A female doctor

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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Blood pressure tests

Blood pressure is the force that your blood exerts on the walls of your arteries. High blood pressure can weaken your heart and damage the walls of your arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney disease.

What’s involved?

Your GP or practice nurse will use a cuff that fits around your upper arm and is inflated until it becomes tight. The test is quick and painless and only takes a minute. A blood pressure reading below 130/80mmHg is considered to be normal.

Why is the test important?

In the UK about half of people aged over 65 have high blood pressure, but many don’t realise as they often have no symptoms.

How often should we get checked?

You should have your blood pressure measured at least once a year.

What happens next?

If your results fall outside of the normal range you will need to have it checked several more times. If your blood pressure is found to be consistently high, your GP will talk to you about how to lower it. Treatment may include lifestyle changes, and if these are not successful or your blood pressure is very high, you are likely to be prescribed medication.

5. Breast screening

Breast screening is a way of detecting breast cancer at a very early stage. It involves taking an x-ray of each breast, called a mammogram.

What’s involved?

Each breast in placed in turn on the x-ray machine and is gently compressed with a clear plate. The compression only lasts a few seconds, but some women do find this slightly uncomfortable.

Why is the test important?

A mammogram can detect cancer well before you spot any visible changes. Research shows that around a third of breast cancers are now diagnosed through screening.

How often should we get checked?

You will receive your first invitation to attend your local breast screening unit sometime between your 50th and 53rd birthdays. From then on, you will be invited every three years until your 70th birthday. Although you won’t receive an invitation for screening once you reach 70, you can request a screen every three years. Your GP surgery can tell you who to call. You should be given a card at your last routine screen to remind you of this entitlement. By 2016, women should be routinely invited up to the age of 74.

What happens next?

The results will be sent to you and your GP within two weeks. Most women receive a normal result but some may be asked to go to an assessment clinic for more tests. An ultrasound or needle test may be needed if further tests confirm an abnormality.

6. Eye tests

An eye test doesn’t just show whether or not you need glasses, it can also detect early signs of a number of conditions before you’re aware of any symptoms.

What’s involved?

An optometrist or ophthalmic medical practitioner will examine your eyes and the area around them to check for abnormalities or signs of injury or disease. They will shine a light into your eyes to look at the way your eyes reflect light, you will be asked to read letters from a chart and a puff of air will be directed at your eye to calculate the pressure inside.

Why is the test important?

An eye test can pick up early signs of conditions including diabetes and glaucoma. If any problems are picked up you can then be referred to your GP or a specialist eye hospital.

How often should we get checked?

Everyone over the age of 60 is entitled to a free NHS sight test every two years. If you are over 70 you may be entitled to a free test every year.

What happens next?

At the end of your test you will be told whether your sight needs correcting and, if so, you will be given a new or updated prescription. You can then visit a dispensing optician who will fit your glasses, if you need them. If there are any signs of disease you will be referred to your GP or an eye specialist.

7. Skin checks

Whether you check yourself or visit a specialist clinic, keeping an eye on moles can help you to spot the early signs of skin cancer. Most moles are harmless, but sometimes they can develop into a rare form of skin cancer called malignant melanoma.

What’s involved?

If you notice a suspect mole your GP can take a look and refer you for further testing; a change in the colour, size or shape of an existing mole is the most common symptom of melanoma. Alternatively you can pay to visit a specialist centre where a nurse will give you a top-to-toe check in around 45 minutes. This service is available in selected Boots and Superdrug pharmacies nationwide.

Why is the test important?

Deaths from melanoma among the over-65s have tripled in the last 30 years. Melanoma is linked to cumulative sun exposure over a lifetime, which means that older people are more likely to develop the disease.

How often should we get checked?

You should check all your moles every few weeks. If you visit your doctor or a specialist clinic they will advice you when to return for a follow-up check.

What happens next?

If you find a suspect mole you will be referred for further tests and a specialist may decide to cut the mole out. If it is found to be a melanoma you may need further tests to check that the cancer has not spread.