5. X-ray, CT scan or MRI for lower back pain
80 percent of people will suffer from back pain some time in their lives. It can be both excruciating and debilitating. Naturally, people want to know what's wrong. Here's the catch: The best imaging machines in the world often can't tell them. Many older people with no back pain can have terrible-looking scans. Most back pain goes away in about a month and imaging tests tend to lead to expensive procedures that often don't help recovery. One study found that people who got an MRI during the first month of their back pain were eight times more likely to have surgery than those who didn't have an MRI — but they didn't get relief any faster. If you don't feel better in a month, talk to your doctor about other options such as physical therapy or massage.
6. Yearly Pap tests
The yearly Pap smear is a common part of women's health checklists, but it doesn't need to be. Women at average risk only need them every three years, since cervical cancer generally takes 10 to 20 years to develop. If women have also had negative tests for the human papillomavirus (HPV), which is now known to cause the cancer, they only need a Pap test along with the HPV test every five years. And women older than 65 who have had several normal Pap tests in a row can stop having them altogether. Do note, however, that a yearly visit to an ob-gyn stays on the to-do list.
7. Bone density scan for women before age 65 and men before age 70
For the estimated 10 million people — mainly women —in the United States who have osteoporosis, bone-strengthening medications can lower the chances of breaking a bone. But many experts argue that for those ages 50 to 65 who have osteopenia — mild bone loss — testing and subsequent drug prescriptions may be a waste of time and money. Not only is the risk of fracture often quite low, medications such as Fosamax (alendronate) and Boniva (ibandronate) have been linked to throat or chest pain, difficulty swallowing, heartburn, muscle pain, bone loss in the jaw and thigh-bone fractures. And there's scant evidence that people with osteopenia get much benefit from the drugs.
8. Follow-up ultrasounds for small ovarian cysts
Many women receive repeated ultrasounds to verify that ovarian cysts have not become cancerous, but current research says that these tests aren't necessary. For one thing, premenopausal women have harmless ovarian cysts regularly. For another, about 20 percent of postmenopausal women also develop harmless cysts. "The likelihood of these small simple cysts ever becoming cancer is exceedingly low," says Deborah Levine, chair of the American College of Radiology Commission on Ultrasound and a professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School. In postmenopausal women, only cysts larger than 1 centimeter in diameter need a follow-up ultrasound. For premenopausal women, who typically have benign cysts every month when they ovulate, cysts smaller than 3 centimeters aren't even worth mentioning in the radiologist's report, says Levine.
9. Colonoscopy after age 75
To protect your colon, eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains for fiber. Cut down on fatty foods, red meat and processed meats. Lose weight if you're overweight and exercise. Most people should have screening for colon cancer at 50 and then every five to 10 years after that, if the first test is normal. By age 75 — if you've always had normal colonoscopies — you can stop taking this test altogether. That should be good news, because a colonoscopy can cause serious complications in older people.
10. Yearly physical
There's little evidence that having an annual checkup can keep you healthy. Many tests that doctors regularly perform — to diagnose anemia, liver disease or urinary tract infections, for example — don't make sense unless there's a reason to suspect a problem. "A healthy 52-year-old does not need to see the doctor once a year," says Jeremy Sussman, an internist for the VA system and assistant professor at the University of Michigan. If you have an illness that needs treatment, you should see your physician.