These are the visits you actually need annually.

By Amanda Gardner
March 01, 2019

The cornerstones of staying healthy are the same as they’ve always been: Eat a balanced diet, get enough exercise, prioritize sleep. But what about visits to the doctor? Which checkups do you really need—and should you really be going every year?

There’s been some debate about whether annual physical and gynecological exams are really worth it. Some research suggests these visits might not reduce disease or death in healthy people. But there are plenty of docs who believe they’re worth it regardless.

“A physical exam or evaluation with your primary care doctor allows the opportunity to determine your risk factors and health status to promote health and well-being for years to come,” says Earlexia M. Norwood, MD, service chief for family medicine at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital in Michigan. “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

And what you do know can help you. Here are the annual visits you should put on your calendar this year.

Physical exams

Annual visits to your primary care or family medicine doc are opportunities to make sure you are up to date with screenings (and insurance covers preventive services). Dr. Norwood says there are four reasons why she thinks women should stick to the annual physical schedule:

  1. To make sure you’re doing everything you can to prevent illness based on your personal risk factors.
  2. To find early warning signs of a problem while you can still treat it. “You can find things that may be hidden that you can do something about,” she says.
  3. To have vitals, like blood pressure, checked. This simple test can tell you about your risk for future health problems and possible current problems, including heart disease, stroke, dementia, kidney failure, and diabetes.
  4. To review your family history to see if anything else needs to be looked at.

All annual physical exams should also include checking weight, height, and body mass index. “Obesity in and of itself is a risk factor for heart disease, breast cancer, and early-onset dementia,” Dr. Norwood says. If you have certain risk factors, such as obesity or high blood pressure, your doctor may also want to check your blood sugar levels for diabetes.

Other screening recommendations shift with age. While your doctor won’t actually conduct these screenings, he or she can make sure you get connected with the right provider for:

  • Mammograms. Guidelines conflict: The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that women get annual mammograms from age 45 to 54, then continue every other year. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that all women aged 50 to 75 get a mammogram every two years. Talk to your doctor about the right schedule for you.
  • Colon cancer screening. Similarly, there are different ideas on when to begin colon cancer screening as well. The USPSTF recommends starting at age 50, while the ACS has lowered its recommendation to 45 years old.
  • Bone density screening. This test for osteoporosis risk should start at age 65, according to the USPSTF. Your annual height measurements can provide red flags that you might need a test earlier.

RELATED: 16 Unexpected Cancer Symptoms Every Woman Should Know

Gynecological exams

Like the annual physical, a yearly gynecologist’s checkup may not prolong your life, but there are good reasons to do it anyway. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends an annual well-woman exam (which is covered by most insurance plans) to discuss birth control, cancer and other health screenings, vaccinations, weight control, and more.

Your gynecologist can screen you for sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea and chlamydia and perform Pap tests to check for any changes in your cervix that might lead to cervical cancer. Paps are now recommended starting at age 21. If the test is normal, you don’t need to do another one for three years. After 30, you can continue getting Pap tests every three years or switch to a Pap and an HPV test (or just an HPV test) every five years. (The HPV test is a genetic test that detects the presence of human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical and other cancers.)

Your gynecologist will also do a breast exam for lumps or any other signs of breast cancer, and, like your primary care doc, can refer you to a mammography facility.

RELATED: What Does It Mean to Have an Abnormal Pap Test—and What Should You Do Next?

Dental exams

Experts recommend that you get a dental cleaning and exam once or twice a year. The actual frequency, says the American Dental Association, should be determined by a dentist. If you’re at low risk for periodontal disease, you may be able to get away with just one visit a year. If you have certain risk factors for tooth disease (like smoking or diabetes), you should go more often.

Dental insurance is usually separate from regular health insurance. Depending on what type of plan you have, you may have a co-pay for visits to the dentist.

RELATED: 14 Reasons Your Tooth Hurts

Eye exams

If you have vision problems, you’ll probably need an eye exam every year or every other year; talk to an eye professional about how often you should get checked. Otherwise, if you have no symptoms and no risk factors for eye disease and you’re under 40, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends you get eye exams every five to 10 years. People 40 to 54 should get checked every four years; every three years for people aged 55 and 64; then every one to two years for ages 65 and older. You’ll also need an appointment before you turn 40 if you have a family history of eye disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes.

Like dental insurance, vision insurance is usually sold separately. Depending on your plan, you may have a co-pay.

RELATED: The Medical Tests Every Woman Needs in Her 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s

Specialty appointments

If you’re a generally healthy person, these minimal doctor visits are probably all you need to stay healthy. But half of U.S. adults have one or more chronic conditions, which means many Americans need to see certain specialists more often. For example, if you have diabetes, you should be seeing a diabetes specialist (probably an endocrinologist). If you have heart disease, make sure you’re checking in with your cardiologist.

Many people also need to be seen regularly by a dermatologist. This includes anyone with a family history of skin cancer, as well as people who have a lot of moles or freckles—and remember that people with darker skin are not immune to skin cancer.

And remember, whether you’ve been to the doctor already this year or not, if you notice something different about your health, schedule an appointment.

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