10 Key Health Appointments to Schedule Starting in Your 40s and 50s

·13 min read

People have their individual reasons for avoiding the doctor's office—from packed schedules to a fear of the unknown. But medical experts reiterate that your health is your greatest asset, especially as you age, and that one appointment could prove the difference between life and death.

"With the passing of time can come additional health concerns and needs. Staying on top of medical visits can help you keep track of and address bodily changes, minimizing the risks or complications of chronic, debilitating illness," says Janine Darby, MD, a double board-certified physician in family and obesity medicine.

The good news is that there's still time to take control of your health. Here, experts help us break down the most important appointments to make—and keep—in starting in your 40s and 50s, what to expect, how to make it count, and how often to visit the doc.

A quick note: The following recommendations are gleaned from medical studies, guidelines, and opinions based on the time of publishing. We suggest consulting with your health insurance and medical networks to assess which providers and treatments are right for you.

RELATED: 8 Important Health Appointments Not to Skip in Your 20s and 30s

General Physical

What it involves: During a general physical, the doctor will typically run through a list of subjective questions addressing your family, medical, and surgical history, along with medications, allergies, behaviors, and any questions you'd like to ask. "Checking the mental status of the individual is also very important," says Dr. Darby.

The doctor will then perform a physical assessment of your heart, lungs, abdomen, eyes, ears, mouth, muscular system, weight, blood pressure, and bloodwork. "This will offer insight into things like blood count, kidney function, liver function, electrolytes, and glucose levels, whereas a lipid panel will also provide a picture of good and bad cholesterol," she says. She notes the physical exam may also consist of additional gut-checks, such as vision, hearing, and thyroid, depending on the individual.

When to go: Plan on a physical exam with a primary care doctor every year, including a prostate exam for men starting at 40, advises Dr. Darby. Men, take note: "Visit sooner if you're experiencing issues that may be associated with prostate cancer, such as a decrease in urination flow. A doctor can work with you on a visit frequency and treatment plan based on your personal history and health."

Vaccinations

Why it's important: Most of your shots will take place before age 18, but Dr. Darby says you're still not out of the woods when it comes to certain precautions. "A tetanus booster will help you avoid lockjaw, which can result from punctures or scrapes from rusty nails, wood, and similar items."

For those 50 and over, she also recommends vaccination for Herpes Zoster (also known as shingles or the chickenpox virus), which can help combat the increased severity of symptoms that comes with aging. "Our immunity decreases as we get older and the pain worsens," she says.

When to go: Plan to visit your primary doctor for a tetanus booster every 10 years, consulting a medical professional when you have a brush-up with bacteria-ridden metals or other materials.

"The Herpes Zoster vaccine is a one-time, two-dose shot administered two to six months apart. Given this is a live virus, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who may be immune-compromised, such as someone who's pregnant or has been diagnosed with HIV," Dr. Darby says.

Diabetes Screening

Why it's important: "While the U.S. Preventive Task Force suggests having a diabetes screening as early as 35, it's especially important for those in their 40s and 50s, as the risk of Type 2 diabetes, in particular, increases with age beginning at age 45," says Dr. Darby. Both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes can be hereditary, with Type 2 often associated with poor eating habits or certain conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). According to the CDC, it also tends to be a greater threat to African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives.

What it involves: According to Dr. Darby, prediabetes and diabetes can be tested with a simple blood test (referred to as a hemoglobin A1C) that measures your blood sugar levels. "The doctor can then provide direction for diet and exercise, along with medicine and treatments that help manage or stimulate insulin."

When to go: Dr. Darby suggests adding this screening to your yearly physical. "Visit your primary doctor sooner if you experience heightened thirst or appetite, increased urination, changes in weight, a decrease in vision, or overall fatigue."

STI Screening

Why it matters: While often regarded as a larger threat to younger generations, research shows a dramatic increase in sexually transmitted infections for older adults over the past few years, with those 40 to 44 falling in the second-largest category for new HIV infections documented in 2019. "Between being divorced or widowed, many people in their 40s and 50s are finding themselves back in the dating pool again," explains Dr. Darby.

In addition to being uncomfortable and contagious, this means STIs are affecting people who may not have the same immunity defenses they did when they were younger. "Syphilis can lead to neurological issues, whereas herpes will cause painful outbreaks, Hepatitis B and C can lead to liver cirrhosis or cancer, and HIV will weaken your immunity even further," cautions Dr. Darby, who says she's seen an increase in HIV diagnoses among women over 50 in particular.

What it involves: According to Dr. Darby, a proper STI screening will typically consist of a urine test for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomonas and a blood test for everything else, with results available in two to three days or sooner. "Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomonas are treatable with antibiotics, whereas other STIs can be managed with the help of medical advancements."

When to go: Aside from using precaution whenever possible, Dr. Darby says you should plan to visit your primary care doctor, urgent care, or community health center for a test every three to six months if having unprotected sex with multiple partners, as well as before engaging with a new partner, to make sure you're both in the clear. "You should have a comprehensive test performed if you have a known STI exposure or symptoms," she says.

Gynecological Exam

Why it matters: "Breast cancer, cervical cancer, autoimmune diseases, and hypertension are growing in prevalence during the 40s and 50s," says Felice Gersh, MD, an OB/GYN and founder and director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, in Irvine, Calif. "Fertility also remains a major issue for many women at this age and advanced fertility interventions are often needed. Additionally, menopause will affect every single woman and nearly all will transition into menopause during these two decades."

What it involves: According to Alyssa Dweck, MD, an OB/GYN and chief medical officer of Bonafide, a gynecological exam at this age should include a Clinical Breast Exam (CBE)—"a manual exam to check the breasts for lumps, skin changes, nipple discharge, or swollen lymph nodes in axillae—along with a Pap smear, a screening test for cancer and precancer of the cervix."

For those looking to conceive, testing can be done to evaluate the effect of aging on fertility. "Thyroid and thyroid antibodies should be checked, as should various nutrients such as omega 3, ferritin (iron), and B12, and others as indicated," Dr. Gersh says. She adds that as women enter the menopausal transition, labs can evaluate the degree of systemic inflammation, lipids, nutrients, thyroid, and other tests related to individual symptoms.

When to go: Dr. Dweck recommends a CBE for average-risk individuals 40 and older every year, as performed by an internist, OB/GYN, or family practice provider, with self-assessments performed in between.

"While guidelines vary for women ages 30 to 65 with average risk, cervical cancer screenings are typically offered every three years with a Pap smear, every five years with Pap smear/HPV co-testing, or every five years with HPV testing alone," she adds, noting that a Pap smear is typically performed as part of the gynecological pelvic exam."

Mammogram

Why it matters: Aside from skin cancers, breast cancer remains the most common cancer for American women: each woman with a one in eight chance of developing breast cancer during her lifetime. According to the CDC, that risk increases with age (especially after 50), as well as certain genes (such as BRCA1 and BRCA2) and other health and behavioral factors. "The purpose of screening is to identify breast abnormalities, including breast cancer, at an early stage. The baseline is 40 (some start at 50) for average-risk individuals," says Dr. Dweck.

What it involves: According to Dr. Dweck, "a mammogram ​is a radiological test (or X-ray) to evaluate the breasts performed by a radiologist at a radiology facility."

When to go: Dr. Dweck points out that mammograms are typically recommended on a yearly basis for average-risk individuals. "There are varying opinions on these screening protocols (view them here), which can be assessed with the help of a medical professional based on your personal health and comfort."

Dermatological Exam

Why it matters: "The most important reason to see your dermatologist is to have a full-body skin check to screen for early detection of skin cancers," says Kelly M. Bickle, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and fellowship-trained specialist in Mohs micrographic surgery. "Basal cell carcinomas are the most common type of skin cancer, followed by squamous cell carcinomas, and then malignant melanomas, which are the most aggressive of these cancers and can spread throughout the body if not caught in time. Basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas are most seen after age 50. The average age of diagnosis of melanoma is 65."

What it involves: To ensure a thorough check, Dr. Bickle says this is one exam where undressed is best. "Your dermatologist will give you an exam gown and check you from head to toe, examining each area for anything atypical." When it comes to moles, they'll look out for the ABCDEs: asymmetry, borders (unsmooth, not round or oval, jagged edges, or notches), color, diameter, and evolution (anything changing or growing).

Dr. Bickle says your dermatologist will also be looking for pre-cancers (such as actinic keratoses) and common skin cancers (basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas). "These have certain characteristics that dermatologists can easily identify. If they notice anything suspicious, they will likely recommend a skin biopsy, during which a small tissue of skin will be removed and sent to a lab for further examination."

When to go: Dr. Bickle recommends visiting a board-certified dermatologist for a full-body skin check once a year. "If you have a personal history of skin cancer, your dermatologist will likely want to see you more frequently—anywhere from two to four times per year, depending on the type of skin cancer you had."

She reiterates that skin cancers can occur at any time and are often treatable, so early detection (with comprehensive skin checks beginning in your 20s) and diligence as you age are key.

Dental Exam

Why it matters: "Proper dental cleanings and exams are important for keeping teeth and gums healthy and preventing inflammation, which can make you more susceptible to other conditions such as heart disease," explains Robert Raimondi, DDS, a prosthodontist at One Manhattan Dental. While Dr. Raimondi stresses that oral health should be a life-long commitment, with concerns arising at all ages, he says it's typically in the 40s and 50s when he sees clients experiencing the most issues.

"Around this age, people tend to see a reduction in the production of saliva. The nature and ability of that saliva also changes, making it harder to fight off bacteria," explains Dr. Raimondi. He also points out that those in this age category are at higher risk for osteoporosis, during which bones lose their strength and fractures become more common.

What it involves: "A dentist will perform a proper cleaning, assess any potential concerns such as dry mouth or immune issues, and help you address any problematic habits," says Dr. Raimondi. They can also suggest medical treatments and advise when it comes to cosmetics, such as teeth straightening, deeper cleaning, crowns, or veneers."

When to go: While a dental exam is typically recommended every six months to a year, Dr. Raimondi says the suggested frequency can vary depending on someone's home care and risk factors.

Colonoscopy

Why it matters: Excluding skin cancers, the American Cancer Society places colorectal cancer as the third most common cancer diagnosed for women and men in the U.S. "Risks increase as you age, with recent guidelines suggesting screenings for colorectal cancer beginning at 45," says Dr. Darby. That risk can climb due to a range of genetic, physical, and lifestyle factors, as well as racial and ethnic background." African American males are at particularly greater risk for receiving and dying from cancer," she adds.

What it involves: The most common way to test for colorectal cancer is with a colonoscopy, says Dr. Darby, "during which you're sedated and a doctor uses a tool and microscopic camera to screen for lesions or polyps. There are also tests that scan for blood in the stool. If found, they are then followed with the colonoscopy."

When to go: Dr. Darby, you should plan on having a colonoscopy administered by a gastroenterologist or general surgeon every 10 years. "It may be more frequent if there's a personal or family history with colorectal cancer." You should also seek medical attention if you experience any colorectal cancer symptoms (more to look out for here).

Lung Cancer Screening

Why it matters: According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women, making up almost 25 percent of all cancer deaths. "There's a strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer, with rates increasing with age (and more time smoking), along with other factors such as obesity or family history," explains Dr. Darby. "The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends a lung cancer screening for those ages 50 to 80 who smoke currently, quit smoking in the last 15 years, or have a 20 pack-year smoking history (so 20 years of one pack per day, 10 years of two packs per day, and so on)."

What it involves: Dr. Darby says a typical screening will consist of a CT or CAT scan (a form of X-ray) of the lungs to look out for problematic nodules.

When to go: "Beginning at 50, discuss a lung cancer screening with your general physician who can refer you to an out-patient radiologist," advises Dr. Darby. While the American Cancer Society cautions that most lung cancers are silent, you may also want to seek medical attention if experiencing symptoms such as loss of appetite, feeling tired or weak, wheezing, or infections like bronchitis and pneumonia that won't go away.

What to Bring to Your Health Appointments:

  • ID

  • Health insurance card

  • Medical records (if going to a recurring doctor, they should have them on file)

  • Family history (if applicable/available)

  • List of medications (bring pill bottles if unsure of specifics)

  • Any notes or photos tracking symptoms or changes

  • Key questions you'd like to address

  • Form of payment (ask about premiums and other costs up front)

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