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Why men need a yearly checkup—and what to expect

While men may be hesitant to get an annual physical exam, it’s essential to health

It’s common for men to skip out on their yearly checkup. There’s no universal diagnostic test—like Pap tests for women—that every man requires, regardless of age. You don’t feel sick, so why do you need to go to the doctor? Or, you’re just too busy to make an appointment. That rationale, unfortunately, neglects all the valuable elements of an annual physical exam

For example, a 20-year-old college student may feel perfectly fine, but could benefit from individualized counseling or screening tests dependent on risky habits or family history. A 40-year-old man may be tied up with work and family demands, but taking time to review preventive health strategies could pay health dividends for decades. Men’s physical exams are a critical opportunity to optimize well-being in the short and long term.

Why do men need an annual physical exam?

A men’s preventive health appointment is typically fully covered by insurance, primarily because it can reduce your risk of illness in the future. This type of checkup can identify current health problems that may have no obvious symptoms—anything from high cholesterol to high blood pressure. It can also identify your risk for developing future health issues based on a combination of physical symptoms, family history, and social habits. Based on these findings, your healthcare provider may recommend lifestyle changes that improve current health conditions—and prevent future disease. 

What does a male physical exam involve?

When you visit your primary care provider for a yearly exam, you can expect the following:

  • Questionnaire or interview questions
  • Physical exam, including biometric measurements and vital sign checks
  • Screening tests
  • Immunizations

A combination of paper questionnaires and informal interview questions, will provide the information your healthcare provider needs to determine what screening tests are recommended and what lifestyle changes are advisable. The most important part of the appointment is actually not the physical exam itself. A majority of the medical decision making is guided by the written and verbal answers you provide. For example, high risk sexual habits may lead to infectious disease screening, long-term smoking may lead to lung cancer screening, and depression diagnosis could lead to discussion of treatment options.

The physical exam, or hands-on portion of the men’s checkup, starts with measurements of biometrics, like weight and height. Together, this data allows for calculation of body mass index (BMI), which will classify you as normal weight, underweight, overweight, or obese. While sometimes uncomfortable to talk about, your weight classification may qualify you for nutritional counseling or result in testing for weight-related complications, like heart disease or sleep apnea.

Vital signs, like blood pressure and heart rate, will also be recorded. These numbers can be important in determining your future risk of heart or circulation problems. Treating high blood pressure could reduce your chances of having a heart attack or stroke in the future.

Your healthcare provider will also examine you from head to toe while making note of various details, such as the appearance of any moles, the sound of your heart and lungs, and the feel of your lymph nodes. The look, feel, and sound of these elements of your exam could provide a clue to an underlying disease process, one that may not be obvious to you.

The screening tests you need are based on the results of the question and examination portions of the annual physical exam. These will also guide recommended lifestyle changes and treatments. At the end of the exam, you should feel better educated about your current health. You should know what you are doing well and what you could improve on when it comes to being proactive about your health.

Finally, your healthcare provider will review what immunizations you have previously received, if this information is available. You will then get a personalized list of recommended vaccines, which depend on age and risk factors. The pertinent risk factors to consider are numerous. They include social elements, like smoking and sexual habits; medical history, like chronic diseases and immune problems; and surgical history, like prior spleen removal.

What tests should a man have every year?

Every man benefits from having BMI and blood pressure measured as part of a men’s physical exam checklist. Screening questions for depression, smoking, drug use, and sexual history are also valuable on an annual basis.

Cancer screening tests are recommended for certain men. For example, colon cancer screening is typically initiated at age 50, but may be advisable at younger ages for some men. This might involve a colonoscopy or a stool test. Likewise, men over 50 should discuss prostate cancer screening using a blood test. Depending on age, long-term smokers may consider a CT scan of the lungs to look for early lung cancer and consider an ultrasound looking for an abdominal aortic aneurysm, an abnormal blood vessel enlargement in the abdomen. Homosexual men might benefit from anal cancer screening. Cancer screening recommendations must be individualized to you.

Infectious disease screenings are also personalized and may not apply to all men. Nonetheless, they are another reason why men should have an annual physical exam. Notably, every man should be screened for HIV and hepatitis C at least once, and this should be done regularly for some men. Depending on a man’s risk factors, testing for sexually transmitted infections like syphilis and other varieties of hepatitis may also be recommended.

Sugar testing might be advised to screen for diabetes mellitus. This will likely depend on your age, weight, and family history.

Cholesterol testing could be recommended. Taken together with other aspects of the exam and your history, the cholesterol numbers can be used to calculate your risk of future heart or circulatory problems. High cholesterol is a heart disease risk factor that can be treated with diet or medication.

It is important to note that there are a tremendous number of potential medical tests that one could receive. Whether you need them or not is a matter for you and your healthcare provider to discuss, weighing the benefits and risks. Doing every test would not be cost effective and may expose you to the risk of false positive tests.

Which vaccines should men get?

Immunization advice must be tailored to your health history. However, with few exceptions, every adult male should get the COVID-19 vaccination based on the current guidelines. Likewise, nearly every man should get a flu shot to protect against influenza every fall and get a tetanus shot every 10 years. 

RELATED: Vaccinations to consider once you turn 50

If not previously immune, you may need a measle and chickenpox vaccination. Depending on age, healthcare providers may recommend immunization against human papillomavirus (HPV), shingles, or pneumonia. Depending on medical risk factors, hepatitis, meningitis, and haemophilus vaccination may be advised. Clearly, there is much to consider when an individualized immunization recommendation is made—just another reason your annual physical exam is essential for your health.