Understanding your family's health history, and other factors such as your body mass index, are factors you should take into consideration when you think about the frequency of health screenings.

Dr. Roxanne McDermott, an obstetrician-gynecologist with Clinica Sierra Vista, has a piece of advice for any man or woman with questions about preventive care: Whether a person is healthy or worried they might have a medical condition, everyone should see their primary care physician at least once a year for a checkup.

That’s a good baseline for being proactive about your self-care, she said.

But how often a person should be screened for the multitude of ailments that can be prevented, caught early or defeated depends on factors such as their age, body-mass index and, just as significantly, their family history.

“The more that we can get patients screened, the better it is for patient outcomes,” said Dr. Ingrid Wang of Kaiser Permanente.

But how do you know which health issues you should look out for?

Well, that all depends.

Universal factors

One of the first, more common concerns that might make someone want to keep a closer eye on certain health risks, — which doesn’t always take a medical degree to identify — is weight gain.

“As a general population, especially with COVID, I know I’ve gained weight, and I see it in our patients, also, and certainly with that comes health conditions or concerns,” Wang said.

That’s one of the reasons why annual blood pressure screening is recommended for all patients once they reach age 18, Wang said.

The reasoning for the test is not just so doctors can prescribe medication, she added. It goes back to having a conversation about your health.

Similarly, obtaining a baseline for cholesterol levels within a couple of years of that first blood pressure screening is also a good idea, “especially if your body mass index is greater than 25,” she said, referring to the baseline measurement determined by a person’s height and weight.

Cardiovascular disease and diabetes are two other common ailments associated with having a BMI above what’s generally considered a healthy range, about 18.5 to 24.9.

For most of those conditions, age also plays a role in when you should get screened and how often, which also goes hand in hand with your family’s history.

Considering genetic factors

Both McDermott and Wang said one’s risk factors also are very much influenced by genetics.

“Normally, if heart disease or stroke runs in the family, especially in younger, first-degree relatives, certainly that guideline would be different, meaning the screening would be more frequent,” she said.

That’s a big reason why understanding your family’s history is an important part of learning the conditions for which you might be at risk. Consequently, those could be the conditions to check up on more frequently, she explained.

For example, mammograms are part of the regular recommended screening for all women aged 40 and older. But it might be important to get screened much earlier, if your family has a history of cancer.

“For colon cancer screening and breast cancer screening, oftentimes we say you (should) actually start the screenings 10 years prior to the diagnosis of your first-degree relative,” Wang said, referring to a sibling or parent who shares at least 50 percent of your DNA. “So, if your father had colon cancer at age 45, I would actually recommend that you start colonoscopy screenings at age 35.”

Resources available

An important consideration for many to know when it comes to preventive care is that many of these important screenings and tests are available for free, McDermott said, referring to the coverage from Medi-Cal, the state-run provider, as an example, as fairly comprehensive in that respect.

“A lot of patients can get a lot of these things totally covered,” McDermott added. “In California, if you don’t have health insurance, all pap smears are covered … and there’s a breast cancer screening program where all mammograms are free.”

At Clinica Sierra Vista, there’s a Medi-Cal office at each clinic, she said, adding that the doctors on staff are “pretty well-versed in what’s covered,” and can help patients with advice or answers.

But the important part of that, she reiterated, is paying your primary care physician a regular visit.

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