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Healthy Aging: The 50s -- Time for Your Annual Checkup!

Recommended screenings can be a lifesaver, experts say

Fourth part of five-part series

THURSDAY, Dec. 29, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- As they reach the half-century mark, Americans should begin early-detection screenings that might help get them to a full century, experts say.

First, the annual physical.

"I generally tell my patients that, if you're in good health during the 20s, 30s and 40s, you only need a general checkup once every four to five years. But around age 50 you should start thinking about annual checkups, trying to look for things that are increasing in incidence with age," said Dr. Cecil Wilson, an internist in Winter Park, Fla., and a member of the board of the American Medical Association.

Tests for signs of diabetes as well as high blood pressure and cholesterol are part of every routine checkup at this age, Wilson said. "That's for the biggest killer, cardiovascular disease," he said.

Then there are screens for the nation's number two killer, cancer. According to Wilson, current cancer screening recommendations are:

  • Breast cancer. "We actually ask women to start their annual mammography at age 40 -- even earlier if there's a close family history," he said. Yearly mammograms should then continue throughout the life span.
  • Colon cancer. "We recommend that at age 50 most adults think about an initial colonoscopy," Wilson said. "If someone has had a colonoscopy when they are 50 and they don't have any polyps or a family history of cancer, then we recommend a colonoscopy every 10 years." In the meantime, non-invasive tests such as fecal occult blood sampling can be conducted annually, looking for traces of blood in the stool, he said.
  • Prostate cancer. Beginning in their 50s, men should get an annual rectal exam to check the prostate, and also the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) blood test. High levels of circulating PSA may indicate malignancy.
  • Cervical cancer. While doctors are most concerned about cervical cancer for younger women, older women still face some risk. "However, after menopause and certainly into the 60s it would appear that doing a Pap smear every year isn't critical -- maybe once every two to three years," Wilson said.

Bones also need attention after folks hit 50, especially for postmenopausal women. "We start being concerned about osteoporosis, and recommending bone density screening," Wilson said. But he said this type of test "doesn't have to be done annually -- if a woman has an osteoporosis screen and is perfectly fine, you might not do one for another four or five years."

"If they show a little osteopenia (bone loss), you might check it again over the next two to three years, just to see if the medication you've given them is working," he added. Men typically don't have to start worrying about bone loss until they reach 70, Wilson said.

Other tests that make good sense soon after 50 include regular checks of hearing and especially eyesight, which can deteriorate with age and, in the case of glaucoma, with cardiovascular disease.

Is there a way to boost the likelihood that all these tests will yield A-1 results?

"Sure," said Wilson. "Talk to your doctor about what you can be doing right now to change your lifestyle habits and to be more healthy. Maintain your weight, exercise and eat right -- that's the key."

More information

For more on cancer screenings, visit the American Cancer Society.

To read part three, click here.

To read part two, click here.

To read part one, click here.

SOURCE: Cecil Wilson, M.D., internist, Winter Park, Fla., and board member, American Medical Association
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