Blood pressure is a silent killer, and screening is vital. (Photo courtesy of the CDC)

When we were young adults, many of us rarely went to the doctor.  Outside of an occasional injury or an unexplained rash, some of us didn’t even have a regular check-up.  We were young and sure we’d live forever.  

Now that we’re older, life can feel very fragile and frightening.  And although it’s illogical, it’s easy to adopt a mindset that “what we don’t know won’t hurt us.”  Nothing could be farther from the truth. Many of the diseases and conditions that can shorten our lives have no symptoms.

Among our main defenses against disease are annual screenings. They can detect high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, and many other conditions.  And nearly everything that threatens us is less dangerous if caught early.  

If you’re not doing an annual visit to the doctor at this point, you’re playing with fire.  

I recently spoke to Camille Vaughan, MD, MS, and Director of the Emory Woodruff Health Sciences Center for Health in Aging. “Early detection and treatment of health conditions that become more common as we get older has a major impact on overall health in aging,” she told me. “Early detection may inform treatment strategies to prevent or delay worsening and enhance an individual’s ability to remain independent in daily activities.”

Here’s a rundown of screenings that start with that annual check-up:  

BLOOD PRESSURE CHECKS with your doctor are vital once a year and can also be done at home.  High blood pressure or hypertension is more common as we age because as our vascular system ages, our arteries get stiffer.  It is known as the “silent killer” because there are frequently no symptoms.  Untreated high blood pressure damages the heart and kidneys, and can cause strokes, dementia, and eye problems.

ANNUAL BLOOD TESTS give readings on dozens of bodily systems and measures essential nutrients in the blood.  A metabolic panel should be included that reads your electrolytes, liver, and kidney function.  Metabolic markers including glucose, insulin and lipids are essential numbers to monitor as we age, as well as vitamin and mineral levels.

COLONOSCOPY is a critical screening to detect colorectal cancer.  With a clear initial test and no family history it is not necessary every year but warrants a conversation with your doctor.

BREAST, CERVICAL AND PROSTATE CANCER SCREENINGS are not fun.  But they save millions of lives per year.  Talk to your doctor about what is recommended for your age. Self-exams for breast cancer and prostate cancer are important between annual exams. 

BONE DENSITY TESTS are important to flag osteoporosis in men and women.

SKIN CANCER SCREENINGS are critical to make sure that what looks like a harmless bump isn’t a form of cancer that can be deadly.

HEARING TESTS are needed routinely to check for hearing loss.

DENTAL CHECK-UPS are extremely important as we age to protect our teeth and gums and reduce the need for dentures.

VISION TESTS are not just necessary for our changing vision, but to screen for glaucoma and cataracts.

Also remember to review your medications, signs of depression, vaccinations, weight management and home safety at that annual appointment.  Your primary care physician may also want to screen for cognitive impairment.

“The Medicare Annual Wellness Visit was designed to screen for many of these common conditions,” Dr. Vaughan added, “however, it’s a hands-off visit and may be conducted by a primary care provider or nurse.  An annual physical exam with your primary care provider may be done in conjunction with the annual wellness visit as a separate evaluation or at a different appointment.”

As we get older, it’s even more important to use all the tools at our disposal to protect our health. While most of us will not live forever, many of us would like to give it a shot.  

Shelly Howell is the author of "Don’t be a Wuss: Inspiration for Creating a Great Life after 60."