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Health checks everyone should have

31 October 2017

Do you know how healthy you are? Learn more about the tests that can tell you.

Health checks
When did you last have a health test?

When did you last have a health test? Finding out if you’re healthy, or running the risk of having a potential health problem go unnoticed, can take just half an hour of your time, and is free though the NHS.

Here are some of the health tests available. All you have to do is make an appointment - it could be life-saving.

Unlimited access to a qualified GP with Saga Health Insurance - you'll have access 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to a GP consultation service. Find out more about our GP phone service.

NHS health check

The NHS provides health checks for people aged 40 to 74. These are available for people who haven’t already been diagnosed with heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease, and haven’t had a stroke.

If you qualify for this health check you should get a letter inviting you to have a free NHS Health Check, from your local authority or your GP, every five years.

NHS health checks are mostly carried out in GP surgeries, local pharmacies, in mobile centres, and even in some leisure centres. If you aren’t sure where you can have an NHS health check, ask at your local GP surgery, or call your local authority to find out more.

It’s well worth taking advantage of this health check, as a recent review by Queen Mary University of London started that up to 8,400 heart attacks and strokes were avoided because people had the NHS health check.

It doesn’t mean that you can only have this health check. As you’ll see below, there are many other health checks available, and all of them can protect your health and your life.

Find out more about the NHS Health Check

Blood pressure check

This common health test is vitally important and can save your life. Blood pressure tests can be taken at any age, and repeated at any time.

High blood pressure can put you at risk of a number of different conditions, such as heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, and peripheral arterial disease (a condition that affects your legs). High blood pressure may also be responsible for some types of dementia.

Visit our blood pressure section for more information

One of the problems with high blood pressure is that you only know that you have it if you have your blood pressure taken.

One of the problems with high blood pressure is that you only know that you have it if you have your blood pressure taken, usually at your GP’s surgery. Normal blood pressure is from 90/60 to 120/80. The top number – 90 for instance - is your systolic measurement – when your heart is pushing your blood through your veins and arteries. The bottom number – 60 - for example, is when your heart is resting between contractions.

Systolic and diastolic blood pressure: what the numbers mean

What the blood pressure test involves

Your doctor or nurse will wrap an inflatable cuff around your upper arm (it doesn’t usually matter which arm), and will often ask you to relax, and sit still. They will activate the digital blood pressure monitor (or the old-fashioned sphygmomanometer, which is hand-operated). You’ll feel some pressure around your upper arm, but this shouldn’t last for long.

Your blood pressure reading will show up on the digital display. You may have your blood pressure taken a couple of times, so your doctor or nurse can be sure that the reading is right.

How to monitor your blood pressure

Your blood pressure can tell your doctor or nurse whether you might be at risk of the conditions mentioned above.

If your blood pressure readings are 140/90 or more, for several weeks, your GP will probably regard this as high blood pressure. They are likely to prescribe blood pressure medication for you, to reduce your blood pressure.

If they are concerned about your blood pressure readings – if they are high, for instance – they may prescribe medication for you to start taking straight away.

A guide to blood pressure medications

Bowel cancer screening

Everyone registered with a GP in England, and aged between 60 and 74 is entitled to have a fecal occult blood (FOB) test every two years. This test can show whether you have traces of blood in your faeces (poo). If you are aged 75 or more, you can call the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 6060, and ask them to send you the test kit.

Bowel cancer symptoms and signs

You shouldn’t have to apply for this you’ll receive the home testing kit in the post. The kit contains full details of how to use it, everything you need to collect very small amounts of your faeces/poo and an envelope in which to return your stool samples.

You should have the results by letter within about two weeks. A normal result is the most likely – this means that the test didn’t find any blood in your sample. Sometimes, if the result isn’t conclusive, you may be sent another kit, to do again. If your test is clear, you’ll be sent another test in two years time.

If the test does find some blood in your sample, it doesn’t mean that you have cancer – the blood could have come from piles, for instance. The next step is that you’ll be sent an invitation to go to a screening centre to discuss your results and possibly be offered other tests. It doesn’t mean that you do have cancer, it’s another step towards finding out what is causing the bleeding.

Breast cancer screening

Keeping a close eye on any changes to your breasts is really important, starting with checking your own breasts regularly. Knowing what is normal for you means that you are more likely to notice if there have been any changes, and make an appointment with your GP.

Breast cancer: 10 things you didn’t know

You can check your own breasts, chest and armpits when you’re undressed, in the shower or in front of a mirror. It’s important to do this regularly, so you know what is normal for you and what isn’t.

7 less obvious breast cancer symptoms

If you find or see a lump or bumpy area in your breasts, or armpit, a change to the shape of your breast, discharge or bleeding from your nipple, a rash, red area, or a change to the position if your nipple, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your GP.

Breast lumps: cyst, cancer or something else?

If you are worried about any changes to your breasts, talk to your GP – it’s best to find out if something is wrong as early as possible, and your GP won’t think that you are wasting their time. They will examine your breasts, and may also check your lymph nodes in your neck and under your arm.

Your GP may suggest coming back for another appointment in a couple of weeks if your symptoms become worse. Alternatively, they may refer you to a breast cancer clinic or specialist.

There are a number of tests that a specialist can use to find out whether you have breast cancer.


If you are aged between 50 and 70, you will be invited to have your breasts screened for cancer, by the NHS Breast Screening Programme every three years.

If you are over 70, you won’t receive automatically an invitation to have a mammogram through the post. However, you can make an appointment through your GP, or can contact the breast screening unit closest to you.

NHS breast cancer screening

This test involves having your breasts x-rayed. You undress down to your waist, and a radiographer will guide you so that both breasts, in turn, are placed between the two metal plates on the x-ray machine. They will take two x-rays of each breast, in turn. It can feel rather uncomfortable, but it doesn’t last long.

Once the x-rays have been taken, radiologists will check them. The clinic will let you know if everything is normal, or if you need to go back to the clinic to have another mammogram.

Breast ultrasound

Your doctor may suggest that you have a breast ultrasound if they need to check whether a lump in your breast is solid, or if it is filled with fluid, in which case it is a cyst.

Cervical cancer Screening

NHS cervical screening is offered to women up to the age of 64. This service is offered to women aged 25 to 49 every three years. Women aged 50 to 64 are offered this test every five years.

Many women will have had this test in the past. It involves having a medical instrument called a speculum inserted into your vagina. This allows your doctor to reach your cervix. Using a very small brush they scrape off a sample of cells from your cervix. These are then sent for analysis.

The sample may show that the cells are normal, or show borderline-to-mild changes. If you have borderline-to-mild changes your cells will then be checked again, for HPV, the human papilloma virus. If the test finds evidence of this virus you will be offered a colposcopy. The results of this test will indicate whether the changes to your cells are moderate or severe.

If you do need treatment you may be able to have it immediately, or may have to return for another appointment. It’s important that you have the treatment and further check-ups, to reduce your risk of developing cervical cancer.

Cholesterol checks

Everyone between the ages of 40 and 75 should have their cholesterol levels checked every five years.

Everyone between the ages of 40 and 75 should have their cholesterol levels checked every five years.

If you already take cholesterol reducing medicine, you should have your cholesterol levels checked every 12 months.

The latest news on statins

Other reasons for having your blood cholesterol tested are:

  • being overweight
  • having a condition that could raise your cholesterol levels, such as high blood pressure
  • having a history of early cardiovascular disease in your family

The same applies if you are the child, brother or sister of someone who has a condition called familial hypercholesterolemia. This means that the condition has been inherited, so anyone who is a first degree relative of someone with this condition should be tested.

Learn more about cholesterol

Having your cholesterol tested regularly is important, because LDL cholesterol (the bad type of cholesterol) can increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases, including a heart attack, atherosclerosis (narrowed arteries), stroke, and mini stroke – your doctor will probably refer to this as a ‘mini stroke’.

Atherosclerosis and high blood pressure

If you have already had any of these health problems your cholesterol should have been checked already. If these tests haven’t been carried out, ask your doctor or practice nurse to do this for you.

If you would like to have this free cholesterol test, all you have to do is make an appointment at your GP practice, explaining why you are making it.

Eyesight checks

Eyesight tests don’t only show whether or not you need glasses – or a new lens prescription – they also show early signs of health problems that you may not be aware of. These can include diabetes, which can affect your whole body, as well as glaucoma and macular degeneration, both of which can cause damage to your eyes and may even result in loss of sight in one or both eyes.

Diabetes can cause retinopathy, which permanently damages your sight. This happens when your blood sugar levels are too high for too long and this can damage the tiny blood vessels in your eyes. Your optician should be able to detect this problem during a sight test.

Glaucoma is the second most common cause of blindness in the world. It can affect anyone, and it needs to be diagnosed as early as possible, monitored, and treated, to help preserve your sight. It is another good reason to have regular eye tests carried out by an optician.

Glaucoma: can you see to drive?

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) causes blurred vision in the centre of your eye(s).

This condition, which takes two forms, Dry AMD and Wet AMD, can sometimes be spotted at a standard eye test. If this happens your optician is likely to refer you to an ophthalmologist, a specialist in eye care. (If you notice central blurred vision, make an appointment with your GP or optician straight away).

Treatment for age-related macular degeneration

At the moment there isn’t a cure for either of these conditions, but treatment and vision aids can help with reading, writing and other activities.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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