As you move into what could be the best years of your life, keeping tabs on your health is more of a priority than ever. Statistically, your risk of a number of lifestyle-related illnesses rises fairly sharply around this age and your best defence is to make sure you are aware of any changes in your body and to take appropriate action sooner rather than later.
You should have a general physical check-up once a year from now on, and your doctor will tell you if you need screening for blood-pressure, cholesterol and diabetes more frequently than this. Your hearing should be tested every three years now, and you should keep appointments with your dentist and optometrist at the intervals recommended to you. You’ll need to continue with the annual digital rectal exam too, to check for any changes in the prostate or problems in the rectum.
More than 90% of cases of colorectal cancer are diagnosed in this age group – screening for the disease can be carried out in several different ways and your doctor will advise on which is suitable for you. A colonoscopy, which you should have once every 10 years from 50 onwards, is the most usual approach. The procedure is performed by a gastroenterologist, so you’ll need a referral from your GP. A lighted tube with a tiny video camera is passed through the anus into the rectum and lower colon, allowing the specialist to check for inflammation, growths and ulcers. If a polyp is found, tissue can be removed at the same time and sent to a pathologist for analysis, after which, if necessary, the doctor will discuss management and treatment options with you.
The incidence of heart and circulation disease in men also rises steeply after the age of 50, and your doctor may recommend that you have an electrocardiogram (ECG) at intervals of three or four years. Performed in a hospital, the test detects cardiac abnormalities by measuring the electrical activity generated by the heart as it contracts. It is a safe, quick and non-invasive procedure with no known risks, during which self-adhesive electrodes are attached to select locations on the arms, legs and chest. Your doctor will review a paper print-out of the ECG and discuss the results with you. Heart problems can also be diagnosed in other ways, including physical examination, chest X-rays and blood tests.
As you know by now, your risk for heart disease and other physiological problems is affected by lifestyle factors (diet and exercise levels), but mental and emotional issues such as stress and depression play a significant part too. In the middle years, as men face the major transition into retirement and older age, they often do find themselves facing a ‘midlife crisis’. If you’re struggling mentally or emotionally, it’s important to acknowledge it and find the necessary help from doctors, psychotherapists or counsellors.
As you move into your 60s and 70s, particularly if you have ever been a smoker, you should consider having an abdominal ultrasound to screen for abdominal aortic aneurysm (dilation of an artery). High-frequency sound waves are used to scan for bulges in the main artery; if an aneurysm is found it will be monitored and might require surgery.
After the age of 60, you should have a thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test every two years, or as advised by your doctor. The simple blood test is used to check that the thyroid gland is working properly, and to determine the reasons for any problems so that appropriate treatment can be prescribed if necessary. You should also be sure as part of your routine physical check-up every year to have an urinalysis to help diagnose metabolic or urinary tract problems.
Osteoporosis – a disease causing thinning of the bones – can affect men (not only women!) as we get older, and your doctor may recommend that you have a bone density test. Performed at a hospital, the scan takes about 10 minutes and requires you to lie on a padded platform while a mechanical arm passes over your body. Alternatively, your doctor may first use a small hand-held machine to measure bone density in your fingers, wrist or heel and recommend a more extensive scan only if necessary. The condition should be monitored, and can be treated with medication.
In these later years it may be wise to ask your doctor or pharmacist for an annual flu vaccine. You could also consider a one-time vaccination against herpes zoster, which can cause shingles, as well as a pneumococcal vaccine to protect against the most common cause of pneumonia in older people.
These are your golden years, and hopefully you will be able to enjoy to the full all the pleasures of this stage of life. As always, careful management of your recommended medical check-ups holds the key to the best possible state of health and to peace of mind.