Q: My mother is 81 and healthy. How often should she see her doctor? What are the routine tests or immunizations she needs?
A: There’s no hard and fast rule about how often seniors should see their health care providers. For most older adults, though, it’s a good idea to have at least one medical checkup a year. At that visit, a provider can review medications, check on health concerns, talk about lifestyle topics and go over recommended tests.
Regular health care visits are the perfect opportunity to go over the medications an older adult takes — a key step in maintaining good health. It’s important for a health care provider to know about all of a senior’s medicines —prescription and nonprescription drugs, dietary supplements and herbal medicines. That way, the provider can identify any that might interact, possibly causing health problems, and confirm that the medications are managing chronic illnesses effectively.
Going over any health concerns — even if they seem small — is an essential part of a senior checkup. Memory loss, sleep problems, constipation, fatigue or weight loss, for example, could point to underlying health problems that should be evaluated. Or they might be side effects of medication that could be eliminated with a change in prescription.
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Health care providers who see seniors also review how a person functions day to day. It’s important that seniors can navigate their environment so they can do what they want, interact with others, perform daily tasks without trouble, and stay healthy.
To get a sense of that, a provider might ask questions about dressing and bathing. He or she will want to know whether a senior has fallen. A discussion of grocery shopping, cooking and eating, and ease of movement, driving, typical routines and social interaction, can help the provider understand how well a senior is managing.
The specific tests or immunizations an older adult needs depend largely on medical history. But some are appropriate for most seniors. The vaccine to protect against pneumonia and a yearly flu shot typically are recommended for adults older than 65.
Another example is a bone density test, to screen for osteoporosis. This test is recommended at age 65 for women who have never broken a bone and who don’t have other osteoporosis risk factors. For men, this test usually is recommended about age 70 for those who have broken a bone at some point in their lives.
Other tests usually are based on specific health concerns and medications. Tests to check blood sugar, cholesterol and minerals, such as sodium and potassium, might be appropriate. Some people also might need regular tests to gauge kidney and liver function.
Before your mother goes to see her health care provider, encourage her to write down questions or concerns she’d like to discuss. To help the visit go smoothly, it also would be useful for her to note any significant health concerns or conditions she has had in the past, and any health problems or symptoms she’s experiencing now. She should bring along a list of all medicines, including over-the-counter medications, and their dosages.
Based on that information and a physical exam, a health care provider can offer guidance on the tests and screenings that might be appropriate, and the best schedule for future checkups. He or she also can discuss lifestyle recommendations regarding exercise, nutrition and social interaction, among other topics, that can make a big difference in an older adult’s quality of life.