As yearly checkups become a thing of the past, it seems we’re spending less quality time with our GPs, and more time consulting Google for medical advice. Though the guidelines for PAP tests have changed from once a year to every three, it’s still important to regularly check in with your primary care provider, says Dr. Anita Srivastava, a family physician at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto. She recommends booking time just to discuss anything health-related that’s been on your mind.
“Even when you go for a check-up, there often isn’t time to address other questions you might have,” she says. “That’s why it’s good to book a dedicated appointment to ask, ‘Am I doing the right things to take care of myself?’” Of course, the answer often depends on your age and life stage. Here’s what you should discuss with your doc, by the decade.
In your 30s
What can I do to relieve my stress and manage my mental health?
Women can have a lot going on in this decade—kids, career, running a household—and can feel overwhelmed. “This is when you should ask your doctor about mindfulness techniques and other strategies for handling stress,” says Dr. Jean Chen, a family physician in Ottawa. Chronic stress can disrupt your sleep, affect your relationships and lead to other health problems, adds Dr. Milena Forte, assistant professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto and a physician at Sinai Health System. “People often only think to ask their doctors about physical complaints, but if stress is affecting your enjoyment of things, it’s time to ask for help.”
If I want to have kids, what should I be doing?
In 2011, close to one in five births were to women aged 35 and older. “Many women are putting their careers first and don’t start thinking about having a family until they hit their 30s,” says Dr. Chen. “If you are considering pregnancy, ask your doctor what you should be doing to stay healthy.” Most important, she says, is maintaining a healthy weight, eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. She also recommends taking folic acid. “Ideally, you’d start taking 0.4 milligrams of folic acid daily three months prior to pregnancy to prevent neural tube defects,” she says.
In your 40s
What should I be doing to stay physically fit?
Are your joints aching? Muscles feeling tight? Are you gaining weight, even though you’re as active as you’ve always been? “Your metabolism changes in your 40s, which means you have to condition your muscles and joints with gentle stretching exercises in a way you probably didn’t have to in your 20s,” Dr. Forte says. You should log at least 150 minutes of activity a week for a minimum 10 minutes at a time. Now is also the time to start thinking about the muscles that are easy to forget, i.e. your pelvic floor. “Doing Kegels now will help build those internal muscles to prevent bladder or incontinence issues later on,” says Dr. Forte.
Is there anything I can do to ward off common diseases?
Review any medical risk factors, including family history and lifestyle choices, with your doctor says Dr. Cindy Forbes, a family physician in Fall River, N.S. One of the most effective lifestyle changes you can make is to amp up physical activity.
Am I eating right?
Diet is also something you can improve with the help of your doctor. There’s a reason you start having blood tests to screen for diabetes in your 40s, says Dr. Chen. “This is when those not-so-healthy food choices you made over the years start to catch up with you, so maintaining a balanced diet is more important than ever.”
How can I manage my pre-menopausal symptoms?
Menopause symptoms can surface in your mid-40s and include everything from hot flashes and vaginal dryness to irritability and depression. “Everyone’s experience is different, but if you find yourself struggling, there is evidence that women who exercise have an easier time,” says Dr. Forbes. Stress-reduction techniques, like meditation or yoga, also help.
In your 50s
Should I be taking any supplements?
Thanks to a decline in estrogen levels, menopausal women need 1,500 mg of calcium a day to prevent osteoporosis. “We also recommend taking vitamin D for healthy bones,” says Dr. Forbes.
Do I need to change the way I exercise?
Physical activity is more important than ever as you age, particularly as muscle mass and bone density decrease. Weight-bearing exercises that force you to work against gravity, such as walking, jogging, dancing or playing tennis, will also help strengthen your bones, advises Dr. Forbes.
What screening tests to do I need?
“We call them ‘screening’ tests because we’re trying to pick up patients who don’t have symptoms,” says Dr. Chen. In your 50s, you’ll start having mammograms every one to two years and a stool test for colon cancer every two years. Still, you don’t need to focus on tests to tell you if you’re heathy, says Dr. Amanda Condon, a family physician in Winnipeg. “The true markers of health—mood, sleep, exercise, relationships—are the key things you should continue talking to your doctor about.”
In your 60s
Am I up-to-date with my vaccines?
Two-thirds of shingles cases in Canada occur in people over 50 and the severity of the illness increases with age, so it’s important to get vaccinated (the vaccine is most effective for those between 65 and 70). Starting at age 65, you should also consider a pneumonia vaccine. “Your immune system isn’t quite as strong as it was, which puts you at higher risk if you do get sick,” says Dr. Forbes.
How can I live longer and better?
Continue challenging your brain and stay socially engaged, says Dr. Forbes. “It would be great if family doctors could just write a prescription that says, ‘have coffee with a friend.’”
The most important thing to consider at any age is preventative health, says Dr. Boris So, medical director of Patient Networks in Toronto. “The largest determinant of health begins with lifestyle management.” That means regularly checking in with your healthcare provider on such basics as sleeping, diet, exercise and mental health. Be proactive in setting goals for your health, and ask your doctor what areas of your health could use improvement, and what you should work on before your next visit.
Family medicine is all about the big picture, Dr. Forte adds. “Even without an annual physical, I still like seeing patients to find out what’s happening in their lives—I want to know about their relationships, their work, their habits—all of these things can have a huge impact on their health,” she says. “And the more your doctor knows about you, the better they can tailor your care.”
Originally published November 2017; Updated January 2020.