Okay, so getting to the doctor for a checkup probably isn’t high on your list of priorities. But only seeing him when you’re sick is a big mistake.
“The human body is a complex, dynamic organism, and things do go wrong,” says Marc Leavey, M.D., a primary care specialist at Lutherville Personal Physicians in Maryland. And in many cases, there might not be many signs you can notice that trouble may be brewing under the hood.
That’s why it’s so important to get a good look at what’s going on inside your body. And some routine tests and lab work are often the best way to find out what’s going on.
Plus, staying on top of recommended tests and screenings increases the chance that any problems get caught early when the issue at hand is often easier to treat, Dr Leavey says.
Here are eight important ones you may need to get this year. Many of them can be performed by your primary care doctor. And if he can’t, he can refer you to a specialist who can.
Health test: Cholesterol Panel
This test measures the amount of cholesterol—both HDL, or the “good” kind, and LDL, or the “bad kind”—and a type of fat in your blood called triglycerides. All of these factors combine to create your total cholesterol reading.
And it’s a biggie: High cholesterol means you have an unhealthy amount of plaque in your arteries, which can cause blockages and raise your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Experts recommend that all guys get tested initially between ages 17 and 21, says Charles Lerner, M.D., internal medicine specialist with Orlando Health Physician Associates in Florida. So if you’re over 21 and haven’t had one yet, you should make it your business to get one this year.
Your cholesterol is measured with a blood test after you’ve fasted for 9 to 12 hours. If the test shows that your total cholesterol comes back borderline—200 to 239 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)—or high (240 mg/dL), your doc will determine when you need to be retested based on your heart disease risk factors like family history, smoking, or being overweight. (He’ll also recommend treatment options like diet, exercise, or medication.)
And if it comes back normal—199 mg/dL or below—you won’t need another test for five years.
Health test: Blood Pressure Reading
High blood pressure—now defined as 130/80 milligrams of mercury (mm Hg) or higher—has no symptoms, but it can lead to a heart attack or stroke if left untreated. That’s because high blood pressure can cause damage to your arteries, upping the risk for dangerous blockages.
“Screening for this silent killer can save your life,” Dr Leavey says.
That’s why getting yours checked at least every three to five years is so important. The test is super simple: It’s performed in-office, where a healthcare provider wraps an inflatable cuff around your arm to put pressure on your arteries while listening to your pulse. This measures your blood pressure, or the pressure in your arteries as your blood pumps. The test takes less than a minute.
If you measure high two or three times in a row—a single high BP reading could be a fluke—your doctor will recommend treatment options like eating better, exercising more, or taking medication, and retest you within the next six months to see how your numbers are doing.
If your blood pressure reading was normal, you don’t need to be checked again for three to five years.
Health test: Blood Sugar Test
Not every guy under 40 needs to be screened for type 2 diabetes. But if your body mass index is greater than 25 and you have at least one other risk factor (like high cholesterol or a family history of diabetes), you should be screened every three years, Dr Lerner says. Screening for healthy men starts at age 45.
There are a few different tests that can screen for type 2 diabetes. Most of the time, your doctor will recommend an A1C test—a blood test that measures your average blood sugar level over a three-month period by looking at the amount of blood sugar attached to your red blood cells. You’ll have to be tested twice over the course of three months.
Two readings with A1C levels of 6.5 per cent or higher means that you have diabetes, while a reading of 5.7 to 6.4 per cent means you have prediabetes.
If you have certain red blood cell disorders like sickle cell anaemia, an A1C test might not be right for you. In that case, your doctor might opt to measure your blood sugar with a fasting blood sugar test or an oral glucose tolerance test.
If your blood sugar comes back normal, your doctor will determine if and when you need to be retested. (If you still have diabetes risk factors, he might want to re-test you before age 45.)
Health Test: Vision Exam
If it’s been more than two years since your last eye exam, give your optometrist a call. She’ll do a vision check to make sure that you’re seeing clearly and update your glasses or contact prescription as needed. That’s important since squinting and straining can lead to headaches.
That’s not all. She’ll also screen for glaucoma, a disease where too-high pressure in the eye can lead to vision loss, Dr Leavey says. Usually, this involves a puff-air test, where a quick puff of air is blown into your eye to measure the pressure in your eye. It’s a little annoying, but it’s fast and it doesn’t hurt.
If your eyes are healthy, you won’t have to come back for another two years. But your doctor might recommend coming in annually if she determines you’re at risk for glaucoma or if have a family history of diabetes or high blood pressure, which could affect your eyes.
Plus, if you wear contacts, you’ll need to come back every year, since contact lens prescriptions expire after 12 months, says the American Optometric Association.
Health Test: Skin Cancer Exam
Okay, so there’s no official recommendation for how often you should be tested for skin cancer. But skin cancer affects some 1 in 5 Americans, and annual screenings can help your dermatologist spot a sketchy growth early, when it’s easier to treat, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Regular screenings may be especially important if you have skin cancer risk factors, like red hair, have a family history of melanoma, or have suspicious moles, Dr Lerner says. Your doctor can help you figure out if you’re at higher risk.
Screenings typically take less than 10 minutes, and involve a dermatologist doing a visual check for any unusual or suspicious moles or growths from head to toe. If he spots something, he might suggest just keeping an eye on it or recommend a biopsy, depending on how sketchy the growth looks. Free community screenings are regularly offered by the AAD, but appointments are usually required. Find one near you at aad.org.
Health Test: Testicular Cancer Exam
Your risk for most cancers doesn’t really start to rise until your 40s and 50s. But around half of testicular cancers strike in guys ages 20 to 34.
“Testicular exams are as important for young men as breast exams are for women,” Dr Leavey says.
Currently, there aren’t any official guidelines for how often guys should be screened. But the American Cancer Society says that you should get a testicular exam during your routine checkup. (You should also call your doctor right away if you notice a lump or swelling during a self-exam—something you should do once a month.)
Your exam at the doctor’s office will be pretty much like what you do at home: Your doctor will feel your testicles for any lumps, swelling, or tenderness. If he notices something unusual, he’ll recommend a testicular ultrasound for further testing.
Health Test: Depression Screening
It’s the most common mental health condition, affecting some 30 per cent of guys at some point in their lives, according to the American Psychological Association. But “without screening, it’s estimated that only half of the patients with major depression are identified,” Dr Lerner says.
That’s why the U.S. Preventive Services Taskforce recently began recommending that all adults be screened for depression. There aren’t official guidelines for where screenings should take place or how often they should happen. But most experts agree that getting screened by your primary care doctor at your annual checkup is a good place to start, says Dr Lerner.
Usually, your doctor will start with a short questionnaire to assess your mental health. If she suspects that you might be depressed, she’ll refer you to a mental health professional who can officially diagnose and treat you.
Health Test: HIV Test
If you’ve never been tested for human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, now’s the time to do it.
“All adults should be tested at least once,” Dr Leavey says. That applies even if you don’t engage in risky behaviour like unprotected sex with multiple partners or sharing needles.
And if you do engage in behaviour that could up your risk, it’s worth getting tested at least once a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.
You can ask your primary care doctor to test you, or find a free testing site near you at gettested.cdc.gov. The tests typically check your blood for the HIV virus or for antibodies that your immune system produces when it’s exposed to the virus. But some community clinics might also test you by swabbing the inside of your mouth to see if the virus is in your saliva.