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health screenings

Screenings you should have to help prevent health problems

As a nation, we're doing very well health-wise. In the last 50 years, average life expectancy has increased by almost 10 years in the UK. So today, the average man lives until 79 years old and the average woman to almost 83. A lot of that is down to improved treatments - for heart attack, stroke, cancer and more.

But much of this good news is down to screening - which lets doctors pick up conditions early, when treatment is more likely to be effective.

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What regular health checks do you need?

Screenings are health checks for specific conditions and diseases. You attend screenings before you have any symptoms, as the aim is to identify a problem in its earliest stages when it's easier to prevent or treat. The NHS has multiple national screening programmes - if you take up screening when it's offered, you can stack the odds of a healthy older age in your favour.

It's also worth noting that:

  1. All men are offered a painless check for a swelling in the aorta - the largest blood vessel - when they reach 65.

  2. Vaccinations aren't health checks but they can be life-saving - speak to your practice nurse about whether yours are up to date.

Here are some of the most important regular screenings available in the UK.

Breast screening

Breast screening is offered to all women in the UK every 3 years, starting from some time in the 3 years after you turn 50 until you turn 70. After that, you can request screening every 3 years by phoning your local breast screening service. In some areas, screening invitations are being offered to women once they reach 47.

Breast screening involves a mammogram - an X-ray of both breasts that takes just a few minutes. My last one was in a mobile unit in a supermarket car park - the scans here are just as reliable as those done in hospital.

You'll usually get the all clear after breast screening within a couple of weeks. If there's any abnormality, you'll be invited for further tests at a hospital clinic. This may involve a painless ultrasound scan and a biopsy of breast tissue, taken with a needle.

It's estimated that breast screening saves 1,300 lives a year. It is important to bear in mind that this screening isn't 100% accurate - screening cannot always tell the difference between changes that would not cause any harm and aggressive breast cancer. So it's thought that for every woman whose life is saved by breast screening, three women end up having unnecessary treatment. You must weigh up the risks and benefits for yourself.

Cervical screening

Cervical screening (smear testing) checks for a virus called HPV, which causes virtually all cases of cervical cancer.

You'll be invited every 5 years until you're 65 years old. In Scotland and Wales, this is every 5 years from age 25, and in England and Northern Ireland, it's every 3 years from 25-49 and then every 5 years. If any of your 3 most recent cervical screening results were abnormal, you may keep getting invitations even if you're over 65.

Cervical screening lets doctors identify people who are at higher risk of cervical cancer, and can allow them to treat potentially cancerous cell changes before cancer develops - so it can actually stop you getting cervical cancer.

Bowel cancer screening

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer in the UK. A simple poo sample - called a Faecal Immunochemical Test (FIT) - is sent in the post to everyone every 2 years from at least the age of 60-74. For those under 60 the NHS bowel cancer screening programme is different across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

This simple test involves taking a tiny sample of poo in the privacy of your own bathroom using the plastic stick provided, popping it in the sample bottle and posting it for free, to be tested. The test picks up signs of cancer before you notice anything wrong.

49 out of 50 people get the all-clear after testing - but if your test is abnormal, you'll be invited for a further test using a small flexible telescope to examine the inside of your bowel. Most people get the all-clear at this stage - but if there is evidence of bowel cancer, picking it up early greatly increases your chance of a full recovery.

Detecting bowel cancer at the earliest stage makes you up to 9 times more likely to be successfully treated. And polyps, which could go on to cause cancer, can be picked up at the telescopic examination, so it could stop you going on to develop cancer.

Around 1 in 3 people who were sent an NHS bowel cancer screening kit in England last year did not go on to complete it. If you receive an invitation, use it - it could save your life.

Knowing your numbers

I talk a lot to my patients about 'knowing their numbers' - that means your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. High cholesterol and blood pressure are two of the biggest risk factors for stroke and heart attack - but you won't know you have them unless you have them checked.

If you're not on treatment for conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes and haven't had your cholesterol and blood pressure checked recently, now is the time. Speak to your practice nurse or pharmacist about getting a free NHS health check - you can get personalised advice on how to reduce your risk and your pharmacist will refer you to your GP if tablet treatment might be needed.

With thanks to My Weekly magazine, where this article was originally published.

Article History

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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