A Guide To Health Screenings By Age

Last week I turned 43. It’s not a milestone year and I’m not particularly high maintenance about my birthday, which proved a good thing given that I ended up dealing with kiddo vomit the morning of my birthday (#momlife). But one thing I’ve definitely been more tuned into since turning 40 is screenings and preventative, positive health actions, particularly as I’ve witnessed what happens both when a medical condition is caught early and late. I credit my smart friend and work partner Asha Dornfest for shifting my perspective years ago -- to view health appointments as self-care. Screenings obviously are not as relaxing as a pedicure, but they’re important!

Subsequently, I’m thrilled to share the second installment of an editorial series I’m working on with Tufts Medical Center (be sure to also check out the first in the series: 7 steps to better sleep -- yay, sleep!). Today, Julie Tishler, MD, director of Quality in the Division of Internal Medicine and Adult Primary Care at Tufts Medical Center, shares about what tests you should be getting and when they should start. Dr. Tishler also advises that your doctor may want to modify these based on your unique risk factors.

If You’re In Your 20s and 30s

In your 20s and 30s, life is busy – you’re likely immersed in growing your career, starting a family, and raising your kids – which often means healthcare is neglected and physical activity sometimes goes out the window. Resist the temptation to put your health last, because these decades are a great time to establish positive long-term habits, such as good nutrition and regular exercise, and avoid bad habits such as smoking, excessive alcohol use, and texting while driving.

While some experts have questioned the need for annual physicals, Dr. Tishler believes it’s smart to schedule a visit to your primary care doctor every year. There’s a value in these appointments that goes beyond the screenings – it’s an opportunity to talk with your doctor and have a conversation with an expert about your unique health risks and lifestyle choices. In addition, you can talk to your doctor about any changes in your mood or symptoms of depression you might be experiencing. Here are the screenings to expect:

  • Your doctor should check your blood pressure, monitor your weight, and possibly do a cholesterol test, based on your risk of heart disease.
  • Women should get a pap test once every three years to screen for cervical cancer.
  • Testing for STIs (sexually transmitted infections) is extremely important in this age bracket. For example, your doctor may want to pair your pap test with an HPV test to screen for a virus that can cause cervical cancer. If this test is negative, you may need less frequent pap tests. You’ll want to make sure you’re up to date on your immunizations, as well as get a flu shot each year.
  • Now is the time to start the conversation with your doctor about any family history of depression, substance abuse, skin cancer, breast cancer, or hypertension. This will help your doctor keep you healthy, and recommend the correct healthcare in the coming decades of your life.

If You’re In Your 40s

Once your turn 40, the basic rules still apply: blood pressure screenings and cholesterol checks, depression screenings and lifestyle improvements. But your 40s also call for added vigilance when it comes to certain diseases and conditions. For example:

  • If you have certain risk factors for diabetes -- like being overweight or having high blood pressure -- your doctor may want you to start regular blood sugar testing for diabetes.
  • The American Cancer Society recommends annual mammograms to test for breast cancer starting at age 45. If you have a family history or other breast cancer risk factors, your doctor might want to discuss being tested earlier, or more often. “While there may be some debate over the right start time and the right testing intervals, there’s no question that this testing has saved lives,” said Dr. Tishler.  
  • In addition, getting your skin checked regularly by your PCP or a dermatologist is also a good idea.

If You’re In Your 50s

By 50, you should be having regular mammograms and screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes. An important addition, though, is a colon cancer screening. Unfortunately, colorectal cancer is the second highest cause of cancer deaths in the United States, even though it is one of the more preventable cancers. Regular screenings can save your life.

While it may sound like a lot of tests, the small investment of time can have a big, health payoff. “The point of screening is to stay healthy and to feel good. Used appropriately, combined with lifestyle changes, they can increase your chances of staying in good health for as long as possible,” said Tishler.

Tufts Medical Center is a renowned not-for-profit academic medical center in downtown Boston. Floating Hospital for Children is the full-service children’s hospital of Tufts Medical Center. Both are the principal teaching hospitals of Tufts University School of Medicine. Tufts MC and the Floating Hospital offer a full range of services including primary care, OBGYN services in all areas of women’s health and dedicated pediatric and adult emergency rooms.

Disclaimer: The content provided in this post is intended solely for the information of the reader. This information is not medical advice and should not replace a consultation with a medical professional.

Disclosure: This post reflects a compensated editorial partnership with Tufts Medical Center. My passion for this topic, and my thoughts on the importance of preventative screenings, are -- of course -- my own.