With busy school, work, and social schedules, it can be tempting to skip a trip to the doctor's office. But just like investing money into your 401K, medical experts say the appointments you make (and, more importantly, keep) in your early adult years can pay back in dividends when it comes to your long-term health.
"Prevention is better than a cure," says Janine Darby, MD, a double board-certified physician in family and obesity medicine. "Attending important medical check-ups can help you understand your body and develop positive habits that set your health up for greater success down the line."
From STI screenings to skin checks (and some important boosters along the way), read on as experts help us break down the most important health appointments to keep in your 20s and 30s, including what to know before you go.
A quick note: The following recommendations are gleaned from medical studies, guidelines, and opinions at the time of publishing. We suggest consulting with your health insurance and medical networks to assess which providers and treatments are right for you.
Why it matters: "In earlier years, you'll want to focus on building a relationship with a primary care physician, who will help you keep track of crucial physical and vital stats, assess any increased risks due to family history, and address any problematic behaviors, such as surrounding alcohol or drug use," explains Dr. Darby.
Dr. Darby notes this is also a good time to tackle concerns when it comes to eating habits and weight management, especially important given America's increased prevalence of obesity. "At an optimal weight [for your body type], you can reduce your risk of cardiovascular issues (such as hypertension and stroke), certain cancers, musculoskeletal issues, and more."
What to expect: In order to provide a comprehensive assessment, Dr. Darby says a doctor will typically apply the SOAP method. "It's Subjective (family, medical and surgical history, medications, allergies, behavioral questions, and any key issues the patient would like to address); Objective (a physical exam where the doctor will check a patient's weight, blood pressure, heart, lungs, abdomen, eyes, ears, mouth, muscular system, and bloodwork); Assessment (where a doctor will take a closer look at the information collection), and Plan (where a doctor will then provide any health recommendations or referrals based on their findings)," she explains. This could also consist of additional examinations, such as vision and hearing screening, as needed.
When to go: According to Dr. Darby, physical exams are usually performed by a primary care doctor and should take place every one to three years, which a doctor can advise you on depending on your family history and current health.
Why it matters: While the average person will have had most of their shots taken care of by age 18, there are a few that will linger into your adult years. "By the age of 21, you're typically on track for a tetanus booster, which can help you avoid the most common symptom, painful 'lockjaw' caused by a run-in with bacteria-ridden metals or other materials. Your doctor might also recommend a vaccination for HPV, which helps prevent cervical and anal cancers," says Dr. Darby. She notes that vaccination for meningitis (types A and B) is typically standard for those heading off to college and living in communal spaces.
What it involves: Dr. Darby says you can expect one shot for each of tetanus and meningitis as necessary. The HPV vaccine consists of two doses administered about six to 12 months apart.
When to go: Once you've had your vaccinations for meningitis and HPV, you should be set. "For tetanus, you should get a booster every 10 years, consulting with a medical professional regarding any punctures due to rusty nails, wood, and other items of that nature."
Why it matters: In addition to being uncomfortable and transferable, "sexually transmitted infections can lead to neurological issues (syphilis), pelvic inflammatory disease, infertility (chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomonas), immunodeficiency (HIV), and cancers (Hepatitis B, C, and HPV) if left untreated," Dr. Darby says.
She's seen a rise in chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, and even syphilis among people in their 20s and 30s in particular. "Younger age groups tend to be more curious and prone to experimentation. Drug and alcohol use at social gatherings can also hinder decision-making abilities."
What it involves: Dr. Darby says you can typically expect a urine test for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomonas and a blood test for everything else, with results available in two to three days if not sooner. "Certain STIs, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomonas, are treatable with antibiotics, whereas others, such as HIV, can be managed with the help of modern medicine."
When to go: Aside from using precaution wherever possible, 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, advises Dr. Darby. "You'll also want to test before engaging with a new partner to make sure you're both cleared, as well as if you have a known exposure or STI-related symptoms." (See CDC guidelines for symptoms and information.)
Why it matters: "Gynecologists are uniquely tuned in to the reproductive system—including vaginal, period, and sexual health. They're trained to perform breast and other exams to help monitor for conditions such as cancer, and can dive deeper than a primary care doctor into your questions about female health to find the right treatments or solutions for different concerns," says Staci Tanouye, MD, a board-certified OB/GYN physician and Poise partner.
Dr. Tanouye points out that these visits are especially important for women in their 20s and 30s given these are prime childbearing years. "An OB/GYN can consult regarding birth control and childbirth-related conditions like bladder leaks, pelvic floor dysfunction, and/or returning to periods. They are also essential for guiding pregnant women through safe pregnancies and deliveries," she explains.
What it involves: At this exam, Dr. Tanouye says an OB/GYN will typically "perform breast exams to monitor for breast cancer, pelvic exams to evaluate the size and shape of the uterus and ovaries, looking for things like fibroids or ovarian cysts, and Pap smears to test for cervical cancer."
When to go: Dr. Tanouye recommends a preventative gynecological visit with an OB/GYN every year as an addition to your general physical, complete with a Pap smear every one to three years. "Women who are pregnant should plan to see their OB/GYN every month starting in the first trimester, with appointments gradually increasing nearing the end of the second trimester and eventually occurring every week by the time they reach the end of the third trimester."
She also recommends visiting a healthcare provider in the case of irregular or unusual periods. "This includes if you are not pregnant and you do not get a period for 90 days, if periods are less than 21 days or more than 35 days apart, in the case of painful or heavy bleeding (over seven days or through more than one menstrual product every hour), if you feel sick or feverish after tampon use, or if you experience any potent or unusual smells (which could indicate infection)."
Why it matters: "The risk of malignant melanomas has doubled during the past 30 years in the U.S, resulting in one person dying per hour. It's also the most diagnosed cancer among people ages 25 to 29 in the United States, with the risk of malignant melanomas increasing by 75 percent for those who use tanning beds before the age of 35," says Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified dermatologist, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine, and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.
While Dr. Jaliman stresses the importance of skin checks for everyone, she says it's especially important for those with a family history of malignant melanomas. "If someone had a severe sunburn at a young age, that is also linked to increased melanoma risk."
What it involves: A typical skin check starts with a few questions for proper background and the patient putting on a gown. "The dermatologist will then have a close look at any spots with a magnifier, photographing anything suspicious for reference," explains Dr. Jaliman. "If especially concerning, local anesthetic is injected and a biopsy is performed, with small pieces of the skin sent to a dermatopathologist to inspect for cancerous cells." She notes that results typically come back within a week or two.
When to go: Dr. Jaliman recommends visiting a board-certified dermatologist for a comprehensive skin check once a year, paying attention to your skin for changes in between. "If you have a family or personal history of melanoma, you may want to go twice a year. If you notice a mole that is changing in color or bleeding, you should go immediately."
Why it matters: "Now is the time to establish a healthy oral routine, which can help keep teeth and gums in good cosmetic condition, prevent cavities, and reduce the risk of bigger problems as you age," says Robert Raimondi, DDS, a prosthodontist at One Manhattan Dental specializing in aesthetic dentistry, veneers, crowns, and implants.
Dr. Raimondi sees those in their 20s and 30s most affected by early signs of periodontal disease or localized gum recession, as well as hard tissue issues such as cavities or tooth wear, with a heightened risk of gingivitis for women who are pregnant due to an increase in progesterone hormone levels. "These are more easily treatable when they're in the beginning stages. Aside from the immediate challenges, they also increase inflammation, making you more prone to other conditions such as heart disease," he explains.
What it involves: According to Dr. Raimondi, a typical appointment will consist of thorough cleaning, along with a proper assessment of teeth for cavities and gums for gum disease. "The dentist will also do a full set of x-rays to check for hard or soft tissue of the mouth, which can indicate bone recession or loss, tumors, or tooth nerve diseases and infections."
When to go: Aim for a check-up every six months, advises Dr. Raimondi, brushing properly, wearing retainers, and avoiding any self-administered orthodontics at home. "A dentist can alter the time schedule depending on your dental history, risks, and how well you are taking care of your teeth. If you are expecting, I recommend a visit during the second trimester because this is the most stable time during the pregnancy."
Why it matters: Once you hit 35, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends adding a diabetes screening to the list. "This will test for Type 1, which is autoimmune and signified by a complete lack of insulin where the body is attacking the pancreas, as well as Type 2, where there is a decrease in insulin production, the latter of which can be tied to weight gain or conditions such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS)," explains Dr. Darby. She points out that diabetes can be hereditary. "Black and Brown populations also tend to be at higher risk."
What it involves: According to Dr. Darby, diabetes is typically tested with a simple blood test (also known as hemoglobin A1C), which will provide an understanding of your blood sugar levels. "With accurate results, doctors can provide direction for diet and exercise, as well as medications and treatments that help stimulate or manage insulin."
When to go: Dr. Darby says you should plan to have this screening performed by your primary care doctor during your general physical starting at age 35, or sooner if you're experiencing symptoms. "These can range from weight changes and an increase in thirst, appetite, or urinary frequency to a decrease in vision and energy."
Therapy or Mental Health Counseling
Why it matters: Experts point out that mental health is part of your overall health, and that early intervention is key. "The 20s are a time of big transition, including living away from home and paying bills, figuring out a future career, and discovering what you need in relationships," explains Lucy Bramwell, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Paradigm, which provides residential and mental health services to young adults struggling with a variety of mental health issues. "Additionally, studies indicate that roughly half of all lifetime mental disorders start by the mid-teens and three-fourths by the mid-20s."
What it involves: According to Bramwell, therapy during this age period is usually about breaking big questions down into smaller realistic steps that move toward what you value in life. "The patient will be given the space to talk about recent stressors, personal and family mental health history, and important life resources such as their support system and health routine. The therapist will want to know as much as possible so they can understand and support you as a whole and unique individual."
When to go: Bramwell says patients can benefit from physical or remote appointments on a weekly or monthly basis, depending on the scenario. "Anyone can see a therapist for any reason. But certainly, feelings of depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, or just not feeling yourself are all valid reasons to make an appointment," she explains. She says the most important thing is finding a therapist that best fits your needs, ideally one that supports and challenges you with self-awareness. "Sticking with a therapist for at least a few months will give you a better chance for change."
What to Bring to Your Health Appointments:
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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