Health & Wellness Articles

Your Guide to Health Screenings

What, When and Why

You know the filter in your furnace only lasts three months before it gets clogged with cat hair, and you're diligent about getting the oil in your car changed every 3,000 miles. But do you pay attention to all the recommended tune-ups and maintenance on your most important machine—your body?

Regular checkups are keys to early detection and successful treatment of health conditions. But remembering when to get checked for what is difficult. Here's a list of basic and essential health condition screenings that you'll want to schedule with your health care providers, along with a basic explanation of why you need them.

What Who When Why
Eye Exam Everyone *About once every 2 years A trained health care provider examines your eyes for health and to determine if you need glasses or contacts.  *The American Optometric Association recommends an eye exam once every 2 years until the age of 18, once every 2-3 years between the ages of 19-40, once every 1-2 years between the ages of 41-60, and then every year after that.       
Dental Exam Everyone 2 and older Once every 6-12 months Your dentist will examine the teeth to detect tooth decay, gum disease, oral cancer, and problems with your bite. 
Blood Pressure Screening Everyone 18 and older Once every year This test, which measures the pressure involved when your heart beats, is important for the detection of high blood pressure, which increases the risk for heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and kidney damage.
Pelvic Exam and Pap Test Women ages 21 to 65 Once every 3 years Pelvic exams and pap tests can detect cancerous and pre-cancerous changes in the cervix. When caught early, the treatment success rate is very high. Based on many "normal" results, your health care provider may choose to screen you less often.
Sexually Transmitted Infection Screening Everyone who is sexually active Immediately if you have symptoms or annually if you have changed partners Many STIs do not have symptoms, but can lead to permanent complications if left untreated. If you are at high risk for STIs, you should get tested more frequently. For women, these tests are often performed during your annual gynecologic exam, but not automatically, so don't forget to ask.
Cholesterol Screening Men age 35 and older and women age 45 and older (starting at age 20 if high risk) Once every five years This blood test measures levels of cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood.  Based on your health history, your health care provider may recommend more or less frequent screenings.
Clinical Breast Exam Women 20 and older Once every three years until age 40; once a year after 40 This manual breast exam, performed by a trained health care professional, is highly effective at detecting lumps and symptoms of breast cancer. 
Mammogram Women ages 50 to 75 Once every 2 years This (and other) imaging techniques can detect potentially cancerous lumps in the breast tissue.
Diabetes Screening Adults with blood pressure >135/80 or high risk* During routine visits and annual physicals This test measure levels of blood glucose after fasting to check for diabetes. *People at high risk (those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol or triglycerides, obesity or a family history of diabetes) should get screened more frequently.
Colon and Rectal Cancer Screenings  Everyone 50 to 75 (earlier if risk is high*) Once a year Talk to your doctor to determine the best type of screening and testing schedule for you. *You're at a high risk if you have personal or family history of colon and rectal cancers, polyps or inflammatory bowel disease. 
Prostate Cancer Screening Men 50 to 75 Once a year With a prostate exam and prostate-specific antigen test, your health care provider can detect prostate enlargement or high levels of prostate-specific antigen, which may indicate prostate cancer.
Bone Density Test Women 65 and older (age 60 if risk is high*) Once a year This scan measures density of the bones and can detect low bone density (osteopenia) or loss of bone mass (osteoporosis).  *You are at increased risk if you have had prior fractures, have a family history of osteoporosis, or have taken prednisone. 

This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople's Resident Medical Expert, Birdie Varnedore, M.D.

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Member Comments

  • Great information!
    Part of taking care of ourselves is getting help from others.
  • definitely this needs to be a MUST READ!!!
  • Just like caring for your car:regular checkups!
  • Wise advice preventative medicine !
  • Really important to get screenings! Thank you!
  • Embrace good body care! Good article, thanks SP.
  • These are not accurate. Talk to your doctor.
  • KKABIR2848
    Please post this comment on as many of the blogs & forums listed:

    Very interesting discussion. As a former diverticulitis sufferer, I know how frustrating it can be to find answers. Just wanted to share a link that helped me out a lot when I was struggling to get better:


    Best of luck to everyone!
  • I don't understand the connection between hypertension and diabetes as you can have one without the other.
  • Good info. As a registered independent dental hygienist I would also like to see included head,neck and oral cancer screening, available from your registered dental hygienist.
    I have never had an eye exam, except an eye chart when I was a child or at the DMV. Completely unnecessary unless you are having trouble.

    My family has never had dental insurance, and dental work is wicked expensive. I try to go every 2-3 years, but that's as good as it gets. They are requiring dental checkups for enrollment in kindergarten here now, but I think this is ridiculous. Many children are not going to tolerate this without sedation, which is not even covered by insurance.
  • Why is the age 50 for screening for Mammograms, I thought it was 40
    It was my understanding that the recommendation by the American Cancer Society was to start yearly mammograms at 40 years of age. Also, bone density scans are paid by my insurance starting at 50 years of age. It you wait to 65 years of age you can already have significant osteoporosis. I would like to add that the recommendation for women who had diabetes while pregnant is to get a Hemoglobin A1C drawn every 3 years.
  • Xrays twice a year! make sure your thyroid gland is adequately protected - you only get one. Once it is broken the care and treatment can often be denied to you.

About The Author

Liza Barnes Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.