How Often Should Adults Get a Physical?

It’s a common question and one that many people cringe to think about but according to a recent Kaiser Health Tracking Poll, 92% of Americans believe it’s important to get an annual physical. The problem is that only 62% actually do. Some of this is a result of people being unsure as to how often they should get a physical examination. If you tend to see your doctor only when you’re sick, you may be shortchanging your health. Annual wellness visits can help spot potential problems before they get serious. Plus, it’s important to keep track of key measurements over time.

How often do you need a physical?

Just as everyone has different medical needs, your ideal physical schedule depends on your situation. If you’re generally healthy, you may only need occasional preventive screenings based on your age.

General adult physical schedule:

  • For ages 19-21, once every 2-3 years
  • For ages 22-64, once ever 1-3 years
  • Over 65, once a year

If you smoke or have risk factors for certain conditions, your doctor may suggest you come in more often. And if you’re one of the 144 million Americans living with one or more chronic conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, or depression, work with your physician to create a custom check-up schedule.

Regardless of your circumstances, regular visits help you build a relationship and history with your primary care provider. And routine blood tests establish your unique health baseline. We’re all a little different, and what’s normal for you is not necessarily what’s normal for others. So having your own track record for blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels will help you quickly spot any early signs of trouble.

Only you and your doctor can determine your best checkup and screening schedule. But here are some National Institute of Health guidelines for men and women based on age.

Guidelines for everyone

Even if you’re in good shape, take regular preventive steps to stay that way.

  • Have your blood pressure checked every 2 years.
  • Make sure important vaccinations are up to date:
    • Tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis immunization booster within the last 10 years
    • Chicken pox if you’ve never had a vaccination or the disease
    • Measles-mumps-rubella if you weren’t inoculated as a child
    • Meningitis if you’re under 24 and never had a vaccination.
    • Hepatitis A or B if you’re at high risk
    • Annual flu shot

After age 40:

  • Have cholesterol screenings every 5 years.
  • Screen for colorectal cancer with a fecal occult blood test every year or a colonoscopy every 10 years.

After age 55:

  • If you’re a current smoker or quit fewer than 15 years ago, have regular lung cancer screenings.
  • After 60, get an annual shingles vaccination.
  • After 65, have a pneumococcal vaccination.

Also, check in with your doctor if you’re feeling depressed, have questions about medication, or want advice on how to lose weight or quit smoking. He or she can share clinically proven strategies that will work with your lifestyle and minimize risks.

Guidelines for women

In addition to the screenings everyone needs, women should have an annual pelvic and breast exam.

Women between ages 18 and 29:

  • Ensure you have a complete HPV vaccination.
  • Get a pap smear to test for cervical cancer every 3 years.

Women between ages 30 and 49:

  • Get a pap smear every 5 years.
  • Consult your doctor about whether you should have mammograms.

Women between ages 50 and up:

  • Get annual mammograms until age 75.
  • Have a pap smear every 5 years until 65 or 70.
  • Test for bone density with a DEXA scan after age 50.

After menopause or if you’ve had a hysterectomy, your doctor may recommend a different screening schedule.

Guidelines for men

Until age 50, most men can follow the general health guidelines. This is a great time to take some baseline measurements for comparison later.

Men ages 50 and up:

  • Have a bone density (DEXA) scan. (Although osteoporosis is more commonly associated with women, men can suffer bone loss as well.)
  • Ask your doctor whether you should have prostate cancer screening given your family history.
  • After 65, if you do or have smoked, get an ultrasound to screen for abdominal aortic aneurysms.

Under the Affordable Care Act, most insurance will cover the entire cost of procedures like immunizations, cancer screenings, and blood tests. So if you haven’t had a regular checkup recently, make an appointment now. A little preventive healthcare today can buy you a happier, healthier, and longer future.