The health tests that could save your life

A woman receiving a blood pressure test.

We all worry about our health as we get older. But by undergoing routine health checks, which take just minutes to perform, you can spot any problems in the early stages when they are easier to treat.

Ceri Roberts looks at 7 key routine tests below - covering what they involve, how often you should get checked, and why each test is important:

On this page:

Bowel cancer screening
Cervical screening
Cholesterol tests


Read on for critical tests on blood pressure, eye health, and breast and skin cancer

Bowel cancer screening

Bowel cancer screening doesn’t diagnose cancer, but it can detect potential problems even when people have no symptoms.

What’s involved?

The testing kit, called a Faecal Occult Blood Test (FOBt), is sent through the post and requires participants to collect stool samples on a special card, which is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.

Why is the test important?

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK after breast and lung cancer, and nearly 40,000 people were diagnosed with the condition in 2008. Although it can develop in younger people, 8 out of 10 people who get cancer of the bowel are over the age of 60, and men are at greater risk than women.

How often should we get checked?

Screening is offered every 2 years to all men and women aged 60 to 69. And the screening programme has now been extended to include those aged 70-74. Screening invitations for people aged 70-74 should be sent out by the end of 2014.

People over 70 can also request a screening kit by calling the freephone helpline 0800 707 6060.

What happens next?

The test looks for traces of blood; if there is any sign of this, participants will be asked to carry out the test again. This doesn’t mean that you have bowel cancer, but you may need a bowel examination called a colonoscopy to rule out this possibility. Only around 2% of people will have an abnormal result, and will need follow-up tests.

Cervical screening

Cervical screening is a method of preventing cancer by detecting abnormalities which, if left untreated, could lead to cancer in a woman’s cervix.

What’s involved?

A doctor or nurse inserts an instrument called a speculum to open the woman’s vagina and uses a spatula to sweep around the cervix. Most women say it’s not painful, just slightly uncomfortable.

Why is the test important?

Cervical cancer is the eleventh most common cancer in women, and accounts for around 2% of all female cancers. Early detection and treatment can prevent up to 75 per cent of cancers developing.

How often should we get checked?

All women aged 25-64 are eligible for a free cervical screening test every 3-5 years. Women over 65 are not usually invited for screening unless they have had an abnormal result in any of their three most recent tests.

What happens next?

You should receive the result of your test within six weeks. 9 out of 10 screening results are normal, but some women receive an abnormal result which requires further investigation and treatment. It’s extremely rare for cervical cancer to be diagnosed as a result of a smear test, and most abnormalities disappear on their own or are dealt with on an out-patient basis.

Cholesterol tests

Cholesterol is a type of fat that is carried around the body in the blood. High levels of cholesterol can build up in the arteries and increase your risk of heart attack or stroke.

What’s involved?

You can have your cholesterol level measured with a simple blood test at your GP surgery.

Why is the test important?

High cholesterol doesn’t cause any symptoms, so you could have it without knowing. The only way to find out to take the test.

How often should we get checked?

Depending on the results, your GP will let you know when you need a follow-up test, but it’s worth getting it checked annually.

What happens next?

If you have high cholesterol you can lower it by changing your diet, maintaining a healthy weight and taking regular exercise. If you already have heart disease or are at risk of developing it, your GP may prescribe cholesterol-lowering medicines such as statins.

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