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6 minute read |

Getting Healthy 101: Physicals and Screenings

If you’re a child of the 1980’s, you have children of your own, or you’re an avid collector of old school action figures, you might be familiar with the iconic phrase uttered at the end of each episode of the G.I. Joe cartoon series: “Knowing is half the battle.”

Little did that brave commando know that this adage would take on a life of its own, and for good reason: it’s true at almost every decision-making turn. And when it comes to healthcare, knowing what your risks, concerns, and conditions are is the first step to improving your health for life.

Why Should I Get A Screening? I Feel Fine!

It’s easy to associate medical tests, screenings, or healthcare visits with feeling sick. Often, we visit our local providers or urgent care clinics because something is wrong, whether it’s the sniffles, an injury, or a rash.

But medical tests aren’t just for treating illness and injury. Many of them serve important preventive roles in keeping you healthy. People who make a habit of visiting their healthcare provider regularly and getting their recommended screenings are more likely to receive an early diagnosis of a medical condition. This is especially true for conditions that may not have visible symptoms.

Routine screenings also allow your clinician to compare test results over time, which means a future health problem (like high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes) can be prevented with medication or lifestyle changes before it becomes serious.

What is a Typical Health Screening?

A typical health screening will depend on a few factors, namely your gender, age, and family history. While it may vary from provider to provider, you’re likely to receive the following basic measures at your next physical:

  • Height and weight, to calculate your body mass index (BMI)
  • Blood pressure check
  • Skin check for bumps, rashes, or moles
  • Eye and ear check
  • Lung check, using a stethoscope

Your provider will also likely ask you general questions about your health, like how you’re feeling, how you’re sleeping, what your diet looks like, and whether you’re getting adequate exercise. If you’re completing a health risk assessment for your employer or you have a family history of chronic conditions, you might also have a routine blood draw to measure:

  • Your cholesterol (this includes total cholesterol; HDL, which is good; and LDL, which is bad), which is related to heart and artery health
  • Your blood glucose (or blood sugar), which is used to diagnose diabetes or pre-diabetes
  • Various enzymes and markers that help to measure the health of organs like your kidneys and liver
What a Typical Health Screening Checks

How Often Should I Get a Physical or Screening?

The frequency with which you get a health screening will most likely be covered by your provider, who will recommend a schedule to you based on your risk factors and age. But for adults in good health and with no major health risks or family history, a basic annual screening is recommended. Full dental check-ups are recommended every six months.

What About Gender- and Age-Specific Screenings?

There are certain screenings that are only applicable to one gender, which means your annual physical may look different than an opposite-sex spouse or sibling. Also, your screenings will change as you get older, when certain conditions become less common while others become more common. Here are just a few of the gender- and age-specific screenings your provider might recommend:

Visit Your Healthcare Provider Regularly

Women in Their 20s

  • A Pap test beginning at age 21 to check cervical and colon health, then every 2-3 years if normal
  • Breast self-exams monthly, which should become a lifelong habit
  • Annual screening for STDs until age 25
  • Skin check with a dermatologist, then every 1-3 years if normal

Women in Their 30s

  • Thyroid (TSH) screening at 35, then every 5 years if normal
  • Mammogram at 35 with a family history of breast or ovarian cancer
  • Calcium scoring and blood tests to screen for heart disease, diabetes, liver problems, and anemia, depending on family history

Women in Their 40s

  • Mammogram at 40 if you’re at normal risk for breast cancer, then annually if normal
  • Colonoscopy for African American women, beginning at age 45
  • Screening for coronary heart disease if you have a family history or risk factors

Women in Their 50s

  • Annual screening for coronary heart disease; risk increases at 55, and symptoms can be different in women than in men
  • Bone density test before 60, if you have high risk of osteoporosis
  • Digital rectal exam (DRE) every 3 years
  • Colonoscopy at 50, then every 10 years if normal; or alternative screenings every 5 years
  • Hearing evaluation before 60
  • Eye exam screenings for glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration

Women in Their 60s

  • Bone density test before 65, if not completed previously
  • Pneumonia vaccine by 65
  • Shingles vaccine if you are over 60 and have had chickenpox earlier in life
  • Regular medication review (to prevent possible interactions)
  • Depression and/or cognitive decline screenings, if necessary

Women in Their 70s

  • Pap tests can be stopped at 70, if previous tests have been normal
  • Routine mammograms should be continued, unless otherwise noted by your provider
  • Possible screening for coronary heart disease, abdominal aortic aneurysm, and carotid artery ultrasound screening
  • Cognitive screening for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Men in Their 20s

  • Blood pressure check every 2.5 years, if there are no risk factors or family history
  • Screening for depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders
  • Monthly self-exams for testicular lumps; testicular cancer is more commonly found in younger men, and is very treatable when found in early stages

Men in Their 30s

  • Depending on family history and/or risk factors, Electrocardiogram (EKG) to check for heart disease, and blood tests to screen for diabetes, thyroid disease, liver problems, and anemia
  • Screening for coronary heart disease if you have a strong family history or risk factors
  • Screening for depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders

Men in Their 40s

  • Diabetes screening every 3 years, beginning at 45
  • Screening for coronary heart disease if you have a strong family history or risk factors
  • Annual digital rectal exam (DRE) and prostate test (PSA) for African American men or those with a family history of prostate cancer

Men in Their 50s

  • Annual prostate screenings at 50, if you’ve not already started
  • Screening for coronary heart disease if you have a strong family history or risk factors
  • Colonoscopy or virtual colonoscopy every 10 years, to check for colorectal cancer

Men in Their 60s

  • Possible screening for coronary heart disease, abdominal aortic aneurysm, and carotid artery ultrasound screening
  • Vision and hearing exams
  • Screening for osteoporosis
  • Possible screenings for skin cancer, oral cancer, lung cancer, STDs or alcohol abuse, if your provider recommends them
  • Continued colonoscopy or virtual colonoscopy screenings
  • Cognitive screening for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Men in Their 70s

  • Possible screening for coronary heart disease, abdominal aortic aneurysm, and carotid artery ultrasound screening
  • Screening for osteoporosis
  • Cognitive screening for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

How Do I Get a Screening?

If it’s been a while since your last health screening or physical, don’t worry. It’s easy to get a physical. If you have access to an onsite health center, contact your clinician today and ask them about completing a check-up. Otherwise, you can visit your local provider or an urgent care that offers check-ups.

If you’re unsure of your family’s history of risk factors or disease, it’s helpful to ask an older family member before attending your check-up. Your clinician will most likely ask you about your family history as part of your screening.

And remember that knowing is half the battle. It’s difficult to care for yourself if you don’t know the current state of your health. And the good news is that many conditions or diseases can be treated effectively when they’re caught early. So don’t wait!

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