Which Tests to Take When—for Your Colon, Prostate, Bones, and Breasts

When do you need a colonoscopy? Or a mammogram? Find out with our handy guide.

Sure, you know you should regularly consult with your doctor to track such things as cholesterol, blood pressure, and vision. But there has been a spate of conflicting advice about tests people begin taking in middle age. Medical experts rely on the authoritative recommendations from the American Cancer Society and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Here’s how those organizations weigh in on screenings of the colon, the prostate, bones, and breasts. Discuss these recommendations with your doctor, and check with your insurer to see if the prescribed tests are covered.

COLON Beginning at age 50 for men and women, the ACS recommends a flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years or a colonoscopy every ten years. (You could opt for a virtual colonoscopy every five years, but if the test is positive, get a colonoscopy.) A yearly fecal occult blood test—preferably the multiple stool take-home test—can help detect cancer; get a colonoscopy after a positive result. The USPSTF has nearly the same recommendations, though it found insufficient evidence to recommend virtual colonoscopies.

PROSTATE Both organizations have concluded that the benefits of the traditional test—which measures levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in the blood—fail to outweigh the potential for an inexact result that could lead to unnecessary or harmful treatment. Their best advice: At age 50, men should discuss the pros and cons of testing with their doctor.

BONES The USPSTF recommends that women get a bone density test for osteoporosis at age 65. Younger postmenopausal women with a history of bone fractures or a family history of osteoporosis should discuss taking the test earlier with their doctor.

BREASTS The ACS recommends an annual mammogram beginning at age 40; the USPSTF recommends biennial mammograms for women ages 50 to 74. Women at high risk because of family history or a genetic tendency should talk with their doctor about getting a mammogram earlier or undergoing additional tests, such as an MRI or an ultrasound.

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