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How Often Should You Have a…?

A Closer Look at the Health Checks That Are Key to Your Well-being

You know to call the doctor when you have a high temperature or twist an ankle, but when it comes to annual checkups, well, that’s something to deal with when you’re not so busy. Except…those regular visits with your doctor or health care provider take on greater importance as you get older.

“People want to be healthy so they can stay active, but if they haven’t seen their doctor in a while and are putting off recommended health checks, they’re not doing themselves any favors,” says Gary L. LeRoy, MD, a family physician in Dayton, Ohio, and a director of the American Academy of Family Physicians. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than one-third of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 and less than half of those over age 65 are up-to-date on screenings.

“It’s always better to be proactive about your health rather than reactive,” says Dr. LeRoy, who is also an associate professor of family medicine at Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in Dayton. “Use those regular visits with your doctor to your advantage.”

Here are the most important tests you should talk to your doctor about.

For Everyone

  • High blood pressure
    When: Every year after age 40 (or younger if you have a positive family history).
    Why: High blood pressure often has no symptoms, but if left untreated, it can do serious damage to the heart and put you at greater risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
  • Hepatitis C
    Once, if you were born between 1945 and 1965.
    Why: Baby boomers are six times more likely to have hepatitis C, which can lead to liver damage, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. Yet as many as 75 percent of cases go undiagnosed.
  • Cholesterol
    When: Baseline screening in early adulthood; every five years for all men 35 and older and women 45 and up with heart disease risk factors.
    Why: Your total cholesterol is one of several factors that help your doctor determine your risk for heart disease.
  • Depression
    When: Every year for all adults.
    Why: Depression doesn’t just affect your mood and behavior, but it can harm your physical health. The CDC identifies depression as a leading cause of disability in adults. Getting treatment as early as possible can help improve your quality of life.
  • Colorectal cancer
    When: Every 1 to 10 years from ages 50 to 75 (depending on type of test used).
    Why: To spot colorectal cancer early, when it’s more easily treated. There are different types of screening tests, including colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy, and stool tests. Ask your doctor which one is right for you.
  • Weight and BMI (body mass index)
    When: Every year for all ages.
    Why: People who are at an unhealthy weight have a higher risk for diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Doctors also pay close attention to where you carry most of your fat, because abdominal fat ups your risk for diabetes and heart disease.
  • Sexual health
    When: As recommended based on sexual activity and personal health history throughout adulthood.
    Why: Many sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) show no symptoms in women, but if left untreated, they can cause infections such as pelvic inflammatory disease. (Men often experience symptoms and get treated earlier.) HIV infection makes it harder for the body to fight other infections and diseases, but if spotted early there are treatments that can prevent HIV from developing into AIDS.

For Women

  • Bone density
    When: Once at age 65 or older, earlier if you’ve had a fracture; repeat as recommended based on your personal health history.
    Why: The bone-thinning disease osteoporosis often goes unnoticed until a woman fractures a bone.
  • Breast cancer
    When: The American Cancer Society recommends that women ages 45 to 54 get a mammogram yearly. Biannual mammograms are recommended from ages 55 and older, or to continue with annual screenings.
    Why: Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, and the risk of developing it go up with age. The good news is that early detection makes it easier to treat.
  • Cervical cancer
    Pap test every three years — or every five years if coupled with a human papillomavirus (HPV) test — up to age 65.
    Why: Most cervical cancers are caused by HPV. Screening helps spot potentially harmful cells early when treatments are most effective.

For Men

  • Prostate cancer
    Only as recommended by your doctor after evaluating your personal health history and preferences.
    Why: Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men; however, in most men the cancer doesn’t cause any symptoms or grow. Also, treating many prostate cancers often does more harm than good (leading to incontinence or erectile dysfunction, for example). The new thinking is to let men skip the PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test unless you and your doctor feel there’s a value. Another option is a digital rectal exam.


Kim-Thao Nguyen