Diagnostic screening tests for seniors can find health issues in their early stages, while they still can be treated. Lives can be prolonged and saved by finding potentially dangerous health conditions before they become major life threatening problems. However, some kinds of diagnostic screening tests actually pose health risks and one has to weigh the potential benefits versus the risks. In fact, there are cases where the diagnostic test does not find any kind of disease whatsoever, but the person may be left with dangerous and even life threatening problems.
Heart Disease and Cancer are the Two Leading Causes of Death
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the first leading cause of death in the United States followed by cancer. Thus, diagnostic tests should be welcome that can discover cancer and heart disease in their early stages. However, how can we know which ones are really necessary?
The AARP Addresses the Dilemma about Which Diagnostic Screening Tests are Necessary
The AARP addresses the dilemma facing seniors who are confused about which diagnostic tests are really necessary in a news article from November, 2018.
While some kinds of diagnostic tests pose potentially dangerous complications, there are no real statistics that deal with people who have been injured or sickened by diagnostic testing. While exposure to radiation is considered to be a major risk for developing cancer, many of the diagnostic screening tests for cancer include exposure to radiation. This can cause the beginning of cancer, activate a dormant growth and aid in the spread of the disease.
The AARP Shares a Story about a California Woman who was Offered a Free Heart Scan
The AARP begins with a California woman who was offered a free heart scan. However, before taking the test she had to see a long video presentation about all kinds of other problems like hidden cancers and dangerous heart conditions. The video encouraged her to pay money to the tune of $5700 for a whole battery of other screening tests.
After she had her free heart scan, she was told she needed an urgent catheterization procedure, which while necessary in many cases, can be dangerous. At this point she went to her family doctor who referred her to a cardiologist. The cardiologist sent her for a bunch of non-invasive tests that showed that she did not need urgent catheterization. However, she had been exposed to large amounts of unnecessary radiation. On top of this, she was refused life insurance because the results of these tests were listed on her medical records. However, this episode shows that it is best to first consult your doctor, especially if you are offered free deals.
Diagnostic Tests for Cancer Recommended by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF)
The AARP lists the diagnostic screening test that the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends for seniors. The USPSTF is a group of primary care national specialists that are authorized by Congress. They are the main source that doctors rely on for recommending diagnostic screening. The USPSTF grades screening recommendations as A,B,C,D. etc.
Colonoscopy/Sigmoidoscopy – Diagnostic Tests for Colorectal Cancer
Adults from age 50-75 Grade A
Seniors from age 76-85 Grade C
Colorectal cancer is the 4th leading cause of cancer in the United States. Unfortunately, it is a silent disease that does not cause symptoms until it is well advanced. Sadly, it may be too late to treat it by the time it makes itself noticeable by symptoms. Doctors are all in favor of early screening.
Most Doctors Prefer to Send a Patient for a Colonoscopy
Most doctors prefer to send a patient for a colonoscopy, which examines the entire colon. During the procedure, doctors can remove any pre-cancerous polyps or tumors that they may find. However, colonoscopy has not been shown to reduce deaths overall, probably because one in every 220 people who have a colonoscopy have serious complications.
Complications from Colonoscopy
- Since it is a very uncomfortable procedure for most people, they may need some kind of anesthesia. Some people get a severe allergic reaction to the anesthesia.
- Perforation of the bowel can happen, which can lead to life-threatening infections and complications that can last a lifetime.
- The colonoscope can become incarcerated in an intestinal loop from a hernia. It is crucial to inform your doctor before having a colonoscopy if you have ever suffered from a hernia.
The sigmoidoscopy only examines the rectum and the s-shaped sigmoid colon where most polyps and tumors are found. The sigmoidoscope is a narrow, flexible tube that is inserted in the anal canal to examine the rectum and sigmoid. The sigmoidoscopy does not generally require any kind of anesthesia. According to the USPSTF, sigmoidoscopy screening lowered overall deaths by 2.5%, which is two to three lives saved for every 100 people who were scanned.
Non-invasive Fecal Tests
Non-invasive fecal tests check a stool sample for traces of occult blood and for DNA evidence of cancer. If something is found, it will still be necessary to have a colonoscopy exam. It is important to note that if a person suffers from hemorrhoids there may be traces of blood from the hemorrhoids and this can give a false positive result. In fact, many doctors do not even send people for fecal testing if they have hemorrhoids.
Grade B for women ages 50-74
Breast cancer is the most commonly found cancer in the United States. While some studies show that mammograms may lower the number of deaths from breast cancer, there is no evidence that they reduce overall deaths from breast cancer for women of any age. A meta-analysis of 600,000 women showed no benefits for the screening.
False alarms from mammograms occur for about 50% of American women. Mammograms can make serious errors of misdiagnosis. Some women are sent for unnecessary biopsies and even surgery to remove lumps or the entire breast, when in fact they do not have cancer at all. On the other hand, there are cases of aggressive breast cancer that the mammograms miss and this can lead to death.
Mammograms Increase Risks from Radiation
Mammograms are also painful for many women, as they compress the breasts and also there are risks from radiation. In fact, some doctors believe that a yearly mammogram may eventually lead to breast cancer.
MRI is Safer
In general, MRI scans are safer than mammograms, but are much more expensive. Check with your doctor about what options there are, especially if there is a family history of breast cancer.
Exams by Surgeons and Self-exams
Lumps can be detected by surgeons and self-exams by women. All women should learn how to do self-exams of their breasts.
Prostate-specific Antigen (PSA) Test
Grade C for men ages 55-69
Grade D for men age 70+
While prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing has been shown to lower the rate of deaths from prostate cancer, so far no there is no real evidence to show that PSA testing can result in an overall reduction in deaths from prostate cancer for men at any age. Studies show that about half of all men will have some prostate cancer cells by age 60 and 70% of them will develop cancer by age 80, but only 3% of men will die from it.
Complications from PSA Tests
The PSA test results can also lead to complications. Biopsies to check for cancer can sometimes lead to infections. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy also can have serious complications and lead to incontinence and impotence.
Check with your doctor about the options for screening for prostate cancer.
CT Scan for Lung Cancer
Grade B for adults ages 55-80 who smoke
If you are or were a heavy smoker and you have a cough or are short of breath, then see your doctor right away. Smokers are not only at high risk for lung cancer, but also for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD can be from emphysema or chronic bronchitis. A study of a low-dose CT screening test estimated that 12,000 lives could be saved. However, about 27,000 people could get serious complications from some kinds of follow-up procedures.
PAP Smear Test for Cancer of the Cervix
Grade A for women ages 21-65
Grade D for women over age 65 or who have had a hysterectomy
Coronary Artery Calcium Screening
Grade I (Indeterminate)
Most patients who get high calcium results do not die prematurely from a cardiovascular event such as a stroke or heart attack. Also, some who show zero calcium actually have serious coronary artery blockages.
Short or Long-term Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care
If you or your loved one are in need of short-term expert rehabilitation or long-term skilled nursing care for heart disease or cancer, the Royal Suites Healthcare and Rehabilitation in scenic Galloway Township, New Jersey is a beautiful 5-star facility. Whether it is a short-term stay to recover from surgery or there is a need for long-term skilled nursing care, Royal Suites has a lot to offer.
Take all the diagnostic screening tests that are non-invasive, safe and have no potentially serious complications. For those tests that can cause dangerous complications, get at least two medical opinions.