Health checks by age: are you up to date?
Your guide to staying on top of your health with the right screening checks for every life stage and age.
When it comes to your health, prevention is better than cure. Screening programs are designed for people who aren’t showing any signs or symptoms. So even if you feel healthy, it’s wise to keep up to date with your check-ups.
That said, it’s important that you also keep an eye on your body and visit your GP if you see any changes like a lump, new mole, sudden weight loss or change in bowel habits.
These recommendations refer to health checks for the general population but if you have specific risk factors – or a family history of a particular condition – be sure to seek individual advice from your GP.
In this article, we’ll take you through health checks recommended by the experts for:
When: Check your skin regularly.
What: GPs can do a skin check to look for skin cancer or may refer you to a dermatologist (a specialist doctor who diagnoses and treats skin conditions). It’s also recommended you check your own skin regularly as it’s important to get to know your skin and what’s normal for you, so you notice any new spots or changes to existing freckles or moles.
The Cancer Council recommends undressing completely so you can check your entire body. Use good light and a hand mirror during self-checks to examine existing and new moles, freckles and spots for flaking, bleeding, crusting, weeping, or ulceration (skin that looks like an open sore). Look for changes in colour and shape, or spots that appear dry, scaly, pearly, pale red, lumpy, or feel itchy or appear inflamed.
Ask a family member to help you self-check your skin by inspecting areas you can’t see, like shoulders, back, ears and scalp. Remember to check your lips, palms, soles of the feet, between fingers and toes (and under nails). To look out for melanoma, the Cancer Council of NSW recommends the ABCDE system:
- Checking for asymmetry
- Border irregularity
- Colour combinations (eg black/blue)
- Diameter changes, and
- Evolving spots.
See your GP right away if you notice any changes.
When: Every 6–12 months or based on your dentist’s advice, as recommended by the Australian Dental Association NSW.
What: Dental check-up. Poor dental health increases your risk of dental cavities and contributes to gum disease, which is linked to heart disease and other health issues. So practise good oral hygiene and see your dentist and dental hygienist for regular checks, as well as scale and cleans to remove plaque from teeth.
Who: Women who are aged 25-74 (and have a cervix), or women who are, or have been, sexually active, should have cervical screening, according to the Federal Department of Health. Register with the National Cervical Screening Program, and get reminders when your next test is due.
When: Every 5 years.
What: Cervical screening test. In 2017, the Pap smear test was replaced with a new human papillomavirus (HPV) test. To detect cervical cancer a doctor or nurse removes a small sample of cervical cells with a long, thin swab. These cells are placed on a glass slide that’s then sent to a lab where the cells are analysed for signs of HPV infection (which can cause cervical cancer in some women). While the Pap test looked for cell changes, the current cervical screening test looks for HPV and, if it’s present, checks cells to detect any changes.
When: Self exams are recommended once a month by Better Health Channel.
What: Located behind a man’s penis, in a pouch called the scrotum, are 2 glands called the testes, which normally feel firm and smooth. Testicle self-examination is important to check for testicular cancer, because it can have a very good treatment outcome if found early. See your doctor if you notice any changes, like a hard lump – the most common sign of testicular cancer, which often only occurs in one testicle.
Who: People over 45 (or over 30 if Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander).
When: Every 2 years according to the Heart Foundation.
What: A Heart Health Check. During this exam, your GP will discuss your diet, exercise, family history and heart health risks, like smoking or obesity. Your blood pressure will be checked and your doctor will order blood and urine tests. They’ll be looking out for high blood pressure, high cholesterol or kidney disease.
Diabetes type 2
Who: Everyone from 40 years of age (or 18 if Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander).
When: Every 3 years according to the Department of Health.
What: AUSDRISK: This questionnaire, which you can fill in yourself or with your doctor or nurse, assesses your risk of developing type 2 diabetes over the next 5 years. If you get a ‘high’
score, ask your GP if you’re eligible for a special type 2 diabetes risk evaluation. You’re at higher risk if you have:
- an AUSDRISK score of 12 or more
- cardiovascular disease
- a history of gestational diabetes
- polycystic ovaries
- a history of prescribed antipsychotic drugs.
Do doctors test for diabetes during check-ups? Sometimes, depending on your symptoms and risks. Discuss your family and personal health history with your GP, who can advise how often you should have a fasting blood glucose test. This involves an overnight fast followed by a morning blood test to check your blood glucose levels.
Who: People over 50. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program is free for Australians aged 50–74.
When: At least every 2 years according to the Cancer Council.
What: Faecal occult blood test (FOBT). Early bowel cancer can be successfully treated in 90% of cases. So, when you turn 50, the government will send you a test kit in the mail. Using this, you provide stool samples from 2 or 3 bowel motions. The Cancer Institute of NSW offers a quick ‘how to’ online video demonstration. After you’ve collected the samples, you pop them in a reply-paid Australia Post envelope, and they’re sent to a special lab to be analysed.
The FOBT can detect even microscopic amounts of blood in your stool, which could be a sign of bowel cancer. If any traces of blood are found, your doctor may order more tests, such as a colonoscopy. It can also be helpful to learn more about bowel cancer prevention, so that you can make lifestyle changes to reduce your risk.
Who: Women aged 50–74 qualify for a free mammogram through BreastScreen Australia. Women aged 40–49, and over 74, can also be screened free of charge, on request.
When: Every 2 years or more often, depending on your family history and health risks, according to BreastScreen Australia.
What: Mammogram. Each breast is pressed between 2 X-ray plates, which spread the breast tissue out so that clear pictures can be taken to detect any changes that could be signs of cancer. Mammograms can pick up very small lumps and breast changes. If you have risk factors, like family or personal history of breast or ovarian cancer, ask your GP if you need more frequent screening.
At home, check your breasts once a month, palpating gently all over your breasts and under the arms so you get to know how they normally look and feel. If you notice any breast changes, see your doctor.
Who: Healthy Bones Australia recommends a bone density scan for men and women over 50 with risk factors, such as low body weight. People under 50 with other risk factors, such as long corticosteroid medication use, premature menopause and excessive alcohol intake, should also have a bone density scan.
When: As recommended by your GP.
What: Bone density DXA scan. This takes 10–15 minutes and measures the density of your bones using low-dose x-rays, usually at the hip and spine. During the scan you lie flat on a padded table while a large scanning arm will slowly pass over your body to measure bone density in the centre of your skeleton.
Medicare may make a contribution to a bone density scan if you meet specific criteria. Otherwise, you may have out-of-pocket costs to pay, as medical and health practitioners, including diagnostic imaging providers, are free to set their own fees for the services they provide.
Who: Mostly men aged 50+.
When: As medical opinion is divided about the pros and cons of screening regularly for prostate cancer, there’s no national screening program in Australia. This means every man needs to make a decision about screening, based on factors such as family history, ongoing health risks and GP advice. You should also consult your doctor if you develop any possible symptoms of prostate cancer, including pain or difficulty when urinating or blood in urine or semen.
What: Digital rectal examination (DRE) – your doctor gently inserts a gloved finger into the rectum to feel the prostate gland for any signs of change, like a hardened area or change in shape of the gland. If your doctor believes further testing is warranted, they might also order a prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test, as an elevated PSA can sometimes indicate cancer.
Visual and hearing impairment
Who: Everyone aged 65+.
When: Every 12 months.
What: Eye and hearing tests, according to Better Health Victoria. Without optimal vision and hearing, we lose the nuances of a sunset and conversation. So, changes to these senses should be detected early to minimise their impact on your everyday life.
To assess your vision, your GP will use a Snellen chart (the large chart with letters decreasing in
size). To check for hearing loss, your GP will ask questions to determine if your hearing is declining and may send you for hearing tests.
For a quick online hearing check, you can also use the Connect Hearing Speech Perception Test. It takes five minutes and gives you a result right away.
Through our partnership with Connect Hearing, you could get up to 100% back# or a reduced cost on a range of high-quality hearing aids (1 every 3 years).
You can also access free online tools to better understand your hearing.
Your doctor can do the following quick checks during a consultation:
- Body Mass Index (BMI). A healthy weight range is 18.5–24.99.
- Waist measurement. A waistline of more than 80 cm (for women) and 94 cm (for men) could increase the risk of health issues.
- Blood pressure (BP). This should be checked from age 45. Your GP will attach an inflatable cuff, usually to the upper part of your arm, to measure your BP. Normal blood pressure is around 120/80. Your GP will let you know if you need any follow-up tests.
- Urine dipstick tests. After you give a urine sample, these can be used to check if there’s evidence of issues like a urinary tract infection, assess your blood glucose levels, or check kidney function. If results are not normal, your GP will order follow-up tests.
- Mental health. There are many different questionnaires your GP can give you to assess your depression and/or anxiety levels. The DASS-21 and K10 checklists are commonly used, but there are also mental health surveys tailored more to specific cultural backgrounds and issues, like postnatal depression.
Planning a pregnancy? Before you try to conceive, see your GP to have a:
1. full medical check and women’s health check.
2. blood test to check your:
- vitamin D levels
- antibodies to German measles (rubella) and chickenpox – if low or not detected, your doctor may suggest a vaccine top-up
- Rhesus factor, an inherited protein, that could affect your baby.
3. discussion about:
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^ To be eligible, members must have a heart-related condition or diabetes and must have had hospital cover that includes heart conditions and vascular system for at least 12 months. Excludes Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic cover and Overseas Visitors Health Cover. Clinical eligibility applies.
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