When should you have a health screen?

The health and wellbeing of our loved ones means everything to us, so nothing provides peace of mind quite like knowing they are fit and healthy. We can always query any health concerns we have with our doctors, but you might also want to consider regular health screenings recommended by the NHS. It is important to recognise that even screening routinely recommended by the NHS is not entirely without risk. The National Breast Screening Programme, for instance, now issues a leaflet to all women invited for a mammogram, outlining both sides of the screening argument.

At the other end of the spectrum, there is a lot of controversy about some of the screening such as routine CT scans offered by private screening companies. The likelihood of picking up an abnormality is low and there are definitely risks.

Catching illnesses early on can make treatment a lot more effective for many conditions, and also allows you the best chance of making a full recovery.

What screening options are available?

The NHS has a number of free screening options available based primarily on your age and sex: (1)

  • Vascular disease - men and women between 40 and 74 who have not already been diagnosed with heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease or certain types of dementia will be invited for a health check every five years. The check, which takes around 2-30 minutes, involves a medical and lifestyle history together with a range of tests including height, weight, blood pressure and a blood test to measure your cholesterol level - which collectively assess your risk of developing vascular disease 1
  • Bowel cancer - men and women between 60 and 75 are routinely invited to complete a screening test for bowel cancer. This is a home-based test whereby following an invitation letter, a small testing kit is posted to your home which enables you to take a small sample of your stools and return it for analysis - the results are usually back to you within two weeks.2
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm - men aged over aged 65 receive a letter inviting them to an ultrasound scan of their abdomen to test for the presence of aortic aneurysm - a weakness or 'bulge' in the main artery leaving the heart, which can be life-threatening if ruptured

Around 1% of men screened are expected to have an aneurysm at significant risk of rupture - this can then be treated. If a lower-risk aneurysm is found, as is the case in around 3% of scans then future scans will be scheduled in order to monitor it3

  • Cervical cancer - women in England, Wales and Northern Ireland between the age of 25 and 65 are invited to attend a cervical screening every three years up to the age of 50 and then every five years up to the age of 65. The programme differs slightly in Scotland where women are invited for screening every three years between the ages of 20 and 60. Additional screening may be offered outside of the above age ranges depending upon your individual medical circumstances. The screen will include taking a small swab sample from the cervix, which is then tested for abnormalities that may lead to cervical cancer if left untreated. Studies suggest that regular screenings can prevent 75% of cervical cancers 2
  • Breast cancer - women over the age of 50 are eligible for regular breast screenings (including an X-ray of the breasts, called a mammogram) every three years. You will be invited to attend a screen between your 50th and 53rd birthday up to the age of 70 - after that you are still eligible for screening but you will need to contact your GP surgery to make an appointment 2

Advances in digital mammography techniques have led the NHS to progressively roll out an increase in the age range for invitations from 47 to 73 and this is expected to be complete across the country by 2016.


1. http://www.nhs.uk/Planners/NHSHealthCheck/Pages/Overview.aspx

2. http://www.cancerscreening.nhs.uk/index.html

3. http://aaa.screening.nhs.uk


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