Your Most Important Medical Exams

08/10/2011 11:36 pm ET | Updated Oct 10, 2011

"I mean it!" you tell yourself. "More water, more veggies, more exercise, more sleep... and less of all the bad habits!"

Congratulations! This is the way to be healthier, be happier and live longer. But if you truly want to be healthier, you also need to schedule an appointment with your doctor for a complete health check.

The Importance of Health Check-Ups

Why are check-ups so important? Because they save time, they save money and they'll possibly save your life. Why? Because they help to prevent disease. Prevention occurs before you have signs and symptoms. Physical exams can identify risk factors and help ward off lifelong chronic illnesses -- admit it, it's hard to have a healthier, happier life with a chronic disease.

Another reason to have a medical exam is for your doctor to pinpoint where you can improve your habits. Your doctor can serve as your coach and help you stay on the path to good health.

What to Expect at a Physical Exam Appointment

How often should you get a physical exam? This depends on factors such as your age, sex and medical history. Your physical exam may involve blood work, or it may just be a conversation between you and your doctor to talk about your risk factors, any symptoms you've been experiencing, family medical history and overall health status.

By age 18, everyone should establish a relationship with a health practitioner. Body mass index (BMI) screening and blood pressure checks are essential for everyone, and you shouldn't go for more than a year or two without one.

Every two years is a good standard for most young, healthy individuals to get a basic physical exam that includes these screenings.

Health Check-Ups for Women

Women simply cannot skip their mammograms. By age 40, every woman needs a mammogram every one to two years; at age 50, the screening should be done annually. Women with a family history of breast cancer need earlier and sometimes more frequent screenings.

Essential check-ups for women between the ages of 18 and 39 should include:

  • Cholesterol screening

  • Blood pressure check
  • BMI check
  • Pelvic exam
  • Pap smear
  • Immunizations
  • Vision and dental check-ups
  • Women between the ages of 40 and 64 may also need:

    • Screening tests for colon and colorectal cancer (usually starting around age 40)

  • Screening test for osteoporosis, called a bone density scan
  • Any woman who is postmenopausal and has experienced a fracture needs a bone density scan to screen for osteoporosis. Women with risk factors for osteoporosis (including smoking, a slim build and insufficient calcium intake) should be screened earlier than age 65.

    Health Check-Ups for Men

    It's important for men to speak with their doctors about prostate checks. Starting at age 40 to 50, most men need a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test and a digital rectal exam to check for prostate cancer. Men at greater risk, including African-American men and any man with a family history of prostate cancer, generally need screenings by the age of 40.

    Check-ups for men between the ages of 18 and 39 should include:

    • Cholesterol and blood pressure check

  • Vision and dental exam
  • Immunizations
  • Men between the ages of 40 and 64 may also need:

    • Screening tests for colon and colorectal cancer (usually starting at age 40)

  • Screening tests for osteoporosis, called a bone density scan
  • When it comes to osteoporosis screening, any man between the ages of 50 and 70 with risk factors for osteoporosis should have a conversation with his doctor about getting a bone density test. Men over 65 still need these check-ups, but sometimes at different intervals, particularly as health conditions and symptoms arise.

    Do Your Homework

    Remember your commitment to adopting healthier habits? Well, in terms of medical check-ups, the most important thing for you to realize is that 90 percent of staying well has nothing to do with doctors or medical offices -- it's mostly about those healthy habits.

    Your doctor is a great resource to help you map out your game plan for good health. So schedule your physical exam today (if you haven't already) and team up to tackle any health problems.

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