And How to Prepare for Them
As we age, it’s important to be proactive about our health and well-being by attending regular check-ups. Scheduling routine blood work, which may include a blood count, glucose tests, and thyroid tests, and monitoring blood pressure and other vitals can help you keep an eye out for any serious medical conditions. A physician can also keep track of large changes in height or weight, which can indicate a serious decline in health. The best way to stay healthy and maintain independence is to be proactive about regular visits to the doctor’s office.
Age, family and medical history may affect what types of tests your doctor requires and their frequency. For instance, a chest x-ray shows the general condition of the lungs, an area that is vulnerable in many seniors, and is generally recommended once a year, although some individuals may not need one as often. A sigmoidoscopy is recommended every four years to help detect colorectal cancer, unless otherwise indicated. Colonoscopies should also be given every five years, except for those that are high-risk or have already been diagnosed with polyps or colon cancer. In all cases, it is best to follow your physician’s advice.
These are tests that everyone should have done, but there are also tests that are specific to men and women. A man should plan for an annual prostate exam and a prostate specific antigen test (PSA), which is simple blood work that will detect the possibility of prostate cancer. Women should schedule the following annual exams: a mammogram to help detect breast cancer, a pap smear and pelvic exam (though some recommend this every 2 to 4 years), and measurement of bone mass to detect osteoporosis, a condition that occurs mainly in women and causes bones to become very fragile and delicate. Annual exams are an important part of senior health, but they should be part of a complete health regimen.
Medication can be beneficial when prescribed by a licensed physician, but it needs to be taken according to the doctor’s orders – whether it needs to be taken at a specific time of day, with or without food, or any other requirements. For many seniors, medications are common. Older adults use more medications — prescription, over-the-counter, and supplements — than any other age group in the U.S. This group comprises 13% of the population but accounts for 34% of all prescription medication use and 30% of all OTC drug use, and the likelihood of receiving a prescription increases with age.
Many seniors take multiple medications at the same time, with 40% of Medicare beneficiary patients taking five or more prescription medications. In fact, 90% of Medicare beneficiaries take prescription medications, and as many as 55% are nonadherent. Average adherence decreases from approximately 80% in patients taking medication once daily to 50% in those taking medications 4 times a day. It is important that you ask your physician and pharmacist about when to take a prescribed medication, any potential interactions with other medications, foods, or beverages, and what reactions may occur, such as dizziness that may make it difficult to drive. Clinicians often fail to identify nonadherence issues in older patients, largely due in part to a lack of meaningful communication. Often, a licensed nurse can help with medication management, ensuring you are taking the correct dose at the right time, and checking for any negative interactions.
Not only is communication between you and your doctor important, but it is important in your social circles, too. Social relationships are consistently associated with better health. Positive indicators of social well-being may be associated with lower levels of inflammatory factors in otherwise healthy people. Inflammation plays a role in many age-related disorders, such as:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Cardiovascular disease
- Some forms of cancer
Maintaining social relationships is extremely important for the physical and mental well-being of older adults. Social isolation constitutes a major risk factor for mortality and symptoms of depression, so it is important to know the signs and recognize when an older adult may need help. Some grandparents report that caring for their grandchildren makes them feel healthier and more active, as they experience a strong emotional bond, lead a more active lifestyle, eat healthier meals, and may even reduce or stop smoking.
Preparing for Your Doctor’s Appointment
The average primary care visit lasts about fifteen minutes. Are you making the most use of that time?
Whether you are seeing a doctor for the first time, or attending a regular check-up, it’s important to prepare for your appointment to make the most use out of your time. A few days before your appointment, take the time to sit down and write out your medical history, any past or present illnesses and treatments, allergies, current medications, and any history of family illness.
Once you have written down important medical history, or if you are attending an appointment with a doctor you have already met before, start another entry outlining the medical reason for your visit. If you are in the office due to an illness, write down your current medical problems and symptoms, in as much detail as possible. If you are feeling any pain, include when the pain started, how bad it is, where it is, and what makes it better or worse. If you have done any home tests, such as taken your temperature or blood sugar, take note of those results.
It is also best to include your daily habits, such as eating, drinking, and sleeping, and any recent lifestyle changes. If you are currently taking any medication, including vitamins or herbal remedies, write down the name, dosage, and frequency—but only include those you are actually taking, not those that you are supposed to be taking.
Lastly, make a list of questions you would like to ask, ranked by priority. If you are pressed for time during the visit, you will be able to make it through your most important concerns. Having a list in front of you will also minimize distractions and feelings of frustration, or even forgetfulness.
During your visit, share your symptoms, health history, and medication list with your doctor. Don’t forget about your emotional health; it influences your physical health. Your health is worth the physician’s time. Repeat what the doctor has told you to be sure you understand and ask for clarification if needed. Try to reach an agreement about the recommended treatment plan. If there are any procedures, tests, or treatments that the doctor recommends, the following questions could help you in making an informed decision:
- What is the test for?
- How many times have you done this procedure?
- When will I get the results?
- Why do I need this treatment?
- Are there any alternatives?
- What are the possible complications?
- Which hospital is best for my needs?
- How do you spell the name of that drug?
- Are there any side effects?
- Will this medicine interact with medicines that I’m already taking?
Your questions give your doctor and health care team important information about you, such as your most important health care concerns. They will be able to follow-up with any information that they cannot provide during the appointment. Before leaving the doctor’s office, find out if and when you should return for another visit and clarify any next steps. Schedule a follow-up appointment if necessary.
- Ask if you need to watch for certain warning signs for your condition—when you should be concerned and at what point you need to call in.
- Ask how to reach the doctor if you have questions or concerns—by email? By phone? What hours are best? How soon can you expect a response?
- Don’t leave if you’re uncertain about your diagnosis or treatment plan.
Your visit may be short, but you can exchange a lot of information in a few minutes. Ask for a printed or electronic copy of your doctor’s instructions. If you’re not 100% clear, ask your doctor to sit and explain with you a second time. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask questions about your treatment plan, or anything you are unclear on. This will help your doctor provide the best care for you.
Attending regular check-ups with your primary physician is only one component of a healthy lifestyle, but it will provide you with information on your health and give you the opportunity to start a conversation with your doctor.
If you would like a nurse to accompany you to your doctor’s appointments, our Registered Nurses (RNs) and Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) can help. Contact 650-462-1001 or visit NurseRegistry.com/private-care to learn more.