Seniors must take charge of their own health

Most people don’t like going to the doctor — or is just me? We often wait until our symptoms become debilitating and keep us from doing the things we want. This is a poor health strategy for growing older.

Many health risks begin long before you notice symptoms. The earlier these diseases and conditions are detected, the greater chance they can be treated successfully. But that means taking charge of your own health by seeing your primary care physician regularly and taking medications as prescribed. It also wouldn’t hurt to watch your diet and exercise.

One simple health strategy is taking advantage of the free preventive screenings offered through Medicare. Unfortunately, many seniors fail to use these life-saving services. The evidence is overwhelming:

• Some 64 percent of women and 50 percent of men who died suddenly of a heart attack had no prior knowledge of their heart disease.

• Screenings can reduce dying of colorectal cancer by 35 to 75 percent. Unfortunately, only about half of adults in the U.S. have been appropriately screened.

• Prostate cancer is one of most common cancers in men over the age of 50. More than 70 percent of individuals with the disease are over the age of 75. With early detection, prostate cancer is highly treatable.

• Early detection of diabetes can significantly reduce the chances of developing complications associated with the disease.

• Treatments to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease are most effective in the early stages of the disease.

• Mental health is just as important. Although suicide rates are alarmingly high among seniors, early detection of depression in the elderly is commonly overlooked.

Medicare recipients pay absolutely nothing out of pocket for preventive services. Furthermore, the costs for treating a disease or condition in its early stages are far less than those associated with treating a chronic disease. Your quality of life is better and Medicare potentially saves thousands of dollars for your care.

If everyone took advantage of the screenings, imagine how many billions of dollars could be saved. On a side note, the current projection for Medicare insolvency is 2030.

Not all preventive screenings make sense for everyone. Make an appointment with your doctor to determine which screenings make the most sense for you. Health conditions, risk factors, age and gender will indicate which tests you will need. Be sure to schedule your annual wellness visit and have a medical professional help assess your medical and family history, which will indicate your risk factors.

Here are the free preventative services covered by Medicare: abdominal aortic aneurysm screening; alcohol misuse screenings and counseling, bone mass measurements (bone density), cardiovascular disease screenings, cardiovascular disease (behavioral therapy), cervical and vaginal cancer screening, colorectal cancer screenings, depression screenings, diabetes screenings and diabetes self-management training.

Also covered: glaucoma tests, hepatitis C screening test, HIV screening, mammograms (screening), nutrition therapy services, obesity screenings and counseling, one-time “Welcome to Medicare” preventive visit, prostate cancer screenings, sexually transmitted infections screening and counseling, tobacco use cessation counseling, yearly wellness visit with your primary care physician, and shots for flu, hepatitis B and pneumonia.

Doctors, screenings and tests are available to help us stay healthy, but patients must take responsibility for their own health. Be proactive and make sure you understand fully what the doctor is telling you. Don’t be intimidated by “white coats” and ask questions until they have all been answered to your satisfaction.

The life you save may be your own.

Downey is president and CEO of Serving Seniors, a nonprofit agency dedicated to increasing the quality of life for San Diego seniors living in poverty for 40 years. Learn more at

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