If you’re fit and healthy, you may not need to visit the doctor regularly. However, most diseases are preventable, so early detection could be a vital life-saving precaution, writes ORLA NELIGAN.
Age, personal circumstances and family history all play a role in whether you should visit your doctor. Dr Serena Gavin of Churchtown Medical Clinic points out that “a person in their twenties, thirties or forties who present no significant health issues or family history of illnesses doesn’t need to be seen for a health check. Once you reach 50, it’s important to consider various tests such as cardiovascular and cancer screenings.”
Gavin adds that a common misconception amongst patients is that “getting your bloods” done will give you a full MOT without seeing a doctor. “There are a lot of conditions and illnesses that don’t show up on certain blood tests, such as skin or lung cancer. If a person is worried enough to make an appointment to get their bloods done, their fears need to be explored and discussed by a doctor.”
Most life-threatening illnesses are preventable, and while you may be healthy, certain health checks are a necessary precaution. So, what health checks should you be getting in each decade of your life?
If half a century looks like Julianne Moore, Sheryl Crow and Courtney Cox, bring it on. But it is also the decade of post-menopausal problems. According to Dr Gavin, while the tests from the past two decades such as Pap smears, blood pressure, weight and cholesterol are all relevant, it’s reasonable to get these tests annually once you reach 50 in addition to a simple eye and ear test.
Up until the menopause, women are somewhat protected by their oestrogen levels, but once they reach menopause (on average, age 51), the decline in oestrogen levels leaves women susceptible to bone thinning. Much of the time people don’t know they have osteoporosis until they have a “light” fall, which results in bones breaking. A bone density scan (DXA), which is quick and painless, is recommended, especially if the patient has a family history of osteoporosis.
“Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a major cause of strokes and heart attacks in Ireland,” says Dr Ray Walley of the IMO. “We also have a huge alcohol consumption problem in this country, which contributes to obesity, which is relative to blood pressure levels. Hypertension is typically asymptomatic until it’s too late.”
CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE AND DIABETES
Declining oestrogen levels can also lead to fat storage shifting to the waist, and increased abdominal fat raises your risk of diabetes and heart disease. A simple blood test will determine if diabetes is present, and a fasting cholesterol check is an important determinant for both diabetes and heart disease. “It’s smart for any post-menopausal woman to get screened for cardiovascular problems and diabetes, even in the absence of symptoms,” says Gavin.
This is the age to focus on pre-emptive cancer screening. Cancer is the second most common cause of death in Ireland and accounts for over one-quarter of the annual death toll, with the most common cancers being breast, testicular, colon and skin cancer. But up to 50 per cent of cancers are preventable, 30 per cent through lifestyle habit and changes. Currently, there are three free screening programmes for Irish people: breast, cervical and bowel. Women aged between 50 and 64 are invited to get a mammogram every two years; if you’re between 25-44, you should have a smear test every three years, and every five years if you’re aged between 45-60. The national bowel screening programme has just commenced, and will invite people in the 60-69 age group, but may take up to three years to establish itself. However, if you are experiencing symptoms such as a lump or swelling, abnormal bleeding, weight loss or pain that does not go away, you should visit your GP irrespective of your age.
Throughout the Irish health service, GPs are familiar with many patients suffering with severe symptoms and illnesses, on long waiting lists. Concurrently, there are persons who are perfectly healthy absorbing healthcare resources in private secondary care facilities, without gaining preventative care benefits. But, what experts do agree upon is that being proactive about your health, assessing your habits and knowing your family history play vital roles in saving your health, and potentially your life.
This article originally appeared in the December issue of IMAGE Magazine.