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An Ounce of Prevention

Why Go to the Doctor If You’re Not Sick?

September 26, 2013

That annual checkup doesn’t always seem like the most important appointment in the world to make, or to keep—there’s always next year, after all. But Matt Payne, MD, a family medicine doctor in Raleigh at Duke Primary Care Blue Ridge, has a few reasons why it’s worth making that visit.

“It’s important to build and maintain a relationship with your primary care provider,” Matt Payne, MD says. “He or she is the one who ought to know you best, so that if something goes wrong with your health, the problem can be spotted and addressed quickly.” Payne points out that many of our most serious conditions—diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure—can develop and worsen to dangerous degrees without obvious symptoms. The earlier they’re detected, the easier, cheaper, and safer it is to treat them.

Regular visits to a primary care provider can help keep you on track with the most important factor in maintaining health and preventing disease: your lifestyle. Eating a healthful diet, getting regular exercise, and reducing risk factors such as smoking and stress aren’t the flashiest of health headlines, but they do make the most difference in most people’s lifelong health. “We primary care physicians remind people of what they should be doing,” Payne says, “and we help find solutions if they’re struggling.” In other words, that checkup with your doctor could save you extensive visits with specialists, a pile of medical bills and prescription drugs, and even years of your life.

But is an annual checkup always necessary? Payne says that you and your primary care provider should decide that based on your current health and your family history—but there are some general guidelines for preventive care:

KIDS should visit their pediatrician every year through age 18, no exceptions. Immunizations are essential during this period of life. As children grow into adolescence, the conversation at the doctor’s office should also cover alcohol, drugs, sexual activity, gun safety, and other safety issues—accidents are the number-one cause of childhood health problems and crises.

ADULTS between the ages of 18 and 40 should check in with their primary care provider every two years. After age 40, Payne recommends a yearly visit. Your provider will determine what blood work needs to be done at your visit based on your history and risk factors.

WOMEN between ages 40 and 50 may opt to have a yearly mammogram because of family history, or they may go every two years. After age 50, a yearly mammogram is recommended. Osteoporosis screening should begin at age 60.

MEN at age 40 should have their PSA (prostate-specific antigen) level checked and a digital rectal exam every year. Osteoporosis screening isn’t indicated until a man is at least 65, but men age 65 and older who smoke or are former smokers are advised to have an abdominal ultrasound to check for an aortic aneurysm.

Medical Milestones

You and your primary care provider can work together to determine the health screenings that make sense for you. Among the common recommended health screenings that all adults should have are:

PAP TESTS Women need Pap tests every one to three years, based on risk factors.

HPV VACCINE Though not yet fully covered by all insurance companies, this vaccine is recommended for all young women ages 13 to 26 and men up to age 21.

CHOLESTEROL COUNT Your physician probably will recommend this at least once every five years after age 35.

COLON SCREENING All adults age 50 and older need this every year. Your doctor will recommend the type of screening based on your history.

TETANUS SHOT This shot is needed once every 10 years.

PNEUMONIA VACCINE Adults should have this vaccine once after age 65.

FLU SHOT Get this shot every year. No, really. This means you.

What about the shingles vaccine we’ve seen in TV commercials? The shingles vaccine is approved for all adults older than 50, but you’ll want to check with your insurance company to understand your coverage and know how much it will cost.

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