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Health checks at different life stages

Keeping on track with your health starts with you. Establishing good health habits early means you may enjoy a longer, healthier, happier life. And by getting recommended health checks at a relevant time, you can work with your healthcare team to improve your chances of preventing health problems throughout your life.

What is a health check?

 

A health check is an examination of your current state of health, often carried out by your GP. From the moment we are born, and even before, we undergo a variety of tests to ensure we are on the right track to good health. As we get older, many of us become more vulnerable to illness. In order to reduce this risk, a number of health checks or screening tests are recommended at different stages of our lives.

Why are health checks important?

 

The aim of a health check is to help find, prevent or lessen the effect of health issues. It’s like getting your car serviced before it breaks down. It’s better to avoid disease than to treat it. Although some checks can be uncomfortable, they provide your GP or specialist with an opportunity to look at your lifestyle, medical history and family history to find out if you’re at risk.

Having a regular doctor or practice has several advantages. Most importantly, you will build a relationship over time and are more likely to feel comfortable talking openly. Also, your doctor will get to know you and understand your health needs and concerns. By having a regular doctor or practice, your medical history stays in the one place, and is more likely to be kept up to date.

What can a health check involve?

 

A health check generally involves:

  • updating your medical history and examining your health issues
  • performing tests if required
  • a follow up of any problems identified
  • advice and information on how to improve your health.

There are a number of health checks recommended at different stages of life.

Health checks for preconception & pregnancy

 

Pregnancy is a major life event and places many demands on a woman’s body. The preconception period is generally considered to be the three months prior to pregnancy. This is an ideal time to undergo some health checks as making changes to your life at this time can help reduce problems during pregnancy and assist in recovery from birth.

Some important health checks before pregnancy include:

Pap test

Carried out by: GP or gynaecologist

Why: Currently, Pap test screening is recommended every two years for women from age 18 or 2 years after first having sexual intercourse, whichever is later. This test can detect changes to cells in the cervix before they develop into cervical cancer, which is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV).

While the cervical cancer (HPV) vaccine has been included in the National Immunisation Program (NIP) since 2007 for high school-aged girls and 2013 for high-school aged boys, this does not replace the need for Pap tests because the vaccine does not protect against all cancer-causing types of HPV. Because of the nature of the Pap test, you may prefer to have this done before you are pregnant, or you may be offered a test in early pregnancy.

Dental check

Carried out by: Dentist or oral hygienist

Why: Regular dental check-ups are important as poor dental health can affect not only our teeth and gums but also lead to problems like malnutrition and infections in other parts of our bodies. X-rays are not recommended during pregnancy. You may need an X-ray during an oral exam so having a dental check to make sure you catch and fix any problems before you're pregnant is a good idea.

Immunisation status check

Carried out by: your GP and pathology laboratory

Why: Know your vaccination status and immunity for common infections when planning a pregnancy. If you don’t have a record of when you last had the necessary immunisations, a simple blood test can reveal whether you have immunity to infections that may be harmful to a pregnancy such as rubella, varicella (chicken pox) and influenza.

General health and blood tests

Carried out by: Arranged by your GP

Why: Assessing your general health before you plan to conceive is important since it may uncover problems you need to resolve before pregnancy. You may need blood tests to check for thyroid function, blood glucose levels or for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). You may also need a full blood count to check your iron and folate levels. Your doctor can help you determine what checks are suitable for you.

During pregnancy

Several different health checks may be available to you during pregnancy, including abdominal palpitations, ultrasounds, maternal serum screening test (MSS) and amniocentesis just to name a few. Check with your doctor or gynaecologist on which tests you might need.

Health checks for newborns and children

 

Newborn tests and measurements

Every newborn in Australia is offered a blood test to check for the presence of particular metabolic or genetic disorders including phenylketonuria (PKU), hypothyroidism and cystic fibrosis. A newborn’s height, weight and head circumference are also measured.

Baby and child health checks

Carried out by: Your nearest child and family health centre provides free ongoing baby and child health checks. Your GP or paediatrician can also check the development of your child.

Frequency: The timing and frequency of health checks vary between states and territories in Australia, but they are generally recommended at birth, one to four weeks, six to eight weeks, and at four, six to nine, 12 and 18 months of age, then at two, three to three and a half, and four to five years of age.

Why: Regular health and development checks are recommended for all babies and young children to ensure they are growing and developing normally, and to manage any health problems early on. At each visit, your child and family health nurse or doctor will check your baby’s health and weight, discuss eating and physical activity habits, and assess things such as their eyesight and hearing, teeth and gums, sleeping habits, language and physical development, and social and emotional wellbeing.

These regular visits are a great time to raise and discuss any concerns you have about your child’s health and development. You can also talk about how you are feeling and any worries you have about your own health and being a parent.

Childhood Immunisations

Carried out by: A child and family health nurse, GP or paediatrician

Frequency: The National Immunisation Program provides information on the routine childhood immunisations recommended for children in Australia, and the schedule generally coincides with routine childhood health checks.

It’s vital that parents stay up to date with their children’s immunisations so they get them at the recommended times – it may help to check with your GP or health nurse and keep a calendar about upcoming immunisations.

Why: Immunisation from an early age is highly recommended for all Australian children, as it offers protection against highly contagious and potentially fatal infections.

Health checks in your 20s and 30s

 

While you’re likely in the prime of your life and the last thing on your mind may be health problems, that’s exactly why health checks even at this age are important. Knowing some key information about your health status can let you and your GP know if there are any particular issues you need to start keeping an eye on to help prevent future health conditions.

Blood pressure

Carried out by: GP

Frequency: At least every two years.

Why: High blood pressure has no symptoms. It is a major risk factor for stroke, heart disease and heart failure. If the heart has to pump against a higher pressure over many years it can lead to weakness of the wall of the heart. High blood pressure can also lead to eye and kidney damage.

Cholesterol and glucose levels

Carried out by: GP

Frequency: As directed by your doctor

Why: High blood levels of cholesterol and/or glucose contribute to your risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Particularly as you reach the second half of your thirties, the effects of unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and poor diet can start to show. If you’re overweight, have polycystic ovary syndrome or have a family history of heart disease or type 2 diabetes, you may need to have your cholesterol and blood sugar levels checked regularly. A total cholesterol of under 5.5mmol/L is ideal. If you do not have diabetes, a blood glucose level under 5.5mmol/L is ideal.

Pap tests and pelvic exams

Carried out by: GP or gynaecologist

Frequency: Every two years or as your doctor advises.

Why: It’s recommended women over the age of 18 who have ever had sex have regular Pap tests. This test detects changes to cells in the cervix before they develop into cervical cancer, which is caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). While the cervical cancer (HPV) vaccine has been included in the National Immunisation Program (NIP) since 2007 for high school aged girls and 2013 for high school aged boys, this does not replace the need for Pap tests because the vaccine does not protect against all cancer-causing types of HPV.

A pelvic examination can detect abnormalities in the ovaries and uterus.

Dental check and cleaning

Carried out by: Dentist or oral hygienist

Frequency: As discussed with your dentist based on the condition of your mouth, teeth and gums

Why: We all know it’s recommended we floss, brush twice a day and limit sugary foods for good oral health. But regular preventive dental check-ups are important too. Did you know that poor dental health can affect not only our teeth and gums but also lead to problems like malnutrition and infections in other parts of our bodies? See your dentist as soon as possible if you have a toothache, bleeding gums or dental trauma and make sure to book in your check-ups.

Skin cancer check

Carried out by: Yourself, and your GP or dermatologist if required

Frequency: Self-check regularly

Why: Ninety-five percent of skin cancers can be treated successfully if detected early. Get to know your skin and check it regularly to catch any suspicious lumps or spots as early as possible. Pay particular attention to your arms, legs, face, back, neck, shoulders and backs of your hands. Look for any mole, spot, lump or patch that:

  • changes size, shape and/or colour
  • becomes inflamed, itchy or painful
  • bleeds or is crusty
  • doesn't heal after four weeks.

If you notice any of the above skin changes, talk to your doctor for further investigation

Sexually transmitted infections (STI) screenings

Carried out by: Arranged by your GP

Frequency: Depends on how sexually active you are and whether you use condoms consistently.

Why: Most STIs are bacterial or viral infections passed from one person to another through close body contact or the exchange of body fluids, including from a pregnant woman to her baby. Many STIs can be easily treated with antibiotics, but if left untreated some STIs can lead to serious health problems including infertility and cancer.

It’s really important STIs are diagnosed early so people can get proper treatment and avoid ongoing health problems and spreading the infection. So if you’re at risk of STIs consider getting check-ups at a sexual health clinic every few months. It’s also recommended you get tested after unprotected sex with a new partner or if your partner has had other sexual partners.

Testes examination

Carried out by: Yourself, and your GP if required

strong>Frequency: All men should check their testes regularly, around every four weeks.

Why: If found and treated early, testicular cancer has a high cure rate. So it’s important for men of all ages to self-examine regularly for any unusual lumps or swellings. It’s particularly recommended for men who are at higher risk of testicular cancer, those who had undescended testes at birth or are infertile. The test is quick and simple, using your fingers and thumb to feel the testes, one at a time. Not all lumps or swellings will be cancer so if you notice any changes such as swelling, lumps or pain, see your doctor to discuss further testing.

Healthy weight assessments

Carried out by: GP

Frequency: At least every two years.

Why: BMI is a widely used measure to find out if you’re a healthy weight for your height. A BMI of 18.5–25 is considered healthy for most young and middle-aged adults. However, it can be an inaccurate measure of healthy weight for high performance athletes or very muscular people, pregnant women, children and older people. It may also need to be adjusted for some ethnic groups, including people of Asian, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent. If your BMI is above or below the normal range, check with your doctor about what weight range is healthy for you.

Measuring your waist circumference is a simple check to see if you are carrying too much weight around your waistline. An increased waistline is a sign that you could be at greater risk of developing serious ongoing health problems. For most people, a waist measurement greater than 94cm for men and 80cm for women puts you at increased risk.

If you’re already at moderate risk of developing heart disease you’ll need to have your waist circumference and weight checked more frequently, every six to 12 months.

Health checks in your 40s

 

In your 40s, you may be distracted by career and/or family but it’s important not to neglect your health at this time. Make sure to continue with the regular checks you were getting in your 20s and 30s including blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, Pap tests, dental checks, skin cancer checks and healthy weight assessments (see above). But also consider the following tests particular to this stage of your life:

Eye check

Carried out by: Ophthalmologist or optometrist

Frequency: Every two years for glaucoma from the age of 40, or from the age of 35 if you have a higher risk of the disease because of family history or other medical conditions.

Why: Glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in Australia and while there is no cure once blindness occurs, early detection means that it can be controlled with little damage to the eye. Testing your eyes will not only detect abnormalities present such as glaucoma but can also identify changes due to diabetes, macular degeneration (another cause of vision loss) and other problems that can affect your driving, your risk of falls, workplace safety and overall quality of life.

Breast checks

Carried out by: Yourself, and your GP can arrange for a mammogram if required

Frequency: Regular self-checks

Why: It’s important to get to know your breasts so that you can notice changes more easily. Things to look for include changes in the size or shape of the breast or nipple, changes in the skin over the breast such as redness or dimpling, lumps or lumpiness.

Breast Screen Australia, the national breast cancer screening program, offers free breast screening by mammogram every two years to women aged 50-65. Women aged 40-49 and 70 years and older are also able to be screened through the Breast Screen Australia program. If you have a family history of breast cancer discuss with your GP when and how frequently you need breast cancer screening.

However, mammograms can be less effective for younger women because their breast tissue is generally denser and can show up as white areas on the X-ray. Breast cancers also show up as white areas on X-rays. This makes breast cancer more difficult to detect in young women. For this reason, younger women may be offered an ultrasound screen.

Health assessment for people who are at risk of developing chronic disease

Carried out by: GP

Frequency: Once between the ages of 45-49.

Why: The Australian Government offers this health check as a one-off service to patients aged 45 to 49 years who are at risk of developing a chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes or heart disease. The health check helps you to detect and take action to prevent chronic disease. In order to be eligible for this program, your doctor must be able to identify at least one risk factor such as lifestyle habits or a family history.

Health assessment for people with a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes

Carried out by: Arranged by your GP

Frequency: Once every three years between the ages of 40-49.

Why: This government initiative includes an evaluation of your risk of developing type 2 diabetes using the Australian type 2 diabetes risk (AUSDRISK) assessment tool so your doctor can then recommend interventions, such as referral to lifestyle modification programs, to help prevent you from developing type 2 diabetes. The program is available to adults between 40-49 years at high risk of type 2 diabetes.

Prostate check

Carried out by: GP

Frequency: If you have symptoms

Why: Prostate problems are very common in men over 40 years and these problems increase with age. If you notice any symptoms of prostate problems, such as getting up to urinate more than twice a night or having difficulty with the strength of your urine stream or with starting to urinate, speak to your GP. Some men may experience the following symptoms due to an enlarged prostate with cancer, but there may be other causes.

Routine screening for prostate cancer is not recommended. Research has not demonstrated effectiveness in survival benefits, and this finding needs to be balanced against the fact that generally, the unwanted side effects of testing and treatments for prostate cancer may create more problems than would have been the case if the testing had not been done.

But if you have a family history of prostate cancer or any other type of cancer, discuss the risks and benefits of a screening test with your doctor so you can be fully informed before making any decisions.

Health checks in your 50s and later

 

As you move into your 50s, regular preventive health checks with your GP become even more important. Make sure to continue with the regular checks you were getting in previous years including eye checks, blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, Pap tests, dental checks, skin cancer checks and healthy weight assessments (see above).

Some additional health checks at this stage of life include:

Breast check and mammogram

Carried out by: Yourself, and your GP can arrange for mammograms

Frequency: Regular self-checks and a mammogram every two years — or more frequently if advised by your doctor

Why: It’s important to get to know your breasts so that you can notice changes more easily. Things to look for include changes in the size or shape of the breast or nipple, changes in the skin over the breast such as redness or dimpling, lumps or lumpiness.

Breast Screen Australia, the national breast cancer screening program, offers free breast screening by mammogram every two years to women aged 50-65. If you have a family history of breast cancer discuss with your GP when and how frequently you need breast cancer screening.

Bone density scan

Carried out by: Trained specialists at a radiology service

Frequency: On your GP’s advice, depending on your risk factors

Why: Your bones require calcium and other minerals to give them the strength and thickness (bone mass or density). Osteoporosis is a health condition where your bones become brittle due to mineral loss. This means you are more likely to break or fracture your bones. A bone density scan checks the bone mineral density of multiple bones in the body. The most accurate and useful test is a type of X-ray known as a DXA (“dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry” or DEXA) scan. The test is painless and involves a very low dose of radiation.

Women over 45 can ask their doctor to assess their risk factors for osteoporosis. Your doctor may refer you for a bone density scan if required. The scan is usually only recommended for women over 65 or women with a BMI of less than 20 but some women may have a scan at a younger age if you have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis due to previous fractures, family history, using certain medications, or have certain medical conditions.

Osteoporosis also affects one in three men in Australia over the age of 60. Men over the age of 50 should ask their doctor to assess their risk factors for osteoporosis. Your doctor may refer you for a bone density scan if required. The scan is usually only recommended for men with a BMI of less than 20, or if they have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis due to a particular medical condition.

Faecal occult blood test (FOBT)

Carried out by: You with some help from a pathology lab

Frequency: At least once every two years. In some cases, your doctor may advise more frequent screening

Why: Research has shown bowel cancer risk rises significantly from the age of 50. Bowel cancer screening generally involves a test for blood in the stool, which can be an early warning sign of bowel cancer. Screening is usually carried out through a faecal occult blood test (FOBT) which involves a simple test that you can use at home and then send to a laboratory for analysis.

The test results are sent back to you and your doctor. A positive FOBT result doesn't necessarily mean you have bowel cancer but it does generally mean you have an increased risk, and your doctor may investigate further, often with a colonoscopy.

The National Bowel Cancer Program offers free bowel cancer screening kits to Australians turning 50, 55, 60 or 65 up to Dec 2014. If you've been invited to participate in the program but you're unsure about taking part, talk to your GP about whether or not you need bowel cancer screening.

FOBT kits can also be purchased online and in pharmacies.

Hearing assessment

Carried out by: Audiologist, arranged by your GP

Frequency: If you have symptoms.

Why: Hearing problems can affect your quality of life. Fifty percent of people in Australia have some level of hearing loss that makes communication difficult. Your doctor can treat minor conditions that cause temporary hearing loss, such as ear infections, but they can also refer you to a hearing service for more permanent hearing problems. Audiologists can carry out a range of hearing tests to determine your degree of hearing loss, and investigate possible causes of your hearing problems.

Australian residents aged 21 years and over who hold a valid Pensioner Concession or DVA repatriation healthcare card may be eligible for government-funded hearing services.

Further information

 

MyChild
http://www.mychild.gov.au/

A Healthy and Active Australia
http://www.healthyactive.gov.au/

Sources

 

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http://www.andrologyaustralia.org/

Australian Government Department of Health. Health assessment for people aged 40 to 49 years with a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes. [Online] Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. [Last updated 15 Nov 2012, accessed 5 Nov 2013] Available from:
http://www.health.gov.au

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Royal Women’s Hospital. Preparing for pregnancy – medical issues. [Online] Parkville, VIC: The Royal Women’s Hospital. [Last updated Sept 2009, accessed 5 Nov 2013] Available from:
 

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Last updated: 6 November 2013

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

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