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Health Care by Decade: A Guide to Protecting Your Health in Your 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s

04/24/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Just like your 401(k), your health is a long-term investment that you really can't afford to push to the bottom of your priority list.

Yet knowing what steps to take in order to stay healthy isn't always obvious--thanks to all of the conflicting information out there.

Do you need a mammogram at 40 or 50? Is a nightly glass of wine good for the heart--or overkill? Do those extra pounds you put on during the holidays really matter?

To help clear up the confusion, we asked physicians and health insurance pros to share top to-dos that health-conscious people should consider checking off their list in every decade of life.

Here's to a healthier 2015--and beyond.

3 Health Care Priorities for 20-Somethings
When you're in your 20s, you have a unique opportunity to lay the groundwork for a bright future across the board--for your finances, career and especially your health.

Developing smart habits early on--like exercising regularly and scheduling wellness checkups--can not only help keep you healthy in the short-term but can also serve you well in the future.

1. Sign Up for a Basic Insurance Plan
For some, this to-do is as simple as checking off a box when completing new-hire paperwork. But for contract workers or employees who work for companies offering a menu of plans, it's not as straightforward.

Luckily, because 20-somethings are more likely to be healthy--they have fewer incidences of heart disease, a more functional digestive system and denser bones, for starters--there are many basic insurance plans that can suffice.

But if those premiums feel out of reach, Noah Lang, cofounder and C.E.O. of Stride Health, a health insurance recommendation engine, says 20-somethings can also look into whether a catastrophic or high-deductible plan would meet their needs.

"These plans have low monthly premiums, so you can stay healthy at a low cost but avoid bankruptcy in the event of a medical catastrophe," he says. "And they include free preventive care, which is the main reason young adults visit the doctor."

2. Pick a Doctor and Schedule a Physical
It may seem obvious, but establishing a strong relationship with a primary care provider (PCP) is another key step to prioritize in your 20s.

"It's important to be plugged in to a provider you trust, so you know who to call when you need help or have questions," says Robert Wergin, M.D., a family physician in Milford, Neb., and president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

At your first appointment, the doctor will give you a basic health assessment--recording stats like your height, weight and blood pressure--and help you identify issues that may give you trouble down the road, such as warning signs of diabetes or high blood pressure.

A PCP can also help you keep tabs on the immunizations that are essential for preventing disease. In particular, Donald D. Hensrud, M.D., chairman of the Mayo Clinic's division of preventive, occupational and aerospace medicine, recommends the H.P.V. vaccine for people 26 and younger, plus a tetanus booster every 10 years.

3. Establish an Exercise Program
"When people are young, they underestimate how their lifestyle can affect their health," Hensrud says. "But physical activity improves cognitive function and reduces risk for heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes."

Hensrud recommends logging 150 minutes of cardio each week, plus two or three days of strength-training activities. And feel free to do whatever sounds fun to you--be it joining a run club, attending a dance class, or walking in the park with a friend.

"Any activity is good activity," Hensrud says. "[Decide what you like, and] put it in pen--not pencil--on your calendar, and make it part of your schedule and lifestyle."

3 Health Care Priorities for 30-Somethings
As you transition into your 30s, you may not notice a difference in your physical health, but priority shifts--like wanting to start a family--can affect your health care game plan.

It's also important to maintain the habits you developed in your 20s, since they can continue to help minimize risks for diseases--and prepare you to handle the demands of family planning and parenthood.

1. Upgrade Your Insurance
If you bought a catastrophic plan off the health insurance marketplace in your 20s, it may be time to trade it in. Once you hit 30, people who don't qualify for a hardship exemption are ineligible for such coverage.

But regardless of what kind of plan you may have, if you're 30-something, you should be reevaluating your current--and future--health care priorities to determine whether more comprehensive coverage would be beneficial. If you find that your needs are indeed changing, Lang says, it may pay off to upgrade your insurance sooner rather than later.

"Choosing a plan with higher premiums but expansive benefits--like the ability to schedule several primary care or specialist visits each year for a lower co-pay--can save you money in the long run," he says.

It may be tempting to simply add yourself to your spouse's policy, but Lang advises doing so carefully.

"It can be a good idea to purchase separate plans, especially if different needs and preferences are involved," he adds. "If one person is managing an illness, for example, he may need a 'richer' plan--one with more benefits and a larger network--while the other chooses a more basic option."

2. Address Unhealthy Risk Factors
"As we age we tend to gain a little bit of weight, and blood glucose starts to go up," Hensrud says. "If unchecked, this can lead to diabetes or other health problems."

That's why now can be the ideal time to revisit that risk-factor conversation, and get on the same page with your doctor about how likely you are to develop such conditions as obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure, based on your lifestyle and habits. If needed, you should come up with a schedule for regular screenings.

And don't forget to keep up your exercise regimen. Not only can physical activity reduce your risk of certain conditions, but it can work to help reverse any symptoms that may have already manifested.

3. Talk to Your Doctor About Family Planning
If you're thinking about starting a family in your 30s, you may find it helpful to discuss your fertility health with your doctor, since these levels generally peak for women in their 20s.

"Preconception counseling can be beneficial," Wergin says. "A detailed family history and exam may help alleviate any concerns and address any problems."

Your initial evaluation may involve a sperm analysis, lab work to gauge hormone levels, and tests to determine the quality and quantity of eggs in a woman's ovaries.

3 Health Care Priorities for 40-Somethings
In many ways, hitting the big 4-0 doesn't require a major shift in your health care strategy, especially when it comes to regular doctor's visits and lifestyle habits.

But, in other areas, 40-somethings need to up their game--a lot. This is when proactive people should be scheduling important screenings, especially ones that can detect early-stage cancers.

1. Lower Your Health Care Expenses
If your health needs start to increase beyond routine checkups--say, you started wearing glasses or taking new prescriptions--chances are your medical bills are increasing too.

Seeking out savings tools--like a health savings account (HSA) or a flexible savings account (FSA), which allow you to set aside a portion of your pre-tax income for qualified health care expenses--can help lessen the financial pressure.

Lang encourages those with high-deductible insurance plans to go the HSA route. "They're a tax-exempt, triple-threat financial vehicle," he says. "You can put money aside tax-free, invest it tax-free, and spend it on care tax-free."

2. Get Screened for Diabetes
If this to-do wasn't already on your radar, make sure it is in your 40s.

While the American Diabetes Association recommends getting screened every three years, starting at 45, Hensrud says people with certain risk factors--including a BMI over 25 and high blood pressure--should talk to their PCPs about scheduling tests more regularly as soon as possible.

Early detection of diabetes can help shield you against a litany of serious related issues, such as an increased likelihood of heart attacks, strokes and neuropathy.

3. Schedule Annual Cancer Screenings
Hensrud says the year you turn 40 is when you should start getting yearly mammograms. "While controversial, the Mayo Clinic and some other organizations believe it's important to start at 40 because the risk of breast cancer starts to increase in this age group," he says.

According to the American Cancer Society, the earlier you're able to detect and treat breast cancer, the more likely you are to survive it--as it is less likely to spread.

The same is true for prostate cancer in men. While these screenings aren't routinely recommended by the National Institutes of Health for men who lack symptoms, there are notable exceptions.

"If a man is at greater risk--for instance, there's a history of a man's father and grandfather developing prostate cancer in their 50s--then it would be reasonable to screen in his 40s," Hensrud says.

3 Health Care Priorities for 50-Somethings
One of the keys to maintaining good health in your 50s is to be proactive. This means keeping even closer tabs on your vitals--like your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol--and seeking guidance from trusted physicians who can help you address issues that crop up.

1. Seek Out Smart Specialists
The likelihood of needing a specialist--such as a cardiologist, endocrinologist or radiologist--increases in this decade, Lang says. In fact, a CDC report found that approximately 50% of people between 45-64 visited specialists in 2010--compared to 37% of those in the 18-44 age bracket.

That's why finding in-network specialists--through friend and doctor recommendations, your insurance company's search engine, or online ratings--can be a key to-do in this decade.

Once you've identified a physician, you can discuss strategies to treat your current health issue--as well as address any lifestyle changes that might be necessary.

2. Get a Colonoscopy
Just as you prioritized prostate cancer screenings and mammograms in your 40s, getting screened for colon cancer should be a priority in your 50s.

While it's possible to get diagnosed earlier, approximately 90% of colorectal cancer cases are found in those 50+.

If this form of cancer runs in your family, you may have already discussed this test with your doctor. But if not, go ahead and schedule it at 50--and every 10 years thereafter.

"The vast majority of the almost 50,000 deaths from colorectal cancer in the U.S. each year are potentially preventable," Hensrud says. "Colon polyps can grow and turn into cancer over time. But if a polyp is seen during a colonoscopy, it is removed--and the polyp will never get a chance to turn into cancer."

3. Safeguard Your Heart
Each year more than one million Americans suffer heart attacks--and, unfortunately, nearly half of them are fatal. Men over 45 and post-menopausal women are particularly susceptible, so cardiovascular health is more important than ever now.

In addition to memorizing classic heart attack signs--like chest discomfort and jaw pain--Wergin says it's crucial to understand and combat the risks.

"In addition to age, risk is increased by tobacco use, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and high cholesterol," Wergin says. "While we can't change our age, we can adopt behaviors that will promote heart health, such as not smoking, getting regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight."

And, really, that's proactive health care at any age in a nutshell: Know what's recommended to stay healthy--and maintain smart habits that can boost your chances of maintaining that status for a lifetime.

This post originally appeared on LearnVest.

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