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Your Annual Physical Exam: What to Expect as You Age

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You could probably count on having a yearly physical when you were a kid. But if you're like most people, getting a regular checkup probably fell by the wayside after high school. Maybe you had one last appointment with your pediatrician before you graduated college, but now that you're too old for your childhood doctor, it's been years since you last sat on an examination table.

The concept of the annual physical exam is not a new one, but it is still somewhat uncommon for many people. Especially for young, healthy people who haven't seen a physician in years, it's easy to think there's just no reason to see the doctor. So what is the official recommendation? How often should you expect to visit your doctor?

Young, but Not Invincible

It's true that, in most situations, young men and women can get away with less frequent physicals than their older counterparts. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), men aged 18–39 can go as long as two years between wellness exams, while women in that same age range should have two physicals exams in their 20s and another two in their 30s.

These exams typically include a check of your height, weight, and body mass index (BMI), as well as your blood pressure. Your doctor may also choose to screen for other conditions such as diabetes if you have certain health risks.

As We Age

Generally speaking, the frequency of doctor's visits will likely increase with age. For men over 50, the annual physical exam should not be a misnomer — the NIH recommends a yearly checkup. Typically, the exam will include a BMI check and a few questions so that your doctor can screen for risk factors for various conditions. If your doctor sees a need, there may be other diagnostic tests. Officially, your blood pressure should be checked every two years, but there's no harm in testing it yearly. Your doctor will likely check it during each visit.

Women over 50 should have a physical exam every one to two years, with the inclusion of mammograms to screen for breast cancer. Both men and women over 50 will also need to be screened for colorectal cancer.

Case by Case

These guidelines are based on the assumption that you are generally healthy. Your doctor may recommend that you visit more often and follow a different screening schedule depending on your family history, lifestyle, and other risk factors. Talk openly with your doctor about any concerns you might have to see if additional checkups and/or tests are necessary.

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