You’re not alone. Most people wait until they are sick to see a family doctor, so there is usually not much time left in a consultation to talk about preventive healthcare.
So, should you book a check with your GP just to talk about what you can do to stay healthy? And if so, what should you discuss?
It depends on your stage of life.
Doctors won’t examine you for anything
It may surprise you that there is no evidence that a “general health check-up” gives better health outcomes.
Some screening exams in low-risk and otherwise healthy patients have shown no benefit, including some blood tests and imaging tests, such as full-body CT scans or MRIs for cancer screening.
Generic checkups are not only a waste of time and money, but can lead to overdiagnosis, which leads to additional tests, appointments, anxiety, medication, and even surgery. Ironically, this can make you less healthy.
For this reason, doctors do not examine you for everything, but orientate themselves on what you would personally benefit from based on your individual history and which tests prove the benefit that outweighs the harm.
One of the most important considerations from your doctor will be your age.
Young adults (20-30s)
The main evidence-based screening check for young adults is the cervical screening test for women. This is a five-year swab of the cervix that looks for human papillomavirus (HPV) and precancerous cells.
When young women show up for their cervical swab, several other important preventive conversations are often held, including contraception or planning.
Because young men do not need an equivalent screening test, they often miss the opportunity to talk about prevention.
Both men and women in this age group should find a family doctor they are comfortable with when it comes to STIs (sexually transmitted infections), skin cancer, mental health problems, and intimate partner violence.
Even otherwise fit and healthy young adults should consider talking to their GP about what they can do to prevent chronic illness. Health behaviors such as diet, sleep, smoking, and physical activity in young adulthood increase or decrease the risk of developing diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
After all, regular checkups by dentists and opticians can identify problems early on.
40-50 years old
Despite the saying, “life begins at 40”, this is the age at which many of the things that can cause early death are worth investigating.
Current evidence shows benefits in assessing your blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and your risk for heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and skin cancer.
If you are at a higher risk of certain types of cancer (such as breast or colon cancer), you can start your check-up at this age.
It’s also not too late to improve your life expectancy with some lifestyle changes, so it’s important to think about things like losing weight, quitting smoking, and improving your exercise.
As with young adults, women should continue to have a cervical swab every five years.
And everyone should consider getting examined by a dentist and optician.
Mental health can also deteriorate at this age, as the stresses of childcare, aging parents and demanding jobs can escalate. Input from a psychologist can be helpful.
50-65 years old
Patients often comment on the 50th “birthday present” they find in the post: a stool sample collection set for colorectal cancer screening. While it isn’t the peak of your 50s, detecting this cancer early can save lives, with checkups recommended every two years.
Women are also invited to start breast cancer screening mammograms every two years (unless they started as early as 40, depending on individual risk).
The third health problem to start screening for in your 50s is osteoporosis, a condition that makes bones fragile and increases the risk of fractures. Osteoporosis is painless and is therefore often discovered too late. You can check your risk for this at home using an online calculator like this one from the Garvan Institute.
Oral and eye exams remain important in this age group too.
Over 65 years
Several vaccinations are recommended from age 65, including shingles and influenza, as your immunity decreases and your risk of serious illness increases.
Other preventive checks include those for your eyesight, dental health, hearing, and the risk of falling. These are often affiliated healthcare providers who you can examine, monitor, and treat if necessary.
Some of your other regular checkups will stop in your mid-70s, including for colon, cervical, and breast cancers.
First Nations people
The above age-related recommendations apply to people with standard risk factors. First Nations Australians are at higher risk of developing a number of diseases, including diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and certain types of cancer.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island residents may be offered a more thorough investigation with some controls in earlier years, according to another timeline.
Although annual general health checkups are not recommended, speaking with your GP will help determine your specific health risks and screening needs.
Prevention is better than cure. So make sure you have access to evidence-based screening and prevention strategies that are right for you.
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