The regular health checks you should take advantage of

by Ruth Nichol / 08 February, 2018
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You don’t have to be sick to have a medical health check, but if you have cause to see your GP, ask for one of these.

Kiwis don’t typically have annual medical check-ups in the way that President Donald Trump and many of his fellow Americans do. Wellington GP and medical director of the Royal New Zealand College of GPs Richard Medlicott says there’s a good reason for that: “There’s no evidence that people who have an annual health check are any better off than those who don’t.”

However, he says it is important to visit your doctor if you have symptoms you’re concerned about. You can also take advantage of a range of health checks, tests and vaccines to help you stay healthy during 2018.

  1. Cardiovascular risk assessment

Your doctor uses a range of measures to calculate your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. These include your blood pressure and cholesterol and blood-sugar levels. They’ll also take your family history and assess risk factors such as smoking, obesity, diabetes and previous high blood pressure.

Men aged 45-plus and women aged 55-plus should have a cardiovascular risk assessment every five years. Those of Māori, Pasifika or Indo-Asian descent or with a family history of heart disease or diabetes should start 10 years earlier.

If you have a risk score of 10% or higher, your doctor will recommend lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise and eating better. You might also be prescribed medication to help lower your blood pressure.

  1. Bowel cancer screening

Three district health boards already provide free tests to those aged 60-74 under the national bowel-screening programme. The Southern DHB will offer the free tests this year, followed by six other boards by the middle of next year, five more in the 2019/20 financial year and the last five in 2020/21.

The two-yearly test involves screening for blood in bowel motions. If you have a positive result, you might be referred for a colonoscopy to investigate further. Eligible participants will be contacted once their DHB joins the programme.

  1. Skin cancer checks

Check your skin every three months and see your doctor if you notice a new skin lesion or a mole or freckle that’s changed. If you’re fair skinned, you work or spend a lot of time outdoors or you have a lot of moles or a family history of skin cancer, talk to your GP about whether you need to have regular skin checks at their surgery.

  1. Regular mammograms

If you’re a woman aged 45-69, you’re eligible for a free two-yearly mammogram through BreastScreen Aotearoa. Younger women with a family history of breast cancer may also be eligible. You should be invited to join the programme when you turn 45 – contact BreastScreen Aotearoa if you haven’t been.

  1. Cervical screening

All New Zealand women aged 20-70 are eligible for a free three-yearly smear test for cervical cancer. This will change later this year. The tests will be offered every five years to women aged 25-69. The test itself is also changing. Instead of screening for abnormal cell changes, the test will initially screen for the human papillomavirus (HPV), which causes most cases of cervical cancer.

  1. Prostate cancer checks

The jury is still out on the value of running national screening programmes for prostate cancer. If you’re a man aged 50 or more, talk to your GP about whether you should have a digital examination and a blood test to measure your levels of prostate-specific antigen (PSA), which may indicate you have a prostate tumour. Have the conversation when you’re 40 if your father or brother has had prostate cancer.

  1. Shingles vaccination

From April, everyone aged 65 or older is eligible for a free dose of shingles vaccine Zostavax. If you had chicken pox as a child, you’re at risk of developing shingles when the varicella zoster virus reactivates, resulting in a painful rash that might cause vision problems and long-lasting nerve pain. The older you are, the more likely you are to get shingles.

This article was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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