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Getting old is not for sissies!

My mom used to say that. Certainly age changes our immune system, nervous system, bones, circulatory system and our general health. Eyesight and hearing are two other obvious areas of concern.

While our notions of what age is “old” are changing, there are some simple medical interventions that can keep you healthy. They can be broken down into two main categories: screenings and vaccinations.

Screenings try to detect something so we can treat it sooner rather than later. Early treatment in general will be less expensive, less invasive and more effective. To screen for a disease, we need to have a treatment for that disease. That is why we can screen for some things and not others.

Screenings will depend on your personal and family history, lifestyle, medications and concerns. Regular mammograms for women will reduce your risk of dying from breast cancer. Regular Pap smears for women will detect precancerous cells so we can destroy them before they become cancerous. Colon cancer screening generally starts age 50. You can have a colonoscopy or the newer Cologuard® testing. A bone density study can assess you for low bone mass. Treating low bone mass can prevent a hip or spine fracture. Generally, you would have that screening at age 65, but sooner if you have risk factors or family history.

Hearing and vision loss can occur so slowly you don’t notice, but without screening you can be missing some of the sweetness of life. A yearly visual screening and a hearing screening every other year can help you decide how to meet these challenges.

Blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes screenings are all important, but the timing varies. It is absolutely true that treating high cholesterol, high blood pressure or persistently high blood sugar can improve the quality and length of your life. Depression is common and we can screen for that as well, usually yearly, more often depending on concerns, history, medications, etc. A total body skin scan by your family physician or a dermatologist can detect and remove any early skin cancers.

The second category is vaccination. These are molecules that are injected or inhaled in order to trick your immune system into thinking it has seen these diseases. Then you are less susceptible to infection if you are exposed to the “real” disease. The incredible drop in rates of polio and smallpox over the years are a testament to the power of vaccinations. Furthermore, when you receive a vaccination you are then less likely to catch and pass on the disease—saving those around you!

Vaccinations recommended for people over 50 include:

  • TDaP at least every 10 years, so you don’t get tetanus, pertussis or diphtheria, and so you don’t pass these on to grandkids.
  • A flu shot yearly can protect you from some serious flu viral infections.
  • Pneumonia vaccination is a series that protects you from a certain type of pneumonia; vaccination timing depends on personal factors.
  • Shingrix is a shot series that can protect you from a painful condition called shingles that is more common as we age. Shingrix is in short supply at times, but very effective. Almost everybody over 50 was exposed to chickenpox as a kid and has a chance to develop shingles.

There are other screenings and vaccinations as well. A yearly trip to your primary care doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant can help decide which ones are right for you. “Be good to yourself!” my mom also used to say, and it is true. Knowing which screening and vaccinations are available can help you stay at your best.

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