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Your Checkup Checklist

This simple list will help ensure that you're making the most out of routine checkups.

A yearly wellness physical is important for every member of your family. And it becomes doubly so as you get into your 40s and beyond. "That's the age things start to happen," says Dr. Anthony Komaroff, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and editor-in-chief of the Harvard Health Letter. "People in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and older have symptoms that could be worrisome and should be looked at." But what, exactly, constitutes a thorough health screening? Depending on your age, here is what your doctor should be doing at a minimum.

Ages 18 to 39

  • Check your height and weight to compare to later years.
  • Check your blood pressure.
  • Re-immunize you for inoculations whose effectiveness lapsed since you were a kid, such as tetanus and pertussis.
  • Check your cholesterol levels once in your 20s.
  • Men: Check your testicles for lumps of other abnormalities.
  • Women: Examine your breasts for lumps.
  • Women: Perform a pelvic exam and Pap smear. Most women should get a Pap smear at least every three years. Ask your doctor about the right screening schedule for you.
  • Ask if there are any personal concerns you'd like to discuss.

Ages 40 to 64

  • Check your height and weight.
  • Women: Examine your breasts for lumps.
  • Women: Perform a pelvic exam and Pap smear. Most women should get a Pap smear at least every three years. Ask your doctor about the right screening schedule for you.
  • Do a blood pressure check.
  • Schedule a mammogram.
  • Check your cholesterol levels. If they're normal, you can have them rechecked in five years.
  • Check your fasting blood sugar levels for signs of diabetes.
  • Suggest a colonoscopy, if you're at high risk or have a family history of colon cancer.
  • Perform a full-body examination for suspicious moles or skin lesions.
  • Check your vaccination history and give any you need, such as tetanus-diphtheria or flu shots.
  • Listen to the heart and lungs, and check the abdomen, thyroid glands, and lymph nodes for any abnormalities.
  • Ask if there are any concerns you'd like to discuss.

Ages 65 and Older

  • All of the above, as well as:
  • Recheck your height and weight. The height recheck shows if you are shrinking, a possible sign of osteoporosis, says Dr. Donald Hensrud, chair of the division of Preventive Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. And added weight, of course, seriously affects health in many ways.
  • Schedule a repeat colonoscopy if you haven't had one in the last 10 years.
  • Mention the pneumococcal vaccination -- it helps protect against pneumonia. And ask about the shingles vaccination. Continue getting yearly flu shots.
  • Perform a bone density scan.

If you think that getting ready for a doctor's visit means grabbing a paperback for the waiting room, you might not be getting the most from your visits. An impressive body of medical research going back at least 30 years indicates that a well-prepared patient is a healthier patient, says Dr. Marie Savard, an internist and author of How to Save Your Own Life. Here's how to get the most from your next visit to the doctor.

  • Time with your doctor is a precious commodity, but you can get more if you ask. Let the receptionist know at the time you make your appointment that you have several issues to discuss and will need the maximum time with the doctor.
  • Bring a handwritten agenda -- a list of your questions and concerns. This prevents what Savard calls the doorknob phenomenon -- the tendency of patients to bring up the most important question or volunteer key information just as the doctor is leaving the room. Include on that list any medications you're currently taking for quick reference.
  • Bring a notebook or pad to write down important information such as your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and any instructions for taking medications. "We forget about 50 percent of what the doctor says," says Savard.
  • It's not entirely necessary, but it's helpful to bring a small snapshot of yourself to go in your chart. "A photo will help your doctor remember who you are and will also be helpful if you make follow-up calls to your doctor," Savard says.
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