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The Essential A-Z guide to health checks for every age

The Essential A-Z guide to health checks for every age
Regular health checks can help you avoid chronic diseases by catching warning signs early. These are the vital health screenings you should get for every age
Although chronic diseases appear to ambush the unsuspecting like a bandit, they typically develop over many years. Detecting them before they cause symptoms can give you better odds of beating them. That's what health screenings do.
Health screenings help healthcare teams uncover early signs of cancers and other chronic diseases while there's an opportunity to treat them and avoid complications. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), early detection is essential for treating cancers and other chronic conditions.
"Screening saves lives," says Dr Sarah Welsh, co-founder of HANX, a female-focused UK sexual health brand. "The screening programmes run by the NHS can pick up cases of early cancer, which have not shown any symptoms at all, preventing progression of the disease," she adds.
"Detecting chronic diseases before they cause symptoms can give you better odds of beating them"
A group of experts called the UK National Screening Committee (UK NSC) guide the NHS in all four UK countries on the screening programmes to offer and to whom.
This committee reviews its recommendations every three years, in line with new research findings as well as public consultation. It also monitors the overall quality of screening programmes.
The NHS offers all its screening tests free. Although private companies may offer many more, some tests they provide have not been recommended by the UK NSC because benefits don't clearly outweigh possible harm.

Benefits of screening tests

Regular health checks help you get more effective treatment by catching diseases early on
According to Dr Hana Patel, a general practitioner (GP), screenings have numerous benefits. "They help reduce people's risk of developing various conditions, or if they do develop, then to diagnose and start treatment early, to reduce disease complications," she adds.
The NHS lists other benefits of screenings, such as:
  • They can help make your treatment more effective if a problem is detected early.
  • They can help you make informed decisions. For example, knowing your blood pressure or sugar levels are raised can help you decide to seek care.
  • They can reduce your chances of developing complications. For example, after knowing your blood pressure is raised and you seek treatment, you might avoid complications like stroke and heart disease.
  • They prevent death—for instance, those deaths caused by breast, bowel and cervical cancer or abdominal aneurysms.
Screening tests can also give you more control over your health and tricky decisions like end-of-life care or succession planning.

Screenings by age and sex

Age is a significant risk factor for many chronic diseases. Experts can now predict when certain conditions are likely to occur, based on data gathered over time.
However, there are exceptions. One of them is having a family history of a disease. If anyone in your family has a chronic condition, discussing earlier screening with your GP is a good idea.
But here are screenings for adults of every age to consider, according to current NHS guidelines.

From 18 to 39 years

Keeping an eye on your blood pressure can help you avoid later complications such as heart disease or stroke
The WHO classifies adults from 18 to 39 years as young. Younger adults usually have lower chronic disease risks than older ones. However, here are screenings and health checks recommended for this age group by the NHS.
Eye tests 
Experts advise that you check your eyes often, about once a year or two. Eye checks can detect conditions like glaucoma, myopia and astigmatism.
In the UK, everyone with diabetes is offered a diabetic eye screening from age 12 to detect early signs of diabetic retinopathy—a complication of diabetes that can lead to blindness.
Weight checks
About one in four adults in the UK have obesity—they weigh more than is healthy, risking health complications. Weight checks are something you can do on your own, at a gym, or at any health facility. All you need are functional bathroom scales.
Knowing your weight at least once a year can help you know what's usual for you and help manage your weight too.
Blood pressure
Blood pressure checks can help you spot high blood pressure on time and access treatment. About one in three adults in the UK have high blood pressure, but many people don't know it because it often shows no symptoms.
If you already manage high blood pressure, you may need more frequent measurements. Follow the guidelines given by your care team.
Managing your blood pressure can help you avoid its complications, such as stroke, heart disease and kidney disease.
Mental health screenings
Your healthcare providers can screen you for depression and other mental health conditions. If you experience a persistent low mood, deep sadness, low or no appetite, self-harm thoughts, or thoughts of harming others—they could be symptoms of depression.
The NHS provides an online self-assessment tool designed specifically to help you tell the difference between a passing bad mood and depression. If you have concerns about your mental health, you can call the NHS on 111.
Sexually transmitted infections
You can get screened for sexually transmitted infections (STI) like chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis and HIV.
The UK Health Security Agency says many sexual health services in the UK offer free STI self-sampling kits for people who request them, whether they are showing symptoms or not.
Testing is a good idea, especially if you think you may have been exposed to an STI, have many partners, recently changed partners, or want to know your status.
Cervical cancer
PAP smears to screen for cervical cancer are offered to all women and people with a cervix every three years from age 25 to 49 years. You may also be tested for human papillomavirus (HPV), which is linked to cervical cancer.
Screenings for pregnant women and people
The NHS offers pregnant women and people several screenings, including those for infectious diseases, genetic conditions and fetal conditions.

Ages 40 to 74 years old

Early screenings for cancers such as breast cancer will improve your chance of recovery
The NHS considers people from 40 to 64 years to be middle-aged and those from 65 years as older persons. Adults in this group will have all the same screening needs as younger adults, along with additional needs specifically of this group.
NHS Health Check
This is a health check-up programme for adults in England aged 40 to 74 years. The programme aims to detect early signs of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, type 2 diabetes or dementia. Age is a major risk factor for these conditions, so as you get older, checking is more important.
Adults from 40 to 74 years without pre-existing conditions are invited for a free NHS health check every five years. However, you can also schedule a health check with your GP if you want one.
After your health check, a member of your care team will discuss your results with you and advise on the best way to reduce your risk of dementia, kidney disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
There is also an online tool called the "How Are You?" quiz that helps you assess your wellbeing. It's a short test that reminds you to take care of yourself by following a healthy diet, physical activity and other healthy lifestyle choices.
Bowel cancer screening
Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK. In the UK, everyone from age 60 is offered a bowel cancer screening home test kit until they are 74. If you are 75 or older, you can request a free test every two years by calling the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.
Breast screening
The lifetime risk of a woman in the UK being diagnosed with breast cancer is one in eight. The NHS offers women aged 50 to 71 mammograms to detect breast cancer. Mammograms use X-rays to examine the breast tissue for early signs of cancer.
You may be able to get screenings before 50 years old if you have a high risk of developing breast cancer, such as if you have a family member with the condition.
And if you notice any difference in the way your breasts look or feel, see a GP immediately.
Cervical cancer screenings
These begin at 25, but from 50 to 64 years old they are every five years (not three years). Depending on your results, you may be invited earlier than expected.
Prostate exams
There's no national screening programme for men in the UK, because experts don't believe the benefits outweigh the risks.
However, in the UK, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men, affecting about 52,000 men a year (or 143 men every day).
Men aged 50 and over can decide to have their prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels checked—which can be elevated in prostate cancer, helping doctors to detect it early—and the NHS can do the test for free. It could be done sooner if there's a family history of prostate cancer.
Abdominal aortic aneurysms screening
This screening test involves a painless ultrasound device being placed in your stomach to look for swelling in your aorta. It's offered to men as they turn 65, and it's not routinely offered to women, men below 65 or people who have been treated for the condition already, because they have a lower risk.
But if you think you need one, you can ask for a screening.

Limitations of screenings

Despite their undeniable benefits, screenings have limitations and in some cases can do more harm than good.
They are not 100 per cent reliable. Sometimes, screenings may have a false detection, making you undergo unnecessary procedures. They may fail to detect the cancer or condition, giving a false sense of relief.
"You can speak to your GP about being screened if you have concerns or a higher risk of any condition"
Also, knowing about a condition early without a clear plan to cure it can create feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger and despair.
But screenings can improve your chances of living a long, healthy life. The NHS offers several free screenings, but you can also speak to your GP about being screened if you have concerns or a higher risk of any condition.
Discussing your plans and whether or not you should have screenings with your health team can help you make an informed choice.
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