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There are lots of simple ways to stay on top of your health right at home. These do-it-yourself health checks are a good place to start.
The Renew You Challenge is the newest health and wellness experience from Renew by UnitedHealthcare® to help inspire you to take charge of your well-being every day. Every weekday in October, we’re sharing new ideas to help build up your body, mind and spirit.
Even if you’re not going into the doctor as much these days, it’s still vital to keep tabs on your health. Fortunately, there are some great ways you can do so from the comfort of your own home, says Victoria Braund, M.D., director of geriatric medicine at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
That’s where these six simple self-checks come in. You won’t be able to diagnose yourself, she says, but you can look for signs that it might be time to check in with your doctor.
Health Check #1: Examine Your Hearing
About one in three adults between the ages of 65 and 74 have hearing loss. Over age 75? That number jumps to one in two, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Despite how common it is, the early signs of hearing loss tend to go largely unnoticed — or ignored. Most adults wait about five years to seek treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And just 30% of those age 70 and older ever get hearing aids.
No surprise, this can have a big impact on your quality of life, says Dr. Braund. The more problems a person has hearing conversations or the TV — let alone hearing sirens or other signs of danger — the more difficult it becomes to live independently and engage socially with friends and family.
Try this: The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association has put together a list of screening questions that you can ask yourself, including:
- Do you have a problem hearing when you’re on the telephone?
- Do you hear better in one ear than the other when you’re on the phone?
- Do you have trouble understanding when two or more people are talking at once?
- Do you ask people to repeat what they said?
- Do many people you talk to seem to mumble or not speak clearly?
- Do others complain that you turn the TV volume up too high?
- Do you have dizziness, pain or ringing in your ears?
- Do people get annoyed because you don’t understand what they say?
Answering “yes” to more than two of the above questions is a sign that you should see your doctor or an audiologist for a formal evaluation.
Health Check #2: Scan Your Skin
Whether you’re one to park your beach chair directly in the sun or can’t relax until you’re in the shade, skin cancer is something every adult should be on the lookout for. That’s because it’s the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States, says the American Cancer Society in a 2019 report. Anyone can develop skin cancer, but by the time men are 80 years old, they’re three times more likely to get it than women are.
Try this: The Skin Cancer Foundation encourages all adults to examine their skin from head to toe in a mirror every month. After a bath or shower is usually the most convenient time. For your back and other hard-to-see areas, it often helps to hold a hand mirror while looking in a wall mirror.
Don’t forget to check these body areas:
- Scalp — use a comb to part your hair in small sections
- Hands — check between your fingers and near your nail bed
- Skin under breasts
- Feet — check between your toes and near your nail bed
As you scan your skin, remember these three words: new, changing or unusual. If you see any skin growth that fits these specs, have it looked at by your doctor or dermatologist. And take a deep breath: If detected early, almost all skin cancers are curable, says the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Health Check #3: Size Up Your Vision
If there’s one thing to remember about your eyesight, it’s this: Losing it is not an inevitable part of aging. Dr. Braund stresses that any vision troubles should be promptly addressed. Don’t brush them off as a rite of passage.
“Vision can change so gradually that you might not know something is wrong until it’s too late,” she says.
With some eye diseases, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and glaucoma, vision loss can be slowed but not reversed or restored, notes the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). That’s why it’s important to jump on any vision changes right away, and to visit an eye doctor every year.
Try this: Cover one eye and look around. If you wear eyeglasses, keep them on. Look at something up close, across the room and outside the window. Try to read a book cover, newspaper or recipe. Turn on the TV and look at the screen. Finally, check objects in your side vision — what are you able to see from the corner of your eye?
You’re scouting for anything unexpected or outside of what’s normal for you, as well as any striking differences from one eye to the other. Now switch sides and put the other eye through the same test.
You can also check your central vision by printing out an Amsler grid (it looks like graph paper with a black dot in the center). AMD is a leading cause of vision loss for Americans age 50 and older, notes the AAO. The hallmark symptoms of AMD are lines that appear wavy or distorted or dark spots in the center of your vision.
Tape the Amsler grid to a wall and sit about 12 to 15 inches away. Cover one eye and look at the center dot on the grid. (Be sure to keep your eyeglasses or readers on, if you wear them.) Mark any area on the grid that appears distorted or missing. Repeat the test with your other eye. If anything is off, schedule an eye exam and take the grid with you to show the eye doctor.
Health Check #4: Assess Your Mobility
“Mobility is the most important thing you can maintain to help you successfully age,” says Dr. Braund. One problem is that modern-day comforts — like living in a building with an elevator or single-story home and driving around in your car — may make it tougher to notice smaller physical limitations.
The muscles that allow your joints to flex may be weak, for instance, Dr. Braund says. In turn, that can make you wobbly and may even increase your risk of falling. And feeling out of breath after doing routine tasks may signal respiratory or cardiovascular problems.
Try this: To gauge any of your possible weak spots, Dr. Braund suggests doing three ordinary activities:
1. Climb a flight of stairs. Speed isn’t an issue here, but you should be able to make it all the way up without needing to stop and catch your breath. And “it’s perfectly fine to use the handrails,” Dr. Braund adds.
2. Stand without using your hands. Try getting up from a kitchen chair and also from your favorite comfy chair without using your hands to drive yourself up.
3. Walk one block. “Use an assistive device, if needed,” Dr. Braund says. Again, speed isn’t the goal. What’s important is that you can make the stroll without getting winded.
“A healthy older person should be able to do all of those things without struggling,” says Dr. Braund.
If any of the above are difficult for you, bring it up with your doctor. Together, you can come up with a mobility plan that’s right for you. They may want to determine whether you have arthritis or another condition that’s limiting your mobility. They may also suggest scheduling a few visits with a physical therapist to help build up your strength and endurance.
Health Check #5: Reach for Your Toes
One sneaky predictor of your overall health is your flexibility. A 2016 University of North Texas study in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that older adults who were the most flexible also had the healthiest arteries.
What’s the connection? It’s literally connective tissue. Muscles and tendons are encased in connective tissue, and so are your arteries. Researchers believe that a decline in flexibility (or: muscle stiffness) could be one indicator of stiff arteries. Healthy arteries, of course, mean blood can flow more freely and easily. Stiff arteries, on the other hand, force the heart to work harder.
Try this: To see how you measure up, take what’s known as the “sit and reach” test: Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. (If getting to the floor is difficult for you, you can also do this test on a couch or bed.) Next, bend forward and reach as far as you can. The closer your fingertips are to your toes without bending your knees, the healthier your arteries may be, suggests the study.
Keep in mind that this test provides only a quick snapshot of how flexible you are. If you didn’t reach as far as you’d like, bring this up with your doctor or health care provider. They can determine if you’re a good candidate for any heart health screenings. In addition, they can help you come up with a plan to both guard against heart disease and boost your flexibility and strength. Regular exercise can help on both fronts.
Strengthen Your Health Knowledge
Whether you want to know more about high blood pressure or find new ways to help keep your blood sugar in check, Renew’s online learning courses give you the tools you need to help take control of your health. UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage members can learn more here. Not a member? Learn more here.
Health Check #6: Take a Peek at Your BM
Did you know that the American Cancer Society (ACS) reports that colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women? The median age of diagnosis is 68 for men and 72 for women, according to a 2017–2019 ACS report.
Colonoscopies are the gold standard for detecting both cancer and harmful polyps in all areas of the colon, notes the ACS. But there’s lots your bowel movements can tell your doctor about the state of your colon health as well. They can also give clues about what’s going on inside your gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
Try this: When you go to the bathroom, check to see if there any red streaks in your stools or on the tissue. Are your stools thin, rock shaped or an odd color? Anything out of the ordinary for you could signal a wide range of potential problems. It could be anything from an infection in your GI tract to constipation, a liver problem, hemorrhoids, colon polyps or cancer, says Dr. Braund.
“It’s easy to dismiss blood as hemorrhoids, which are more common as you age,” says Dr. Braund. “But there should not be blood in anything, even if you’re taking a blood thinner medication.”
Let your doctor know if you notice any of these signs. Dr. Braund says they will want to know about these changes and may ask you to come in for an evaluation.
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