You’re young and invincible, right? Well … yes and no. Fierce with a sense of limitless potential and endless possibilities, age-related health concerns are the last thing on your mind. But don’t be seduced by a healthy halo. These are the years to lay down some solid preventive-care habits that will make a big difference down the road.
Many twentysomethings are guilty of blowing off doctor visits and skipping baseline screenings thanks to a combination of other preoccupations (dating, new job, new motherhood) and, in some cases, less than adequate health insurance. But now is when you want to find a primary care physician you like, and trust, says Dana Simpler, M.D., primary care practitioner at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Your goal is to set yourself on a healthy course while it’s still relatively easy.”
This includes developing healthful eating habits, getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep. What you do now and how you take care of your body will help prevent health issues that can crop up as you age, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, Simpler says. So while these conditions may not be on your radar right now, the lifestyle that can lead to them – smoking, subsisting on junk food or being overweight – should be.
Other than that, here’s what you need:
Though an annual checkup probably isn’t necessary, it’s smart to get used to taking charge of your health. Most insurance companies cover routine visits and screenings, so why not take advantage and get familiar with some numbers like your blood pressure and cholesterol level. A thorough physical includes a total blood work-up (CBC), which tests for conditions such as anemia. You might also get a cholesterol test, and/or a fasting glucose test (especially if you are overweight) to check for diabetes and pre-diabetes.
Your doc will listen to your heart and lungs; examine your eyes, ears, lymph nodes and abdomen for anything out of the ordinary. He or she will also make note of your age, height and weight, and ask about your family medical history.
According to National Institutes of Health guidelines, you should get an updated Tdap vaccine (tetanus-diphtheria and acellular pertussis), since immunity from childhood vaccines will likely have waned. If you were born after 1980 and never had chickenpox as a child, get that vaccine as well.
The MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) should be updated if you were born after 1956, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. And don’t forget the HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) vaccine. All cases of cervical cancer have now been shown to originate with an HPV infection, says Dr. Simpler, so if you weren’t vaccinated as a teen, do it now. (Check with your insurance company about coverage; some only pay for the shots if you’re under age 27.)
According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a PAP smear (in which a scraping of cells from the cervix is examined to detect abnormalities that could lead to cervical cancer) should be performed starting in the 20s (or soon after becoming sexually active), and then once every three years throughout adulthood. Yes, this used to be recommended annually, says Dr. Simpler, but that’s changed if your results remain consistently negative. The upshot: get a PAP now if you haven’t in a while.
The CDC recommends that all sexually active adults be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea, and that all patients seen in any healthcare setting receive HIV testing unless the patient opts out.
Past emphasis on monthly self-exams at home has faded, thanks to the changed recommendations from the US. Preventive Services Task Force, which found such exams ineffective in finding potential cases of cancer. That said, women in their 20s should, um, get to know the girls as a way to know what feels normal for your body, but not as a replacement for the clinical breast exam your doc will give you at your ob/gyn check-up. Go ahead: Feel yourself up.