Do You Really Need an Annual Physical?

Although about one in five U.S. adults gets a physical each year, research increasingly suggests that annual exams don’t improve people’s health or reduce rates of disease or dying from disease. Groups such as the Society of General Internal Medicine have stopped recommending annual physicals for healthy younger adults under 40 who show no symptoms of illness.

Health professionals are saying much of the current physical exams are rushed, impersonal and bureaucratic affairs that are mostly about ordering tests that are not doing patients much good. Doctors may order tests — such as blood or urine tests, or an electrocardiogram (EKG) — that aren’t necessary in otherwise healthy people. That could result in the doctor ordering more tests, which is expensive and can cause patients worry.

Annual physicals should be a review of health to go over concerns and devise a plan for prevention, according to experts. If you are healthy without any chronic conditions, you will want to get a wellness check-in minus the tests that physicians increasingly say aren’t necessary. Check in with your physician for a wellness exam to make sure you’re current on all your needed screening tests and to discuss basic preventative lifestyle strategies such as eating healthy, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep. If you have any chronic conditions, you will want to make sure you stay on top of them. There are specific health conditions such as high blood pressure or type 2 diabetes that you will need to monitor with more frequent visits as you get older.

Even older adults don’t need to worry about annual physicals if they are following the guidelines laid out by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, according to many experts. These guidelines address the right age and frequency for cholesterol checks, blood lipid tests, mammograms and other screening services. Remember, if you have current health issues, you should still get your yearly exam. 

These are screenings you really should get:

Pap smear This test should be done every three years until age 65, or every five years if you do HPV testing along with your Pap smear. The pap smear checks cells in the cervix for abnormalities that could potentially lead to cervical cancer.

Colon cancer screening Everyone over age 45 needs some form of colon cancer screening. This test should be ideally either an annual fecal immunochemical test (FIT) or a colonoscopy, according to guidelines published by the U.S. Multi-Society Task Force on Colorectal Cancer in June 2018.

Mammograms Women should get them annually from ages 45 to 54. After the age of 54, they can switch to getting a mammogram every one or two years, according to the American Cancer Society.

Bone density scan Women should get a baseline bone scan at age 65. Men should get a scan at age 70. Both women and men should consult their doctor about having one earlier if they have risk factors. Those factors are rheumatoid arthritis, cigarette smoking or use of a corticosteroid drug for at least three months.

Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) screening A high rate of false positives have made this test controversial. The American Urological Association recommends it only for men 55 to 69 who have discussed the pros and cons of testing with their doctor. The PSA measures a prostate-specific antigen, which is a protein made by the prostate gland.

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