I’m approaching a ‘milestone’ birthday; what health checks should I have at my age?

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Haven’t had a health check in a while, or ever?

You’re not alone. Most people wait until they’re sick to see a GP, so there’s not usually much time in a consultation to also talk about preventative health.

So, should you book a check with your GP just to talk about what you can do to stay well? And if so what should you be discussing?

It depends on your life stage.

Doctors won’t check you for everything

It may surprise you there is no evidence that a ‘general health check-up’ will give you better health outcomes.

Some preventive checks in low-risk and otherwise well patients have shown no benefit, including some blood tests and imaging investigations, such as whole body CTs or MRIs for cancer screening.

As well as being a waste of your time and money, there is another concern with generic health screening: it may lead to overdiagnosis, which results in additional tests, appointments, anxiety, drugs and even operations. Ironically, this can leave you less healthy.

This is why doctors don’t ‘check you for everything’, but are guided by what you personally would benefit from, based on your individual history, as well as which tests have evidence for their benefits outweighing any harms.

One of your doctor’s key considerations 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-yearly cervical swab which looks for the human papillomavirus (HPV) and pre-cancerous cells.

When young women present for their cervical smear test, several other important preventative discussions often take place, including pregnancy prevention or planning.

As young men don’t need an equivalent screening test, they often miss out on the chance to talk about prevention.

Both men and women in this age group should find a GP with whom they feel comfortable discussing STI (sexually transmitted infection) checks, skin cancers, mental health struggles and intimate partner violence.

Even otherwise fit and healthy young adults should consider talking with their GP about what they can do to prevent chronic disease down the track. Health behaviours such as diet, sleep, smoking and exercise levels in young adulthood increase or decrease the risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and cancer down the track.

Finally, regular checks from dentists and optometrists can pick up problems early.

40-50 year olds

Despite the adage ‘life begins at 40’, this is the age at which many of the things that can cause an early death are worth screening for.

Current evidence shows benefits in assessing your blood pressure, cholesterol, and risk of heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and skin cancer.

If you have a higher risk for certain cancers (such as breast or colorectal cancer), then screening for these may start around this age too.

It’s also not too late to improve your longevity with some lifestyle changes so discussing things like losing weight, stopping smoking, and improving your exercise are all important.