You hear the word "screening" a lot these days. Let's clarify exactly what
it means, then look at ways it can help older folks stay well.
In order to find the beginnings of a disease – before it has had time to cause problems or symptoms – screening tests are done. Thus, screening is a preventive action, not a treatment. The philosophy behind screening is that many diseases, such as cancer, are more easily treated and possibly cured if they're found early. If healthcare professionals actively look for diseases instead of people waiting until they get sick before they seek help, much suffering, cost, and early death can be avoided. This approach applies to people of all ages. But, because older people shoulder the greatest burden of preventable illnesses, they need to pay more attention to screening.
Unfortunately, however, screening guidelines for people older than 65 aren't always clear. That's because, until recently, few studies of screening benefits had included older groups. It's important to stay well informed about the value of various medical screening tests. And, to keep in mind that their value for a large group of people may be different from their value for you as an individual. For example, the Pap smear hasn't been found to reduce by much the incidence of cervical cancer among women aged 70 and older. Yet a woman's personal medical history may call for screening past that age. You and your doctor must discuss these issues and make decisions together.
It's also important to make clear to your doctor your own feelings regarding screening. For example, if you're 90 years old and feel that a particular test may help you to make to 100, don't let anyone discourage you.
Some current expert opinions are presented here regarding screening for heart and blood vessel diseases as well as for osteoporosis. Among the other screening tests that have been developed are those for vision and hearing problems and some cancers, for example, mammography for breast cancer. Your doctor can help you sort out your needs.
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Date of Last Update: 07/27/12