Navigating the world of medical tests can be confusing and lead to a lot of questions. What age do you need to start getting mammograms? When should you schedule your first colonoscopy? And do you really need a physical every single year?
Since your health depends on getting the proper checkups at the right times, HuffPost talked to some experts to get to the bottom of what health measures you need to take, as well as which tests you need to get and when to get them. Take a look at their answers below ― then call your doc ASAP.
Develop a relationship with a primary care physician
Once you reach your 20s, it is important to find a primary care physician that you trust and start seeing them for an annual physical. At these annual appointments, your doctor will check to make sure you have healthy blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) and cholesterol levels.
“These are the appointments where you can ask questions about which screening tests are needed and how to prevent disease from occurring as you get older,” said Anjali Kohli, an internist at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas.
Learn your family history
Take the time in your 20s to talk to older members of your family about their own medical history and that of their parents and grandparents.
“This information helps provide a road map for you and your doctor of issues that you may need to prepare for ― or work to avoid ― now while you’re younger,” said Garth Graham, a cardiologist and internal medicine physician and president of the Aetna Foundation.
Women should schedule an appointment with a gynecologist
“[Age] 21 is the beginning of a whole new chapter for many women. It’s also at about this age that women ought to begin routine annual pelvic examinations and learning how to do self-breast exams,” said Sherry Ross, an OB-GYN and women’s health expert in Santa Monica, California.
She noted that the importance of birth control and safe sex is a major topic for most 20-somethings and both should be addressed with an OB-GYN. This is also the time to start talking with your doctor about preparations you will want to think about if you plan to start a family at some point in the future, added Nieca Goldberg, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Health.
Men should start performing monthly testicular self-exams
Get checked for STIs
One in two sexually active people will contract a sexually transmitted infection by age 25.
“If STDs go without treatment, they can greatly impact an individual’s reproductive organs and overall health,” said Marra Francis, a practicing OB-GYN and chief medical officer at home health test provider EverlyWell.
“Sexually active women should be screened yearly or between new partners for sexually transmitted infections, including chlamydia and gonorrhea,” Ross added.
Start to have a biennial eye exam
The American Optometric Association recommends people ages 18 to 60 receive a comprehensive eye exam at least every two years. This can reveal more than just vision issues, said AOA President Samuel Pierce.
“By detecting eye and vision problems, or signs of other illnesses and conditions, optometrists can help put patients on the path to good health long before visible symptoms or irreparable damage occur,” he said.
Check your skin
One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70, making it the most common form of cancer in the United States. Early detection is key to treating skin cancer. The younger you start screening, the better, so this is the age when you want to start monthly self-exams.
“If you have a family or personal history of skin cancer, have numerous moles or freckles, or have fair skin with light hair and light eyes and regular sun exposure, you should have an annual skin check with a dermatologist,” said Kristine Arthur, an internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
Keep up with your dentist
Biannual teeth cleanings may or may not have been part of your childhood plan. Regardless, it’s important to keep up with these as an adult. As part of good oral hygiene, the American Dental Association recommends regular teeth cleanings at intervals determined by a dentist.
Test your thyroid function
If you have any unexplained symptoms such as changes in sleep habits, weight or mood, it may be a good idea to have your thyroid checked out.
“An underactive thyroid can lead to weight gain and an overactive thyroid can lead to autoimmune disease,” Graham said. He recommends having these tests done around age 35 and then repeated every five years as long as tests are normal.
Screen for cervical cancer
“In addition to a pap smear every three years, women aged 30 to 65 should also get an HPV test every five years to help prevent cervical cancer,” Graham said.
The American Cancer Society recommends that people with an average risk of colorectal cancer begin regular screenings at age 45. You are considered normal risk with an absence of the following factors: a personal or family history of colorectal cancer, a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn’s disease), a confirmed or suspected hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome (like familial adenomatous polyposis), a personal history of getting radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area to treat a prior cancer.
“People who have a family history of colon cancer may need to move up their testing sooner,” said Glenn H. Englander, a gastroenterologist with GastroGroup, a gastroenterological care center in West Palm Beach, Florida.
Start annual blood pressure screenings
“This is the time when you may notice your blood pressure beginning to rise,” Graham said.
He added that it’s important to remain even more diligent about it in your 40s, as maintaining a healthy blood pressure is an important factor that impacts your life expectancy.
Stay on top of heart disease
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends lipid screening to help assess for heart disease risk starting at age 40. It also recommends repeating the test every five years for people without increased heart disease risk.
“This allows your doctor to estimate your risk and start a prevention program if necessary, [like] lifestyle changes and medications like statins,” said Tzvi Doron, clinical director at the men’s health service Roman.
Check for prostate cancer
According to Brian J. Moran, medical director of the Chicago Prostate Cancer Center, men should have a prostate cancer screening starting at age 50. He noted it’s worth beginning at age 40 if you have a family history of the disease or are African-American, because your risk is higher.
“This consists of a blood test to check for elevated levels of Prostate Specific Antigen, as well as a rectal exam to detect any abnormal nodules on the prostate. Both are key, as it’s very possible to have a normal [blood test], but abnormal rectal exam and vice versa,” Moran said.
Start to screen for diabetes
Adults in their 40s without high risk factors should begin screening for diabetes every three years.
Diabetes risk factors including being overweight or obese, having a family history of the disease, having a history of gestational diabetes or polycystic ovarian syndrome, or being a member of certain racial or ethnic groups,” Doron said.
Start your mammograms
Recent research suggests that women should begin getting an annual mammogram at age 50 and continue to get a test every two years after that. Graham noted that even with regular mammograms, women should continue to perform breast self-exams every month.
This is the decade when most women will experience the symptoms of menopause.
“Myths about menopause are abundant, and routine testing is not needed. However, women should discuss their concerns with their doctor early to get accurate information and be prepared if symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats and weight gain develop,” said Lisa Doggett, a family physician in Austin, Texas.
If those symptoms begin to interfere with your life or are bothersome, it is important to discuss medications or treatment, which could include hormone replacement therapy, with your doctor.
“The decision for hormone replacement is not universal and your doctor will review the risks and benefits of both hormonal and non-hormonal therapies before starting a treatment plan,” Kohli added.
If you are a smoker, get tested for lung cancer
“Low-dose helical CT scans are recommended for people ages 55 to 80 with a smoking history of at least 30 pack years [the equivalent of smoking one pack per day for 30 years] who are current smokers or who have quit smoking within the last 15 years,” said Karen Leiser, an internist at Scarsdale Medical Group in New York.
60s and older
Continue with your regular annual tests and checkups
This includes seeing your primary care physician yearly and keeping up with tests like mammograms, annual teeth cleanings and seeing any other specialists that your primary care physician has recommended, e.g., if you are at risk for heart disease, keep up with your cardiologist appointments. It’s also important to continue to review any medications you are taking with your providers and to have them adjusted as needed.
Check your bone density
According to James Gilbert, a sports medicine specialist with The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, women age 65 or older should schedule a bone density test “to determine baseline and risk factors and identify whether they have osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones and is more likely to lead to fractures.” Consider repeating this test every few years.
Pneumonia vaccinations begin at age 65
Doctors recommend two pneumonia vaccines: the Pneumococcal Conjugate Vaccine (PCV 13) and the Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine (PPSV23).
“It is important to get both, and they are often given a year apart,” Kohli said.
Pneumonia can become more severe and can sometimes require hospitalization or be fatal as you age. “Early vaccination is key in protecting people from a potentially deadly illness,” Kohli added.
Beef up your eye exams
“Once a patient hits their 60s, exams should increase to annually,” Pierce said. An older demographic can become more susceptible to vision disorders such as age-related macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma.
Most importantly, no matter how old you are, you should at the very least be checking in with your regular doctor.
“Regardless of age, adults should see their primary care provider regularly (at least every year or two), to check in on any health concerns, review risk factors for cancer and certain chronic conditions, discuss lifestyle choices like diet and exercise, and identify and address any behavioral concerns like depression or substance abuse,” Doggett said.
This can help with early detection of a variety of ailments, which can be crucial to working through them. And finally, in addition to keeping up with the recommended testing by the decades, Doron suggested keeping up on regularly recommended vaccinations such as tetanus shots and considering optional ones to protect against things like the flu.