If you’re like a lot of young guys, your car probably gets a check-up more often than you do. However, to stay on top of the good health you most likely take for granted at this stage of your life, it’s well worth attending to some basic maintenance – the equivalent of regular checks of your car’s oil level and tyre pressure.
Preventative screening can help identify little problems before they become big ones, and keep all your ‘parts’ in optimum working order – an investment in your future health, wellbeing and quality of life.
Experts recommend that in your 20s you have your GP perform a general overall physical examination every three years. As well as scheduling this routine check-up, there are some specific issues you can keep track of in between.
Blood pressure should be tested at least every two years. Blood pressure is the amount of force the blood exerts against the artery walls; it goes up and down during the course of the day but can be cause for concern if it stays elevated for any length of time, increasing the risk for stroke, heart attack and kidney failure. Studies suggest that nearly one in three adults has high blood pressure without being aware of it.
Your doctor can perform the test very simply in his rooms, and many pharmacies offer the service too. An inflatable sleeve will be wrapped around your upper arm. When the cuff is inflated, sensors measure your blood pressure and the reading is expressed as two numbers – the systolic (top figure) indicates the amount of force used when your heart beats, and the diastolic (bottom figure) shows the lowest pressure measured when your heart is at rest between beats. An average healthy blood pressure reading will be below 120 systolic and below 80 diastolic; higher than this could be an early warning sign of future cardiovascular problems. If your blood pressure reading is elevated, you will probably, at this stage, be able to bring it down with changes to diet and exercise; also have it re-tested every six months or as frequently as your doctor recommends.
Skin cancer is highly treatable if caught in the early stages, and experts recommend that you check your whole body yourself carefully once a month, looking for irregularly-shaped or changing moles, lesions or unusual freckles or blemishes. Specifically, remember your ABCDE’s – asymmetry, borders (blurry or jagged edges), colour (black or multi-hued), diameter (more than 6mm across, or growing), and evolving. If you have any concerns, see your doctor. Once every five years (more frequently if you have a family history of melanoma, constant sun exposure, or very fair skin) you should have a dermatologist do a full-body check-up, which is painless and takes around 10 minutes. Of course, the best way to treat melanoma is to prevent it, so don’t forget the sunblock!
Monthly self-examination is also advised to screen for early signs of testicular cancer, which is a rare form of cancer but does occur most frequently in young men. Unusual tenderness, swelling, lumps (generally painless), changes in size or a sensation of heaviness and discomfort in the scrotum – in fact any changes to normal appearance or feel – should be reported to your doctor. Testicular cancer is almost always curable, especially if diagnosed early.
Routine screening for sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) is not generally necessary unless you engage in high-risk sexual behaviour, in which case regular testing may reveal the presence of such infections even before symptoms develop. A DNA probe will check for gonorrhoea and chlamydia, and blood tests will screen for syphilis, herpes, hepatitis and HIV. Of course, if you do have any symptoms that give you cause for concern, the sooner you are diagnosed and treated the better.
You should have a dental check-up at least once a year; every six months is even better. The dentist will thoroughly examine your teeth and gums and check your tongue, lips and the soft tissues in your mouth to screen for cavities, gingivitis or problems of the gums, tongue or mouth. A full set of x-rays of your mouth and jaw should be taken periodically.
Experts recommend vision screening by an optometrist every ten years as a matter of course in the early stages of your adult life, and more frequently if you have difficulties with your eyes or you wear glasses or contact lenses. Problems with vision can cause headaches or fatigue, and can be an early sign of diabetes.
So – some specific ‘maintenance’ tasks should help get your body through its three-yearly ‘roadworthy’, and on the whole, an understanding of how your lifestyle choices affect your health will keep you in peak condition during your 20s (and beyond!). A balanced diet, sensible exercise programme, and avoiding smoking and excessive drinking, will almost certainly set you on the road to a long and healthy future.