The Medical Minute: Take a loved one for a checkup

September 16, 2008

By John Messmer

Do you have a relative or friend who never goes to the doctor? That person might seem very healthy — but, then again, how do you know for certain? Many medical conditions do not cause any signs or symptoms until harm has been done. That's why doctors and other health care providers screen for these problems. Early treatment can avoid the consequences of uncontrolled diseases. 

Everyone should have a periodic checkup. Women in their reproductive years should be evaluated annually with a Pap test. Men in their 20s and 30s should be seen every three or four years, although a blood pressure check annually is a good idea, particularly if there is a family history of high blood pressure. If cholesterol has not been measured, this is a good time to look at it.

By the 40s, a checkup every two years or so is good. Even if cholesterol levels were previously normal, rechecking them every five years is usual. Annual to biannual blood sugar screening is recommended now. Women will continue to have annual Pap tests if they have not had a hysterectomy and biannual mammograms are appropriate.

At age 50, if there is no medical problem that necessitates regular doctor visits, an annual checkup is a good idea. Colonoscopy to screen for colon cancer should be done in the 50s and every 10 years. If colonoscopy that evaluates the entire colon is not done, a sigmoidoscopy to look at the lower half of the colon every five years plus an annual check of the stool for blood is acceptable. Women should get a mammogram annually starting at age 50. Although it can be controversial, many physicians recommend a prostate cancer blood test annually from now until age 75.

By the mid-60s, women should be screened for osteoporosis or thinning of the bones. Women at higher risk may be screened earlier. Women who have had several normal Pap results and are in a stable sexual relationship can stop having Pap tests at age 65, but mammograms should continue annually.

Throughout the years, a person’s physician also will check up on immunizations to maintain adequate defenses against vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. The checkup is a good time to identify and help manage unhealthy habits, such as smoking, overeating and a sedentary lifestyle, and to provide nutrition counseling.

Knowing what ages to screen for specific problems and which immunizations to give can be complicated. From time to time, the United States Preventive Health Services task force updates or changes screening recommendations. Fortunately for the patient, it's the doctor's responsibility to know what screenings to administer during a checkup, so all the patient needs to do is make the appointment.

Beacuse this is Take a Loved One for a Checkup Week, it's is a good time to get someone you love to a doctor for an exam.

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John Messmer is associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine and a staff physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009