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Health A-Z

Medical Content Created by the Faculty of the
Harvard Medical School

Prevention

We cannot change our genes, and we cannot stop the passage of time. However, through lifestyle changes, we can reduce our risk for some of the diseases and conditions that become more likely as we age. We can also prevent diseases with screening tests and immunizations.

Screening tests. Screening tests can detect diseases at early, and potentially curative, stages. However, the potential benefits of screening tests and procedures decline as you get older. Indeed, screening tests can sometimes lead to harm. For example, if the test is falsely positive—indicates that a person may have a disease even when he doesn't—additional, more risky testing may be ordered.

Work with your doctor to determine whether you should have a particular screening test. For example, a screening test for a particular disease may not be necessary if your risk of getting that disease is very low in the first place. Or if you know you would not accept treatment for a particular disease, if it was discovered by a screening test, then it might not be worth getting the test in the first place. Or if it would not extend or enhance your life to discover and treat a particular disease, then it would not be worth doing a screening test for the disease. Only your health care provider and you can determine whether screening tests are worthwhile.

Immunizations. In 2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that older adults have the following immunizations:

  • Influenza, every year;

  • Pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine, at least one immunization after age 65;

  • Tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (one shot on one occasion), and then tetanus and diphtheria every 10 years;

  • Varicella (the virus that causes chickenpox and zoster, also called shingles), if a person has never had chickenpox or shingles;

  • Herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine for people ages 60 and over, even if they have had an attack of shingles earlier in life.

These are general recommendations for older adults. For some older adults, additional immunizations may be recommended. For others, such as people with weakened immune systems, some generally recommended immunizations should not be given. To sort this all out, talk with your doctor.

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From Health A-Z, Harvard Health Publications. Copyright 2007 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Written permission is required to reproduce, in any manner, in whole or in part, the material contained herein. To make a reprint request, contact Harvard Health Publications. Used with permission of StayWell.

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