Many people view their 50th birthday as a chance to reflect on their life and look forward to their future. This might include a renewed commitment to healthy living and taking care of their body and mind.
But it can be difficult knowing where to start, especially if you don’t already have an established healthcare team.
To better understand how people approaching their 50th birthday can take control of their health, Healthline convened a roundtable of medical experts to discuss healthy aging and their advice for being proactive about your health.
Seeing a regular primary care professional is one of the most important first steps in taking control of your health.
“Many people don’t have a primary care doctor until they get older and start feeling some type of illness or pain,” explains Dr. Alana Biggers, an internal medicine physician at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Healthcare professionals who work in primary care help you coordinate many of the preventive care measures that allow you to be proactive about your health, including regular testing and screening that might help slow or stop issues before they occur.
These types of professionals include not only doctors, but also advanced practice providers like nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
Biggers also emphasizes the importance of finding a primary care physician who you’re comfortable with. You should trust them enough to talk about sensitive issues, such as your lifestyle choices and sexual health.
“It’s not a one-visit type of thing; it’s a relationship that you build over time,” she notes.
Dr. Avi Varma, a family medicine physician and HIV specialist in Atlanta, Georgia, adds that it’s normal to feel uncomfortable talking about certain aspects of your health. Your physician should respect your boundaries and help create a judgment-free zone where you feel comfortable discussing your health when you’re ready.
If you don’t already have a primary care physician, now is a great time to establish that partnership.
“Bloodwork is a means of detection of illness early on,” explains Dr. Shilpa Amin, a family practitioner and geriatrician based in Ashburn, Virginia.
Many chronic conditions, such as diabetes, develop over time. You may not have symptoms right away, so waiting until you start feeling unwell can mean more complications down the road.
“Sometimes people don’t even present [to their doctor] until they already have complications,” Varma added. Bloodwork can help with early detection and monitoring so that you can be proactive about prevention and treatment.
Some types of bloodwork that may be done when turning 50 include:
- blood glucose testing
- hemoglobin A1C (HbA1C) testing
- a lipid panel
- a complete blood count
- thyroid function test
- a basic or comprehensive metabolic panel
- hepatitis C virus (HCV) screening
- sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening
Bloodwork is performed on an ongoing basis to monitor for early warning signs of illness. Most tests are done annually or every other year. If your results are abnormal, or if your doctor has reason to be concerned about your risk for disease, they may be repeated every 3 to 6 months.
The timing of follow-up testing depends on many factors, including:
- the results from your first round of bloodwork
- family history
- certain lifestyle considerations or changes
The likelihood of developing most types of cancer increases with age. All cancers have different recommendations for when to begin screening and how often it should be repeated.
Some types of cancer screenings to consider having done at this time include:
- colonoscopy or fecal immunochemical test (FIT)
- breast cancer screening, for all people
- cervical cancer screening
- prostate cancer screening
- skin cancer screening
You should also ask about certain types of cancer screenings that may be recommended based on your personal risk factors.
An anal pap smearTrusted Source, for example, is recommended for people who may be more likely to develop anal cancer, including:
- men who have sex with men
- those who have had cervical, vaginal, or vulvar cancer
- people living with HIV
- those who are immunocompromised
Additionally, people with a history of smoking should be screened annually for lung cancer starting at age 50.
If you smoke, now is also a great time to talk with your doctor about how to lower your risk for lung cancer. Even among people with a history of heavy smoking, quitting can reduce the likelihood of developing lung cancer by 39%Trusted Source over 5 years, according to some research.
Cancer screenings should begin sooner than age 50 in many cases, but this represents a great time to catch up or get back on track if needed. Regular screening supports early detection, which makes cancer more treatable.
For instance, when breast cancer is caught in the early stages before it has spread, 99%Trusted Source of people survive at least 5 years after diagnosis. That figure drops to 29% if the cancer isn’t caught until it has already spread to other parts of the body.
“Earlier detection can save lives,” emphasizes Biggers.
Some people might think of vaccines as something done in childhood, but vaccination offers an opportunity to boost your immune system when it needs it most. There are also certain vaccines that are recommended beginning in adulthood.
“As we age, our immune systems can start to weaken,” explains Varma. This means that your immune system has a harder time fighting off infections and increases the chance that you may get very sick from them.
It also means that the immunity you got from previous vaccinations can start to decrease. This is where booster shots play a role.
Our experts recommended that by age 50, you should consider getting the following:
- flu shot, annually
- COVID-19 vaccine or booster, as recommended
- shingles vaccine series
- pneumococcal vaccine
- tetanus or Tdap vaccine, every 10 years
- meningococcal vaccine, for certain populations, such as people living with HIV
You may also want to discuss the HBV vaccine with your doctor. While this vaccine is now regularly given during childhood, it wasn’t considered a routine vaccine until 1991, meaning most people turning 50 haven’t had theirs yet.
Our experts also emphasized that vaccination isn’t just about protecting your health; it’s also about protecting the health of those around you. Illnesses such as pertussis or the flu can be very serious for young children, like grandchildren, or older adults. Keeping yourself healthy and protected can help keep loved ones around you safe as well.
The number of people with mental health concerns has been increasing in the United States, and people at this age are no exception. This has been especially pronounced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Results from the National Poll on Healthy Aging found that up to two-thirds of adults 50 to 80 years of age had trouble with their mental health during the pandemic, including 1 in 4 with worsening anxiety and 1 in 5 with worsening depression.
Many people reaching midlife are facing new challenges related to their health or everyday living. Even if you don’t recognize it right away, this can affect your mental health.
Screening for mental health concerns in older adults is a relatively new recommendation in the medical field. Biggers says that it may not be on the radar for all doctors, so be sure to bring it up and be honest with your healthcare team about how you’re feeling.
Varma emphasizes that age 50 is not a time to stop thinking about your sexual health. If there’s been a change in your sexual partner history, or if you’re having sex with multiple partners, regular STI screening is important.
This should include testing for:
“I often find that as a society we think that as we get older, we’re not at risk,” says Varma. “That is absolutely not true.”
Taking control of your sexual health also involves talking with your doctor about any sexual symptoms you may be experiencing, including:
- changes in sexual desire
- pain during sex
- changes in menstrual cycle
- erectile dysfunction
These kinds of symptoms may suggest changes to your hormones. In people with a uterus and ovaries, that could include menopause. Menopause can affect many aspects of your well-being, including bone health.
Even if you aren’t experiencing symptoms, talking with your doctor early can help you understand what to expect and what you can do to keep your body healthy as your hormones change with age. This might include additional screenings, such as a bone density scan.
Most insurance plans cover regular screenings and checkups that are recommended by medical guidelines. But if you have concerns about your ability to pay for screening or testing, it’s important to know that you have options.
Federally Qualified Health Centers, for example, provide medical care for people in underserved locations. Payment is based on a sliding scale.
Other resources for accessing affordable healthcare include:
- community health centers
- free clinics
- community health fairs
- clinical trials
Local and state health departments may also provide some preventive services, such as flu or COVID-19 vaccines or HIV testing.
Our expert panel acknowledged that it can be hard to navigate all these resources and find out what’s available to you. Fortunately, you’re not alone.
Many community and academic health centers, as well as Federally Qualified Health Centers, have navigators and social workers to help you identify the resources available to you and understand how to take advantage of these opportunities. Your healthcare team or insurance company should be able to help connect you with people in these roles.
You can also find help identifying and navigating resources from:
- professional associations
- patient advocacy groups
- government organizations, such as the Department of Health and Human Services
- nonprofit groups, such as Planned Parenthood
Reaching a milestone birthday provides an opportunity to start or continue taking steps toward being proactive with your health.
“Midlife is about looking back and looking ahead at where you want to go and how you want to age successfully,” Amin summarizes.
“If you’re approaching 50, are 50, or are a little bit older, it’s not too late,” says Biggers. This is a great time in life to check in and be sure you’re on track with testing, screenings, and vaccinations that are appropriate for your age.
“Advocating for oneself and getting those screenings done is very important,” Varma adds.
A primary care professional can help you navigate preventive care and stay healthy. If you haven’t already, our experts recommend finding a physician who you’re comfortable with who can make recommendations based on your specific needs and lifestyle.
Together, you can ensure you know all the necessary steps to take control of your health in the next chapter of your life.
By Morgan Meissner, PhD on November