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Should You Get an Annual Physical?

October 02, 2013

The annual physical came under fire recently when a medical study suggested it was no longer necessary. The news, combined with recent changes in cancer screening guidelines, left many people confused. How often should you see your doctor for checkups to stay healthy?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, says Heidi Doyle, PA-C, a physician assistant with Duke Primary Care North Hills. “Regular check-ups are important to maintain a relationship with your doctor and to receive individualized counseling based on your family health history and your lifestyle.”

Age and disease risk are the primary factors influencing when to get a physical, says Dr. Doyle.  With this in mind, here’s what you need to know:

  • If you’re under 30 and healthy – don’t smoke, no disease risk factors (including being overweight) and don’t take prescription medications - get a check-up every two to three years. If you’re a woman and sexually active, get a Pap smear to screen for cervical cancer starting at age 21 and discuss how often you should screen with your provider.
  • Age 30-40, healthy individuals should get a physical every other year. Baseline mammograms are now recommended for women once they turn 40, and should be repeated every 1-2 years.
  • Annual physicals start around age 50. That’s also when men and women should undergo colonoscopies to screen for colon cancer. Repeat every 10 years unless there is a family history of colon cancer, colon polyps, or the test results are abnormal.

Different recommendations about check-up frequency apply to individuals who take medication and have chronic disease risk factors. In that case, annual physicals may be recommended since blood tests may be necessary and treatments may need to be changed.

Being overweight also influences how often you get a physical because it increases one’s risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. “For these individuals, the annual physical is an opportunity to reinforce healthy lifestyle choices,” Dr. Doyle says.“The key is for each person to be responsible for their own health,” says Dr. Doyle. A person with diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, or one who is simply more susceptible to those conditions, can make lifestyle changes that are much more impactful than any pill I can prescribe.”

    What to Know for Your Visit

    Everyone can make the most of their physical if they heed this advice, says Dr. Doyle:

    • Arrive on time.
    • Know the names and doses of any medications you are taking, including over the counter supplements.
    • Bring your vaccine record including when you received your last flu shot (annual), tetanus (every 10 years) and pertussis (in the last 10 years).
    • Bring the dates of your last cancer screenings.
    • Be honest. Be honest. Being truthful about your smoking and/or drinking habit gives the doctor the information she needs to provide the appropriate counseling to maximize your health.

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