Lavern R. Davidhizar, DO.
Calling all Alaskans: Are you putting off getting a physical? If so, here are five good reasons to make your next doctor’s appointment (and the next one. . . and the one after that).
1) Regular Physicals Establish a Baseline—and a Personal Connection with Your Doctor
Recently, physicians and health researchers have been debating the value of getting an annual physical. Some experts cite figures saying a yearly checkup doesn’t have a direct impact on mortality rates. In some cases, going to the doctor too frequently may even result in getting expensive lab tests and imaging that you may not need (which may cause you unnecessary stress and anxiety).
Recommendations about how often to get a physical have shifted to reflect these realities. Now, for example, a healthy adult between the ages of 30 and 50 can probably get by seeing a physician for a checkup every other year instead of annually.
Nevertheless, many family doctors advise their patients to continue with yearly physical exams—in part, because these checkups allow your doctor to get to know you as an individual: your health history, your family health history, the state of your health when you’re not having a crisis, and your lifestyle.
Seeing a doctor regularly also allows your physician to have a clear understanding of your baseline vitals like cholesterol levels, blood pressure, weight, bone density, and even psychological health. Keeping on top of these numbers—and your particular risk factors, like obesity, smoking, activity level, and alcohol use—can help your doctor to detect any unusual changes that may indicate the need for further testing or medication.
Regular check-ups also give doctors a chance to make notes not just about your vital statistics, but also your lifestyle, your general appearance, and your mental health or mood.
In Alaska, given the higher-than-average death rates from heart disease, stroke, and cancer, it’s wise to see a physician on a regular schedule, even if you don’t go every year.
2) Preventative Care
A major component of any physical in Alaska is preventative care: routine procedures that look for early signs or risk of disease. If you have Medicare Part B, this would be called a Wellness Exam.
Preventive care involves two major components: screenings and giving patients information about how to reduce disease risk and manage existing health conditions so they don’t become more serious. In some cases, your physician may examine you, look at your family history and health history, and decide that you need a referral to a specialist for a more advanced screening.
Preventative care and annual wellness exams can check for signs of the following diseases or disease contributors:
These screenings allow your doctor the opportunity to spot a developing condition before it becomes serious. Certain issues can be reversed or improved with lifestyle changes. Others, such as infectious diseases like the flu, may be avoided with vaccinations. Some, like high cholesterol that does not respond to diet, may require supplements or medication. Either way, you won’t know unless you visit your doctor.
3) Vaccinations and Immunizations
If you have a school-age child or teenager, regular physicals are necessary for many reasons, including getting cleared to play sports.
According to the Center for Disease Control, measles and whooping cough outbreaks have been increasing over the last several years. Diseases we’ve previously eliminated in the United States have come back, in part due to a vocal minority of parents preferring not to immunize their children.
Unfortunately, the risk of school-age kids catching an infectious disease is very real, even here in Alaska. Getting on the proper schedule for vaccinations greatly reduces the risk that your child will come down with an otherwise totally preventable illness like the measles, mumps, or even polio.
Childhood immunizations and booster shots protect children in Alaska against:
Adults can also receive immunizations throughout their lives to prevent tetanus, the flu, shingles, and diseases that might be contracted when traveling to other countries (such as cholera or typhoid).
4) Cancer Screenings
In decades past, cancer seemed to sneak up on people, only announcing itself when it was too late to get meaningful treatment. For many cancers, that doesn’t need to be the case anymore.
Many types of cancer have a good prognosis if you find them early. Treatments are better than they ever have been, as is awareness.
Regardless, Alaskans have a higher death rate than the national average for prostate cancer, breast cancer, and lung cancer. Alaskans also have a higher-than-average mortality rate for all cancers.
The State of Alaska’s Healthy Alaskans 2020 program is on track to reduce cancer rates by encouraging early detection. The number one goal of the initiative is to reduce cancer deaths, and the top strategy for that is to increase the number of Alaskans who undergo breast, cervical, and colorectal cancer screening.
How can you start making sure you’re healthy? Make an appointment for a physical today.
5) Heart health screenings
For Alaskans, heart disease is the leading cause of death, and a number of our counties have the highest rates of stroke death (according to the Centers for Disease Control).
Heart disease and stroke may feel like abstract concerns that are far off into the future, but for Alaskans, they are very real mortality risks that could be affecting your health already without your even noticing it. Not every heart condition carries obvious symptoms and warning signs. You may be a little more tired and winded than usual, but it’s just as possible you won’t notice anything at all.
Regardless, heart disease and high blood pressure could be affecting your heart and cardiovascular already. You may have:
According to the CDC, about 47% of all sudden cardiac deaths happen outside a hospital. If you don’t see a doctor and find out you have the risk factors for a heart attack or cardiac event, you can’t be prepared for this possibility.
Regular screenings by a doctor can catch the warning signs of cardiovascular disease early, giving you a chance to get control of the condition before it becomes potentially life-threatening.
Seeing a doctor can also help you to understand your risk factors and work to improve your health and lifestyle so you can mitigate them.
Risk factors for heart disease and stroke include:
Fortunately, being at risk for heart disease and stroke doesn’t have to be a death sentence. Changing your diet, quitting smoking, curbing alcohol use, exercising, getting enough sleep, and taking medications can all help to reduce your risk and keep your cardiovascular system healthy.
Getting screened and talking about your results with a physician can help you understand your risk factors and make a plan to promote better heart health.