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Every year, millions of Americans visit their doctors for a ritual blood-pressure check, weigh-in, blood tests and overall health chat with their doctors. The goal is to catch problems like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, weight issues and diabetes before they do serious damage. But if you're pretty healthy, you might consider skipping your annual checkup.
Yearly physicals for healthy people aren’t just unnecessary -- they're a waste of money, according to a 2007 Archives of Internal Medicine study. “There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that annual checkups save lives,” says Dana Simpler, M.D., a primary care physician with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Still, they can be life savers for those with certain risk factors. “If you’re overweight and have a family history of heart problems, it’s important to see your doctor every year so he can monitor things like blood pressure and cholesterol, and to help you improve your health,” says Dr. Simpler.
The problem with yearly checkups is they don’t typically include imaging tests (X-ray, CT scan, MRI, ultrasound) to screen for cancer, such as lung or pancreatic cancers which is why it’s so important to be on top of cancer screenings. Physicals also don't provide electrocardiograms to detect heart problems unless you request one or have specific symptoms, like chest pains.
If you’re in good health and don't need to be monitored for something specific, consider getting screened for a particular condition. Here’s a look at the tests experts recommend and how often you should have them. Make sure to save this crib sheet:
Blood pressure: Have your blood pressure checked every two years if it's within the normal range, which is below 120/80 mmHg, according to the American Heart Association. Go in once a year, or more, if you have high blood pressure, heart disease or a history of heart problems.
Cholesterol: Get your cholesterol tested every five years. You'll need to be screened every one to two years if you’re male and over 45; female and over 50; or you have high cholesterol, a history of heart problems or other heart disease risk factors, such as having diabetes or being overweight.
Blood sugar (diabetes): If you have prediabetes, a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or you're overweight, you should have a blood glucose test every one to two years. If you're at a normal risk for the condition, the American Diabetes Associated recommends being screened every three years.
Breast cancer: The American Cancer Society recommends having an annual mammogram starting at age 40. Before that, women should know how their breasts look and feel so they can detect any changes.
Cervical cancer: Go to your gynecologist for a Pap test every three years if you're age 21 to 65 and have had three consecutively normal tests. Go yearly (or more) if you’ve been diagnosed with precancerous cervical lesions or have had cervical cancer.
Colorectal cancer: The following tests are recommended for those age 50 to 75: Fecal occult blood tests (every year); sigmoidoscopy to look at part of the colon and rectum walls (every five years); colonoscopy to look at all of the colon and rectum walls (every 10 years).
Osteoporosis: Bone density tests every two years (or longer) for women age 65 and older, or any woman who’s at high risk for fractures due to family history, past eating disorders or a history of smoking.
Visit the National Cancer Institute’s site for more on cancer screenings