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For Your Health

9 key health screenings everyone should consider

Staying healthy can feel like a full-time job. There is always something new to know — or worse yet, to be afraid of. But it doesn’t have to be so complicated and overwhelming.

In fact, simply getting your regular screenings can go a long way in preventing chronic conditions and detecting other serious conditions in their early stages. Because an increasing number of health insurance plans now have to cover many basic screenings, it makes sense from every financial angle to get your regular screenings.

Not only are you already paying for many of them through your monthly health insurance premium, but the cost of treating a cancer or a chronic condition far outweighs any out-of-pocket expense you might have to cover. Here are nine screenings to make sure you keep up with.


What: A procedure that screens for colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States.

Where/who/how: A gastroenterologist typically performs the colonoscopy, and you need to follow a certain diet and prep instructions the day before. You’ll likely be sedated for the procedure, and it may take the day to fully recover and feel back to normal.

How often: If you do not have an increased risk of colon cancer (more than the average risk) your doctor will likely recommend your first colonoscopy at age 50 (the American Cancer Society recommends you start colon cancer screenings at age 45, but there are other ways to screen besides colonoscopy), then have one every 10 years.

Cost: As of 2010, federal law requires insurance companies (and Medicare) to cover colonoscopies beginning at age 50.

Blood pressure screening

What: High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other conditions.

Where/who/how: Blood pressure screenings are part of your yearly visit with your primary care provider. (You can also use blood pressure screening machines located at pharmacies.)

How often: Once every two years, starting at age 20, as long as it stays within the normal range (120/80 or less), according to the American Heart Association. If it’s higher, your doctor may want to check it more often.

Cost: It’s covered by plans, as well as by many other insurance plans.

Cholesterol screening

What: A cholesterol screening measures your total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and triglycerides. A high level of LDL (more than 100 mg/dL) is a risk factor for heart attack and stroke, whereas HDL, often called the “good” cholesterol, can help clear away blocked arteries (40 mg/dL or above is ideal).

Where/who/how: Getting your cholesterol checked only requires a simple blood test (you will most likely have to fast 9-12 hours before the test). It may be part of your yearly well visit, or your doctor may send you to a lab.

How often: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends children get screened once before puberty and once after, and healthy adults get screened every 4-6 years (though your doctor may recommend more often).

Cost: You can purchase an at-home kit for about $20 or visit a walk-in clinic for $50 -$70. Medicare covers cholesterol screenings every five years; it may be covered by private insurance, and must be covered by plans.

Body mass index (BMI)

What: BMI is a measure of your height and weight. People with a BMI of 30 or higher may be at greater risk for heart disease and other chronic conditions.

Where/who/how: If you know your height and have an accurate scale, you can use a calculator, like this one from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. A BMI measurement should also be part of any well visit to your health care provider.

How often: Yearly, as part of your annual physical.

Cost: Free to compute on your own, but it’s recommended that you talk to your primary care doctor about why healthy weight matters. Obesity screenings are required to be covered by plans, and other plans may cover as well.

Skin exam

What: An exam to detect potential skin cancer.

Where/who/how: A dermatologist can check your skin, looking for areas of concern, such as abnormal moles. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) offers tips for examining your own skin.

How often: If you’ve had skin cancer in the past, regular skin checks are very important. The AAD recommends a yearly screening.

Cost: Varies, but the AAD runs the SPOTme® Skin Cancer Screening program, offering free skin cancer screenings around the country.


What: An X-ray that screens for breast cancer.

Where/who/how: A mammogram technologist will perform the mammogram and a radiologist will read.

How often: Different organizations have different recommendations, and it’s easy to become confused (American College of Radiology has distilled them down). You should definitely be getting mammograms by 50–and perhaps by 40—but talk to your doctor first to decide.

Cost: Since 2010, federal law requires Medicare and insurance companies cover the cost of mammograms every 1-2 years, starting at age 40 (organizations like Susan G. Komen also provide access to free mammograms).

Pap smear

What: Scraping skin cells from the cervix to detect changes that could lead to cervical cancer.

Where/who/how: A primary care doctor or a gynecologist can perform a pap smear.

How often: The CDC recommends pap smears start at age 21. If result is normal, you can wait three years to have your next one. After the age of 30, there are a few different options (waiting 3-5 years). Talk to your doctor about which is best for you.

Cost: Federal law mandates that insurance pay for cervical cancer screening every three years, but many women have reported being charged for office visits or other associated expenses.

Prostate exam

What: A digital rectal exam that screens for prostate cancer.

Where/who/how: Your primary care provider may do the exam as part of a routine well visit.

How often: There is some disagreement among professionals about what age to do prostate exams, or if they are necessary. Some advise doing exams at age 50; others say age 45; and still others advise using the PSA blood test to screen.

Cost: Medicare will cover the PSA blood test and a prostate exam once a year for men over 50. (Some states may also have laws that require insurance to cover.)

Depression screening

What: A physical and/or mental health exam, or self assessment, for people who suspect they are depressed, or feel otherwise “off.”

Where/who/how: Your primary care provider may first do a physical exam, and then possibly check your blood work or order a series of tests to rule out other causes for your mood. Your doctor may also ask you questions about how you are feeling. Another option is to take self-assessments through organizations like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

How often: As needed.

Cost: Depression screenings are listed as a preventive service that must be covered by plans (though other tests may not). Other insurance plans may cover as well, especially if they cover wellness screenings.



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