Exactly When To Start Getting Different Health Exams, Based On Your Age
While it's common for most people to visit the doctor throughout childhood, going to the doctor at regular intervals remains important as you age.
Many adults don't have a health checkup until a crisis arises. And since chronic illness tends to worsen over time, the longer it goes unnoticed, the worse the outcome tends to be. Not participating in preventive care can significantly affect medical, mental, and financial aspects of your life. It's never too early to start planning for your health as you age!
Knowing where to start might feel overwhelming, but this health screening timeline can help you keep track of what and when to get tested in order to stay healthy.
A health screening timeline.
This health testing timeline, based on national recommendations and my experience as a naturopathic doctor focused on health risk prevention, covers the basic tests advised at every stage of life for the average low-risk healthy person. You can use it to manage your own health and to help inform the care of your children, parents, and other loved ones. Make sure to talk to your doctor about the appropriate frequency depending on your personal risk factors.
Please note: This article mentions tests specific to males and females. In this context, "female" refers to the anatomy present at birth and includes all gender identities where female anatomy is present. "Male" refers to the anatomy present at birth and includes all gender identities where male anatomy is present.
Starting at age 1 (or after the first tooth appears):
To maintain optimal oral health, the American Dental Association recommends a regular dental exam and cleaning twice yearly, or at an interval determined by your dentist to accommodate your current oral health status and health history.
Ages 3 to 5
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends vision screening for all children at least once between the ages of 3 and 5 years. Based on the screening, you can determine how often your child needs to go back for follow-up visits.
Ages 13 to 15
Female gynecological exam
The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists recommends that the first visit to the obstetrician-gynecologist should take place between the ages of 13 and 15, and again when they plan to become sexually active. This first visit generally includes a general physical exam and an external genital exam, not a pelvic exam (unless you are having abnormal bleeding or pain).
Male physical exam
Teenage males should have a full physical around the ages of 13 to 15, and when they plan to become sexually active.
Complete blood workup
I recommend that the average healthy adult get a complete blood workup every six to 12 months starting at around 18 years old. This way you can see what your health looks like at baseline so that it's easier to tell when something is wrong.
Yearly physical exam
Starting at 18 years old, I also recommend getting into the habit of getting a physical exam every year. If possible, try to get this exam from the same doctor every year. This way, they will be able to know if changes happen in your health.
Skin cancer screening
During your annual physical exam, it's important to get a basic skin cancer screening. Get to know your skin and spot skin cancer early with this helpful guide from the American Academy of Dermatologists.
Cervical cancer screening
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women ages 21 to 65 should have a Pap test every three years. The testing interval may be changed to every five years if you have a history of having normal high-risk human papillomavirus (hrHPV) testing.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends a pelvic exam when there is a medical history or symptoms, but they do not recommend it for asymptomatic, non-pregnant women. (If you're having sexual pain, find out how to talk to your doctor about it here.)
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that women start getting mammograms every one to two years when they are 40, while the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends biennial screening starting at age 50. If you have a family history of breast cancer or are at higher risk, you may make the individual decision to get screened sooner—talk to your doctor to determine the right time for you. (Find out how to do breast self exams, here.)
Colon cancer screening
The five most common cancers in the U.S. are lung, colorectal, pancreas, breast, and liver. Colorectal cancer is one of the easiest to catch early, and it is also very treatable when in this stage. In 2018, the American Cancer Society changed its colorectal screening guidelines, and they now recommend screening people at 45 (formerly 50) if they are of average risk. This change was based on an analysis of data that found a rise in colon and rectal cancer in younger people even though overall rates are declining.
Prostate exam (digital rectal exam) and PSA
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force did a review of the current research and concluded that men who are 55 to 69 should make the decision about prostate testing with their doctor, taking into account their individual risk factors. They also state that African American men and those with a positive family history are at increased risk of mortality from prostate cancer. If you have a family history of prostate cancer, you may need to be screened earlier.
Lung cancer screening
This recommendation is currently under review:
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that people ages 55 to 80 who have a 30 pack-year smoking history and currently smoke, or have quit within the past 15 years, should get a CT scan every year.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm test
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends a one-time abdominal aortic aneurysm screening for men ages 65 to 75 who have ever smoked. The current evidence is insufficient for women who have smoked, and it is not recommended for women who do not smoke. It is important to discuss this with your doctor.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for osteoporosis using a DXA (DEXA) in women aged 65-plus and in postmenopausal women younger than 65 who are at increased risk of osteoporosis. The current evidence is insufficient for the screening of men. It is important to discuss this with your doctor.
It may seem like it's not necessary to go to the doctor for screening exams when you are feeling healthy. But regular testing is the best way to know what is happening with your health and catch problems when they are easiest to treat! The temporary inconvenience and discomfort are small prices to pay for peace of mind and proactively managing your health.
Keep in mind: While the recommendations listed above are a general guideline, everyone's health is individual. Each time you go to the doctor and get an exam, ask them when you should schedule your follow-up visit.
Alexis Shields, ND, is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor and an expert in Functional Medicine. She earned her doctorate at the National University of Natural Medicine and currently does virtual health consulting with busy professionals and families worldwide. Dr. Shields uses an in-depth analysis of blood tests to help her clients find the best diet, fitness, and supplements to support their optimal mental and physical performance. She has been featured on podcasts such as Hyperwellbeing and has been a consulting physician for WellnessFX. She currently lives in Lisbon, Portugal.