No matter what your age, even if you’re in perfect health, it’s important to see your doctor each year for an annual checkup. You can think of it like preventative maintenance – an opportunity to catch and treat illnesses or conditions early on, which improves the likelihood that treatments will be effective. Here’s a checklist that will help you make the most of your visit.
At your annual checkup, your doctor will likely ask you about your diet. There are four things that can adversely affect your health if you consume too much: salt, alcohol, sugar, and takeout or restaurant meals. Aim to keep your sugar consumption to less than 25 grams per day, limit your salt consumption to less than 1500mg per day, and avoid eating out more than three times per week. As for alcohol, men shouldn’t consume more than four ounces per day, and women should consume a maximum of three drinks per week.
Your doctor will likely perform basic bloodwork at your annual exam to check for deficiencies in certain micronutrients. These micronutrients play important roles in balancing your health and wellbeing, and they can impact everything from your mood to your weight. Of these micronutrients, vitamin B12, folic acid, magnesium, vitamin D, ferritin, and serum iron are considered the most important. It’s vital to track them yearly and remember that your “normal” levels will vary somewhat.
Heart disease is the number one killer in the United States, so having your cholesterol checked at your annual exam can help you minimize your risks. You probably already know that high cholesterol can clog your arteries and put you at high risk for a heart attack or stroke, but it’s also important to remember that low cholesterol can be just as problematic. After all, cholesterol is a building block for neurotransmitters that keep your nervous system healthy and happy. Aim for LDL cholesterol of 100mg/dL or lower, HDL cholesterol of 60mg/dL or higher, and a total cholesterol of 200mg/dL or lower.
Although you normally hear it described as blood sugar, your doctor should always check your blood glucose levels during your annual exam. This assesses your risk for developing diabetes both now and in the future, and it is typically part of your standard bloodwork. There are two ways to check your blood glucose – either a measurement of hemoglobin A1C, which reflects your blood glucose over time, or fasting blood sugar. Your fasting blood sugar should be no higher than 100 and your hemoglobin A1C should be 5.6 or lower.
Chronic high blood pressure puts undue strain on your heart and blood vessels, which can weaken them over time and lead to serious conditions. Although some people experience dizziness and headaches, high blood pressure is referred to as the “silent killer” because most people experience no symptoms. Your doctor will check your blood pressure at your annual exam, and this is expressed with two numbers. The top number is your systolic blood pressure, which should range from 120 to 130, and the bottom number is your diastolic blood pressure, which should be anywhere from 80 to 90.
Thanks to numerous recent studies, doctors are now beginning to routinely test their patients for inflammation, which is one of the root causes of many serious conditions. At your annual exam, your doctor may check your C reactive protein, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and homocysteine levels. If any of these are too high, it indicates inflammation. Not all doctors do this, so be sure to ask yours if he or she can add these tests to your lab work.
Just as men receive prostate examinations from their doctors at their annual checkups, women must also have gender-specific testing. Your doctor can order a mammogram, which is an imaging test designed to look for abnormal tissues in your breasts. You should have a mammogram annually after the age of about 40, or earlier if you have a history of breast cancer in your family.
For pelvic exams and pap (papilloma) screenings women will need to make an appointment with a specialist called a gynecologist. Although most doctors recommend these screenings every three years, annual exams are better for catching cervical cancer early, and most insurance companies will still cover annual screenings for this reason.
Aside from making an appointment for an annual checkup with your doctor and/or gynecologist, there are some other tests you should consider taking each year to protect your health and wellbeing. These include colonoscopies once you reach 50 years old and bone scans to check density for people between the ages of 60 and 65. You should also make appointments with your dermatologist, audiologist, optometrist or ophthalmologist, and dentist each year to protect your skin, hearing, sight and teeth.
Keep in mind that while an annual checkup is very important, you should always call your doctor sooner if you have any concerns about your health. Most illnesses – including things like diabetes and cancer – are more easily treated the earlier they’re caught.