Lavern Davidhizar, DO
How Often Should You Get a Physical Exam in Alaska?
Traditionally, adults in Alaska (and throughout in the U.S.) would get annual physicals without fail, operating under the assumption that going to see your family doctor regularly would help to discover diseases or illnesses before they got too serious.
Many primary care physicians still stand by this approach for good reasons: seeing patients annually allows us to create a rapport, which in turn helps patients to open up about any new symptoms or changes in their health.
Seeing a doctor annually 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.
Recently, however, some studies in major medical publications like BMJ have indicated that annual physical exams may not be necessary, or even all that helpful, in fending off serious disease in healthy adults.
If you have no chronic conditions, if you’re not a smoker, if you don’t abuse drugs and alcohol, and if you don’t have an especially high risk of developing a disease, some experts believe it’s okay to refrain from seeing a doctor until you have an acute need for one (for example, if you’ve broken a bone or come down with a case of the flu).
In fact, they say, going to see your doctor more frequently than necessary may actually cause you more harm than good if you’re subjected to unnecessary medical procedures or undergo the stress of getting false positives on tests.
With these conflicting pieces of wisdom from the medical community, how can Alaskans know how often they need a physical exam?
The short answer: it varies, depending on your age and your risk of disease.
Healthy adults will not need to get physical exams or blood work as often as people managing certain conditions. (Unless your workplace requires it.)
However, most medical professionals, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are still in favor of regular doctor checkups.
If you want to be proactive about maintaining good health, you can follow the guidelines below. Assume, in this context, that “healthy” means:
If any of the above apply to you, speak with your doctor about how often you should get check-ups to stay on top of your particular risk factors.
When to Get a Physical: General Guidelines for Alaskans
If you are healthy (see checklist above), the following are guidelines for how often you should see a doctor for physical exams.
Adults 65 and Over: Medicare Wellness Exams
Every year. If you’re 65 and older, your Medicare Part B coverage includes an annual wellness exam. This preventative care screening offers:
Every year. Fifty is a big birthday for many reasons, including health screenings. Annual doctor’s visits are recommended to keep on top of changes to your health.
Men and colon cancer screenings. Men should begin getting colonoscopies. Repeat every 10 years, unless your results are abnormal or if you have a family history of colon cancer.
Adults Ages 25 to 50
Every year. This schedule is sufficient for most healthy individuals.
Women and baseline mammograms. At age 40, women with no family history of breast cancer should get an initial baseline mammogram. (Some women with a family history or genetic risk may have been screened earlier than this.) Following the initial exam, get a new mammogram every 1-2 years.
Cardiovascular health screenings. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Alaskans. Several counties in Alaska also have the highest stroke death rates, according to the CDC. If you have risk factors for heart disease (such as sleep apnea, obesity, smoking, or a sedentary job), you may consider an optional BodySmart screening, which Alaska Family Medical Center is proud to offer at its Soldotna location.
Adults Under 25
Every 2-3 years for healthy young adults.
Women and cervical cancer screenings. At age 21, women should begin getting Pap smears to screen for cervical cancer. After the initial exam, healthy women with average risk can have a Pap smear every 3 years and an HPV test (if they have not been immunized) every 5 years.
Some college students may need an annual sports physical to compete in university-level athletics.
Teenagers and Children (ages 5-17)
Every year. Physicals are recommended annually for children so any problems can be detected early. Children will also need regular vaccinations and immunizations.
Children who are active in sports may also need to have an annual sports physical exam, with a report from the doctor, before they can participate in athletics. If this is the case for your child, consider scheduling your annual physical for late summer, so you can have your completed form in hand before the sports season begins.
Toddlers and Small Children (ages 1 to 4)
7 visits total. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends seven visits to a pediatrician during this time period, which works out to roughly two doctor’s visits per year. Talk to your pediatrician or family doctor for more details about this exam and the recommended vaccination schedule.
Infants (ages 0 to 11 months)
6 visits. Newborns and infants should see a pediatrician or family doctor six times in their first year, for regular checkups and to make sure they’re hitting their developmental milestones.
DOT Physicals for CDL Drivers
If you want a commercial driver’s license (CDL) from the State of Alaska Department of Transportation, you’ll need to get regular physical exams to be cleared to drive. The DOT physical is good for 2 years (in some cases, 1 year).
Why Get a Physical?
Regular physicals help you to be proactive about your health and disease risk. During a physical, a doctor will check you over completely, screening for changes to your vitals, your heart health, breathing and respiration, joints, posture, lymph nodes and thyroid, skin, neurological responses (e.g., reflexes), vision, hearing, and more.
Lab tests can also screen for diseases and risk factors that can sneak up on you, like diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Seeing a physician regularly can help you to stay on top of these issues and get control of them before they become more serious, through easy lifestyle changes like diet, exercise, and medication.