You regularly take your vehicle to the mechanic for preventive maintenance. Don’t you owe your body the same care and attention? Standard medical tests are essential because they help your doctor establish a baseline of what’s normal for you, can detect potential health problems and encourage you to be proactive about your health. “If you catch something early, it’s much easier to treat before it becomes a major problem,” notes Dr. Jonathan Kerr, a family physician in Belleville, Ont. “Otherwise, you’re behind in the race and trying to catch up.” Use this checklist to schedule your health checkups. Most of the tests are performed at your family physician’s office, and your doctor will refer you to the appropriate clinic or hospital for the rest.
These standard medical tests are part of a preventive-care checklist for family physicians. The guidelines refer to healthy adults at average risk for disease. This list does not include eye or dental exams. If you have risk factors, such as a family history of a particular disease, are obese, smoke or have a chronic condition such as diabetes or hypertension, you may need to be tested earlier or more often than indicated here. Discuss your risk level with your health-care provider.
1. Bone mineral density test
What is it? Also known as densitometry or a DEXA scan, a bone density test uses X-rays to measure the amount of calcium and other bone minerals in a segment of bone to determine whether you have osvteoporosis or are at risk for developing it. It’s generally performed in a hospital using specialized scanning equipment.
Who needs it? Men and women age 65 and over How often? Every two to three years if previous results are normal; every one to two years if abnormal
2. Clinical breast exam
What is it? Your doctor or nurse practitioner examines each breast and both underarm areas looking for unusual lumps, changes in skin texture or colour and any discharge from the nipple. It’s performed at your health-care office.
Who needs it? Women age 40 and over How often? Every two years
What is it? While you are under minor sedation, a thin, flexible, lighted scope with a miniature camera is inserted into the rectum to examine the inside of the rectum and the entire length of the colon for signs of cancer or precancerous growths. It is considered the gold standard for colorectal cancer screening, and precancerous growths are often removed at the time of the test. A similar test, known as a flexible sigmoidoscopy, examines the rectum and only about two feet of the colon for polyps and cancers. Both are usually performed in a hospital or clinic by a gastroenterologist.
Who needs it? Men and women age 50 and over, at the discretion of the doctor and patient How often? Frequency recommendations have not been established, but if your initial results are normal, your doctor may recommend having colonoscopy only once every 10 years.
4. Digital rectal exam
What is it? With a gloved and lubricated finger inserted into the rectum, your doctor checks the prostate gland for hard, lumpy, abnormal or tender areas that could indicate the presence of cancer.
Who needs it? Men age 45 and over How often? Annually
5. Fasting blood glucose
What is it? A blood test to measure levels of blood sugar after 12 hours of no calorie consumption. Elevated levels could signal type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. It’s done at your doctor’s office or a lab.
Who needs it? Men and women age 40 and over How often? Annually
6. Fasting lipid profile
What is it? A blood test to measure levels of cholesterol in the blood, which could indicate heart disease. It’s done at your doctor’s office or a lab.
Who needs it? Men age 40 and over and women who are post-menopausal and/or age 50 and over How often? Every one to three years
7. Fecal occult blood test (FOBT)
What is it? A test that determines whether blood is present in the stool, which can be an indicator of colorectal cancer or precancerous polyps. You use a kit at home, taking samples from three consecutive bowel movements and applying them to a test card, which is delivered to a lab. It is non-invasive but less accurate than a colonoscopy and is considered the minimum standard of colorectal cancer surveillance.
Who needs it? Men and women age 50 and over How often? Every one to two years, unless you’ve had a recent colonoscopy
What is it? Low-dose X-rays take pictures of the breast’s interior at different angles to check for signs of abnormalities that could signal cancer. Before the X-ray, a technician compresses the breast between two plastic plates for better imaging. It’s performed in a hospital or clinic.
Who needs it? Women ages 50 to 69. (Women 40 to 49 and over 70 should talk to their doctors about appropriate screening.) How often? Every one to two years
9. Pap smear
What is it? At your health-care office, your doctor or nurse practitioner uses a small wood spatula as well as a plastic wand to scrape cells from the cervix (the narrow, neck-like lower part of the uterus). The cells are then examined in a lab to check for cancer or precancerous growths.
Who needs it? Women, within three years of becoming sexually active (or by age 18) until age 69. You should still get a Pap test even if you are not currently sexually active. How often? Every one to three years (after two normal results, every three years)
10. Eye test
Healthy adults who do not notice anything wrong with their eyes should see an eye doctor according to this schedule: Ages 19 to 40 at least every 10 years Ages 41 to 55 at least every five years You need more frequent eye exams if you are of African or Hispanic descent or take certain medications or have diabetes, high intraocular pressure, a family history of eye problems (such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration or retinal detachment), a previous eye injury or very poor eyesight.