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Take advantage of Medicare's new preventive health care.

Diabetes, asthma, heart disease and other chronic health conditions can ruin your plans for an active, fulfilling retirement. Beyond limiting what you can do, such disorders are very costly and may cut deeply into your retirement funds. Preventive care can help on both counts — now it's more affordable than ever. Medicare expanded its roster of free preventive services in 2010, eliminating co-payments and deductibles for many of them. This guide can help you take advantage of preventive services available to you at no charge under traditional Medicare and most Medicare Advantage plans.

Don't Skip Free Wellness Visits

In your first year of enrollment, you're entitled to a free "Welcome to Medicare" exam from your doctor, and you can get annual wellness visits in subsequent years. "These visits are all about doctors getting to know a patient as a person," says Samuel C. Durso, M.D., director of geriatric medicine at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Maryland. "There's a lot more involved than just making a diagnosis and writing prescriptions." Take advantage of the initial exam to talk with your physician about your health, lifestyle, social support system and family medical history, and work with the doctor to develop a plan for the health screenings, immunizations and counseling you may need. The 2010 Affordable Care Act now covers many of those services.

Stay Fit

Numerous studies confirm the health benefits of regular exercise. Just walking a little more each day can help. But if you'd like a more structured experience, many Medicare Advantage plans now cover fitness and yoga classes as a supplemental benefit — so long as your doctor prescribes them. Check with your plan about its rules.

Get Screened

Medicare now covers dozens of free screenings your physician can use to detect potential problems. "Considering their value, far too few people take advantage of them," says Carolyn M. Clancy, M.D., Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health (ADUSH) for Quality, Safety and Value (QSV) for the Department of Veterans Affairs. She cites the following as among the Medicare-covered tests about which you may want to speak with your doctor.

Abdominal aortic aneurysm. An aneurysm, or weak spot in a blood vessel, can burst if it goes undetected, resulting in severe internal bleeding and possible death. Men over age 65 who have been smokers at any point are at greater risk and should be screened, Clancy suggests. Women who have smoked also qualify for free screening.

Blood pressure. High blood pressure, or hypertension, has no symptoms, yet most people over 40 are considered at risk. Lowering your blood pressure can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney failure.

Breast cancer. Women over 40 should be screened for breast cancer every one to two years. Afflicting about one in eight women in the U.S., the disease trails only skin cancer as the most common cancer in women. But early detection greatly increases your chance of survival.

Diabetes. A leading cause of disability and death in the U.S., diabetes increases your risk of heart disease and many other conditions. If a screening test finds you have the disease, your doctor can counsel you on steps — controlling your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, and giving up smoking — that can help you avoid further damage.

High cholesterol. Excessive cholesterol, which may be caused by smoking, obesity and inactivity, raises your risk of heart disease and stroke. Your physician may prescribe lifestyle changes and medication.

Colorectal cancer. Screening methods and frequency vary. Your doctor can help you determine the best options.

Depression. More than 6.5 million of the 35 million Americans 65 or older experience depression. Effective screening and treatment can greatly help.

Regular visits to your doctor, staying fit and getting screened for potential health problems all require a little effort on your part. But new Medicare rules make it easier and cheaper to make those small investments of time and energy, and they could pay off in something everyone wants — a healthy retirement.

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