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8 health tests that could save your life

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 8 key routine tests below - covering what they involve, how often you should get checked, and why each test is important.

NHS health check

The NHS Health Check is a free check-up of your overall health. It can tell you whether you're at higher risk of getting certain health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and stroke.

What’s involved?

An NHS Health Check takes about 20-30 minutes.

The health professional will ask you some simple questions about your lifestyle and family history, measure your height and weight, and take your blood pressure and do a blood test – often using a small finger prick test.

Why is the test important?

Based on the results of your questions and blood test, your health professional will be able to give you an idea of your chances of getting heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and diabetes.

If you're over 65, you will also be told the signs and symptoms of dementia to look out for.

You will then receive personalised advice to lower your risk.

When will I be invited for an NHS health check?

You'll be invited for a free NHS Health Check every five years if you're between 40 and 74 years of age and do not already have heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease or high blood pressure.

If you're registered with a GP surgery that offers the NHS Health Check, you should automatically get an invitation. Don't worry if you haven't been invited yet – you will be over the next five years.

Alternatively, your local authority will send you an appointment letter explaining where you have to go for your NHS Health Check.

If you're not sure if you're eligible for an NHS Health Check and would like one, or if you are eligible but haven't had an NHS Health Check in the last five years, ask your GP for an appointment now. 

Find out more

Want further information? Head to the NHS website

Bowel cancer screening

Bowel cancer screening doesn’t diagnose cancer, but it can detect potential problems before a person has 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 over several days on a special card, which is then sent to a laboratory for analysis.

Screening is offered every 2 years to all men and women aged 60 to 74. People over 75 can also request a screening kit by calling the freephone helpline 0800 707 6060.

Why is the test important?

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK and the sooner it is detected, the easier it is to treat and the better your chance of surviving it.

What happens next?

The test looks for traces of blood; if there is any sign of this, you 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. A small percentage of people will have an abnormal result, and will need follow-up tests.

Get more information

Find out more about the bowel cancer screening

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 small soft brush to sweep around the cervix. Most women say it’s slightly uncomfortable but not painful.

Why is the test important?

About 3,000 cases of cervical cancer are diagnosed each year in the UK. Since the screening programme was introduced in the 1980s, the number of cervical cancer cases has decreased by about 7% each year.

How often should you 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 haven't been screened since age 50 or 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 two weeks. Most screening results are normal, but if you are recalled, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have cancer. For around 1 in 20 women the test shows some abnormal changes which will require further investigation and treatment.

Find out more

Get further information about the cervical screening test

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 is to have the test.

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.

Find out more

Read more information about cholesterol on the NHS website

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.

Why is the test important?

Around 30% of adults in England have high blood pressure, but many don’t realise as they often have no symptoms.

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.

You may be offered a blood test to check the functioning of your kidneys and a test to check your risk of developing diabetes. 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.

Get more information

Find out more about the blood pressure test on the NHS website

Breast screening

Most experts agree regular breast screening is beneficial in picking up breast cancer early and the earlier it is found the better the chances of surviving it. The main risk is that breast screening sometimes picks up cancers that may not have caused any symptoms or become life-threatening. You may end up having unnecessary extra tests and treatment. You can read about the pros and cons of breast cancer screening on the NHS Choices website.

What’s involved?

An x-ray of each breast, called a mammogram, is taken. Each breast is placed in turn on the x-ray machine and is gently but firmly 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?

Around 1 in 8 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime.

How often should you get checked?

You'll receive your first invitation to attend your local breast screening unit sometime between your 50th and 53rd birthdays. In some areas, you'll be invited from the age of 47 and until the age of 73 as the NHS is in the process of extending the screening programme as a trial. From then on, you will be invited every three years until your 70th birthday.

Although you may not 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.

What happens next?

The results will be sent to you and your GP no later than 2 weeks after the screening. Most women receive a normal result but some may be asked to go to an assessment clinic for more tests.

Find out more

Get further information about breast cancer screenings from the NHS

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 change in the colour, size or shape of an existing mole ask your GP to look at it and, if necessary, refer you for further testing.

Why is the test important?

Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK with around 13,000 new cases diagnosed each year, and as with all cancers, early detection and treatment increases your chances of surviving it.

How often should you check your body?

You should check all your moles every few weeks and see your doctor if you notice any changes.

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.

Find out more

Get further information about skin cancer and checks from the NHS


People usually recover from the flu, pneumonia or shingles without any ongoing problems. However, having one of these infections in later life can cause serious health problems, and can be fatal.

What’s involved?

Your best protection is to get vaccinated with 3 different vaccinations. Ask your GP surgery for more information and whether you can get these vaccinations for free under the NHS. You may also be able to get your flu jab from your local pharmacy.

Why is the test important?

Influenza and pneumonia are the fourth most common cause of death in people over 65 years. Shingles can cause serious long-term complications and can sometimes be fatal.

How often should we get vaccinated?

If you’re 65 years or over, you can get a free flu jab. The flu jab is needed each year because the flu virus constantly changes and the vaccine is updated to give the best protection. If you’re under 65 but have a long-term condition (for example, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease), or if you’re a carer, you might still be eligible for a free flu jab.

You can get a free, one-off combination jab for pneumonia, septicaemia and bacterial meningitis if you’re 65 years or over, or if you have a certain long term condition.

If you’re aged between 70 and 79 you can get a free, one-off shingles jab but when you can get this vaccine will depend on your date of birth. Ask your GP surgery for more information about eligibility. 

Find out more

Get further information about vaccinations from the NHS

Further information

Age NI Advice Service

Every year our Advice Service deals with thousands of calls from older people in need. Call us today to make sure that you are receiving all the help and support available to you.

Call freephone 0808 808 7575
Monday - Friday 9am – 5pm 


Last updated: May 05 2020

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