The checkups you need at every age

At every stage of life, seeing your primary care provider for exams and tests is part of a smart healthcare plan.

Getting a checkup is not what it used to be. Twenty years ago, people had an annual head-to-toe physical exam that included tests and screenings, no matter their age. Now, because of advances in medical technology and patient research and changes in health insurance laws, an annual physical may not be necessary. Instead, a simple “wellness visit” with your primary care provider (PCP) to review your overall health every few years may be all you need. The frequency with which these health maintenance visits might occur is usually stated in your health insurance benefit design.

What people call these checkups can vary, depending on your doctor. 

“I like to use the term ‘regular preventive exam,’” says Karen E. Brown, MD, the New Haven regional medical director for Northeast Medical Group and a PCP in North Haven. This exam can be a wellness visit, a physical, or both. Dr. Brown recommends speaking with your healthcare clinician about the right method of screening for you. 

“The age at which you begin screening depends on several things. This includes family history and your risk factors. You and your primary care clinician will decide which screening method (physical exam or blood test), if any, is best for your situation,” she says. Depending on the practice situation, these routine preventive visits might be performed by a physician, nurse or physician assistant.
 

In your 20s and 30s:

Women and Men:

  • Schedule a visit with your PCP for any recommended screenings: blood pressure, diet and weight, vision and hearing, activity level and any medications taken. The visit should also update your immunizations.
  • The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends routine screening for cholesterol and lipid disorders in younger adults (men aged 20 to 35 years and women aged 20 to 45 years) if they have other risk factors for coronary heart disease. Talk to your PCP to see if this checkup is recommended for you. 
  • Make a yearly appointment with your PCP or a dermatologist (as appropriate) to have your skin examined from head-to-toe.
  • Visit your dentist twice yearly for cleanings or more often if you are at a higher risk of dental disease.

Women only:

  • Schedule a regular visit to the gynecologist or PCP for routine tests such as a pelvic exam, HPV test and Pap test. The frequency of such visits may vary from one to three years based on your individual health history and should be discussed with your gynecologist or PCP.

In your 40s and 50s:

Women and Men:

  • Schedule a visit with your PCP for any recommended screenings: blood pressure, diet and weight, vision and hearing, activity level and any medications taken.
  • Stay up-to-date on all immunizations to reduce your risk of contracting serious illnesses like the flu. 
  • Screenings for colorectal cancer should begin at age 50, or earlier if there is a personal or family history of colorectal polyps or a family history of colorectal cancer. 
  • Get tested for diabetes if you are overweight or obese or if you have a family history of diabetes.

Women only:

  • The USPSTF recommends that women ages 50-74 years schedule a mammogram every other year. The decision to start regular, biennial screening mammography before the age of 50 years should be an individual one. Consult with your PCP to find out what is right for you.

In your 60s and beyond:

Women and Men:

  • Schedule a preventive visit every year once you are 65 to screen for new medical conditions, memory problems, and be sure that you are doing everything possible to stay healthy as you age.
  • Consider regular vision exams as you get older as well as hearing testing if you or others around you feel your hearing is declining.Those with known issues (such as diabetes) may need more frequent testing.

Women only:

  • Women over 65 who have had normal screenings and do not have a high risk for cervical cancer do not need Pap tests. Talk with your doctor about the schedule that is best for you.
  • Women over 65 should be screened for osteoporosis
 

Are you planning your children’s medical visits, too? Babies and toddlers up to 30 months should see their pediatrician on a prescribed monthly schedule. Children should then visit once a year until age 21. In addition to physical exams, the pediatrician will administer vaccinations, check vision and hearing, and conduct developmental and behavioral screenings. The pediatrician will always diagnose and treat routine illnesses and refer you and your child to specialists for any chronic conditions, serious injuries, surgeries or other unforeseen healthcare circumstances.

No matter how old you are, seeing your primary care provider regularly for exams and tests is an important part of maintaining a long, healthy life.

“For both patients and PCPs, having time set aside to review the past year, the coming year, and what the person can do to improve and maintain health going forward, including any necessary tests, is really helpful,” says Dr. Brown.

For more information on screenings and annual guidelines, visit our health library.