Americans are living longer than ever these days. But this increase in our collective age also comes with an increased risk of developing chronic illnesses like cancer and diabetes.
That's why early screening — including for some of the leading causes of death in the United States — is so important, particularly for people over the age of 65, says Shunichi Nakagawa, MD, a geriatrician with ColumbiaDoctors in New York City.
"Depression and anxiety can go undiagnosed in elderly people, who…can't do what they once normally did," says Dr. Nakagawa. Writing in the January 2016 issue of Journal of the American Medical Association, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) noted that older adults may especially benefit from screening for depression, especially because people in this age group may struggle with risk factors like grief, loneliness, and other medical illnesses.
"Screening for depression is [as easy as asking the person] simple questions, and can be handled by their primary care physician or geriatrician," says Dr. Nakagawa.
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Bone density test
An estimated one in two women will break a bone due to osteoporosis, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. The organization recommends that women age 65 and older have a bone density test (known as a DEXA scan), which can help doctors detect osteoporosis and determine how likely a person may be to break a bone. The test may need to be repeated every one to two years.
Colorectal cancer screening
Thanks to an increase in screening, the number of people aged 50 and older who die of colorectal cancer is declining. But the disease is still the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States and will affect approximately one out of every 24 women, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
The USPSTF recommends that people be screened for colorectal cancer starting at the age of 50 — but the organization also says that people who have a higher-than-average risk for the disease (for example, they have a family history or ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease) start even earlier. Doctors screen for colon cancer by using a stool-based test or a visual exam, like a colonoscopy (which needs to be done every 10 years) or a flexible sigmoidoscopy (which needs to be done every 5 years).
"Colon cancer is one of the cancers that, if you catch it at the earliest stage, it can make a lot of difference," Dr. Nakagawa says.
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Breast cancer screening
Women in the United States are more likely to die of breast cancer than any other cancer besides lung cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. Guidelines on when women should begin their screening vary, but the ACS says that starting at age 55, women who have an average risk for breast cancer — meaning, they don't have a BRCA gene mutation or a strong family history — can either continue to get their yearly mammograms (the most common breast cancer screening test) or opt to have one done every other year. The USPSTF recommends women age 50 to 74 get a mammogram every other year.
And remember: If you have any concerns about your health (or symptoms that you're experiencing), be sure to ring up your doctor.
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