.D., an ophthalmologist and retina specialist at the University of Utah’s John A. Moran Eye Center. “Sometimes we can see little plaques deposits inside the eye that have broken away from buildup on the carotid artery, which supplies most of the blood supply to the brain.”
8. Hearing Test
When you need it: Adults over the age of 50 should get their hearing checked every three years, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA). Those who wear hearing aids may want to be tested more often since adjustments to the device may be necessary over time. Tests commonly performed by an audiologist: pure tone audiometry (a series of sounds, at various pitches and volumes, sent through headphones, to determine hearing loss) and speech testing (which gauges your ability to understand speech in noisy settings).
Why you need it: According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), approximately 1 in 3 people age 65 to 74 have hearing loss. But presbycusis (age-related hearing loss) sneaks up gradually, which means many may not realize there’s a problem. Indeed, in a 2017 study published in the journal JAMA, which included 2,613 people age 60 or older, researchers found that 42 percent of those who reported no hearing trouble actually had mild hearing loss when tested.
Why you need it Research from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the NIA found that even mild hearing loss can increase your risk of taking a tumble by three times, with the risk increasing by 140 percent for every additional 10 decibels of hearing loss. Why? Balance requires brain power, and those with hearing loss use more of that gray matter to hear, which means there are fewer mental resources left to help you stay upright. What’s more, hearing issues can wreak havoc on spatial awareness (translation: where our bodies are positioned in relation to the people and objects around them).