Lavern Davidhizar, DO
If you receive Medicare Part B health coverage, you are entitled to have an Annual Wellness Exam, also known as a Preventative Care Exam. Every year, you can visit your doctor for a checkup and an update to your medical file. A number of health services and screenings are also available to help keep you healthy and strong.
Even if you don’t have Medicare, most doctors would advise you to make a regular preventative care exam part of your ongoing health maintenance. No matter what your age, your health can—and will—change over time. The good news is, many illnesses and diseases can be prevented with easy lifestyle adjustments. Still others can be treated or managed effectively if they’re caught early.
Still not convinced? Here are seven good reasons to make an appointment today to schedule your annual physical.
7 Reasons to Have Regular Physicals / Preventative Care Exams
1) Heart health
Heart disease in all its forms remains the biggest health danger to Americans. According to the Center for Disease Control, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among both women and men, killing more than 600,000 Americans each year. Heart disease cuts across racial lines too, affecting all types of people. In Alaska, it’s the second biggest cause of death.
Do you have any of the following risk factors for cardiovascular disease?
If so, you may be more likely to develop a heart problem in the future.
Getting a regular physical can help your doctor establish a baseline for you. Then she or he can track any changes in your blood pressure, blood sugar, or cholesterol levels. Getting screened regularly and advised by a physician can go a long way toward mitigating your risk factors, and may even help to prevent the development of heart disease.
Also, at an annual wellness exam, your doctor has the chance to spot a developing condition before it becomes serious. Certain issues can be reversed with lifestyle changes like improving your diet, quitting smoking, or starting an exercise plan. Others, 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.
Nobody likes to think about cancer, but ignoring the risk won’t make it go away. Cancer is the #2 cause of death in this country after heart disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2016 over 1.6 million new cases were likely to be diagnosed nationwide by the year’s end.
Your likelihood of developing certain cancers increases with a family history. Lifestyle and environmental issues can also play a role, as can your access to cancer screenings. Research has shown that people who lack access to good health care (for example, those in very rural or poor areas) may have a disproportionate risk.
The bottom line: getting screened for cancer early and often can improve your chances of surviving it. If you can get to a doctor for an annual exam, take advantage of the opportunity to talk honestly about your medical history (Do your family members have heart disease? Do you have sleep apnea?), your environmental risk factors (for example, have you worked around secondhand smoke or chemicals?), and your lifestyle and behaviors (e.g., smoking, physical inactivity, or alcohol or drug use). Screening for physical changes in your body is important, but talking to a doctor is also a huge part of getting ahead of the curve.
3) Prescription Medication Conflicts
As you get older, you may find yourself taking more prescription drugs than you did in the past. Seeing a physician annually—and reporting all the medications you’re taking so they can be added to your health file—can help to ensure that you won’t experience negative drug interactions or be prescribed something that will conflict with what you’re already taking.
For example, a new prescription may actually counteract the active ingredient in a drug you’re currently taking, rendering it ineffective. Or you may experience unpleasant or dangerous side effects when you take two or more prescription drugs together. It’s important to check with a doctor about all the medications you’re taking, especially if you’re a senior. According to one recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, an estimated 33% of older adults (ages 62 and up) take 5 or more medications regularly, and 15% of these individuals are at risk for a major drug interaction that could be dangerous.
Don’t overlook allergies, either. Keeping an updated medical record on file with a physician means all your allergies—including any allergic responses or reactions you’ve had to medicine in the past—are in one place for easy reference.
Stroke, or cerebrovascular disease, is often lumped in with cardiovascular disease because they share many of the same risk factors—high blood pressure, especially. However, stroke affects your vascular system—your blood vessels and your brain— rather than your heart. It’s essentially a “brain attack” (rather than a heart attack), caused by a blockage preventing blood from getting to your brain. The results can be minor or they can be catastrophic. Stroke is the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S., and the fourth in Alaska.
What many people don’t realize is that strokes can happen to anyone (not just the elderly) and that up to 80% of them are preventable.
By talking to a doctor about your family history and risk factors, you can get started on medication or supplements if advisable. A doctor can also teach you about prevention and can help you to recognize the signs and symptoms of stroke when they happen so you can act quickly if you need to.
5) Vision & hearing loss
It’s probably not news to you that vision and hearing tend to decline as we age. If you’re approaching middle age or beyond it, you may have experienced some degree of vision change or hearing loss. Maybe you need to wear bifocals or reading glasses. Perhaps you can’t see objects at a distance so well anymore, or you can’t clearly make out the writing on street signs. With your hearing, maybe you’re turning the TV volume up high or asking people to repeat themselves.
Often, changes in vision and hearing are gradual and annoying, but they don’t seem like big problems. Many people avoid seeing a doctor about these concerns because of vanity (who wants to get older?).
However, regularly checking your vision and hearing is important. Not being able to see well can put you at risk for motor vehicle accidents and falls. Hearing loss can similarly be a safety issue and it can contribute to your quality of life. (If you can’t hear, communication with others can be difficult; with the elderly, this can lead to unnecessary social isolation.)
Eye disease and vision loss in particular are very real health concerns. If you’re over 50, you should be screened annually for cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, dry eye, age-related macular degeneration, glaucoma, and low vision. If you have a rash around your eye, have your doctor test you for shingles, too. Many of these eye conditions, if treated promptly, are manageable and don’t need to result in permanent vision loss. Left untreated, however, blindness is a real possibility.
Diabetes (insulin resistance) is a leading cause of death for Americans (#7), but it’s also a major contributor to other serious illnesses. About 76,000 people die of diabetes each year, but it plays a role behind the scenes in an estimated 245,000 additional deaths.
Whether your diabetes is type 1 or type 2, you should be screened regularly to make sure it’s kept under control through insulin or other medications, and through exercise and diet. Be sure to have your blood sugar checked by your doctor, and ask how you can check it yourself at home.
Left untreated, diabetes can lead to nerve damage, kidney disease, colds, infections, eye problems (some of which may result in blindness), skin conditions, heart disease, and depression. Diabetics can also sometimes develop ulcers and other skin problems on their legs and feet that may be difficult to treat. In rare but extreme cases, these can lead to amputation.
If you think you have prediabetes or diabetes, don’t put off a visit to the doctor. A simple screening and prevention plan can avoid these worst-case scenarios and keep you healthy for years to come.
7) Cognitive and memory issues
As people get older, memory loss and confusion are not uncommon. However, these normal signs of aging can cause people significant distress now that Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia are becoming more prevalent (or at least, becoming more widely diagnosed).
Annual wellness exams offered through Medicare automatically include a mini cognitive screening. These quick questions help your doctor to observe whether you’re experiencing any issues outside of the norm. If you’re not on Medicare but you’re over 50, you can request the same screening from your physician.
While Alzheimer’s and dementia are dreaded by most of us, most of us probably won’t need to worry about it. If you are a little hazy on names or can’t remember what you had for breakfast, that’s not likely to be a serious problem. A mini cognitive screening and a chat with your physician can help to put your mind at ease.
However, for those who may have serious cognitive decline, identifying the signs early can help you to develop a plan for the future. Prevention and a cure may not be realistic, but you can talk to your doctor about the benefits of exercise and mental stimulation, each of which can be helpful.