Men’s health: It’s never too early to start annual exams.

Key takeaways:

  • For many men, focusing on health and wellness is a challenge — 72% would rather scrub a toilet than see the doctor.

  • Setting up an appointment with a primary care doctor is vital to have better long-term health.

  • Virtual care can be a convenient way to establish a relationship with a primary care doctor.

  • Including a discussion about mental health can improve your overall well-being.

[5 MIN READ]

Quick questions:

Hey guys – just a few quick questions for you:

Did you put off seeing your doctor during the pandemic?

Do you have a nagging feeling that you need to get something checked out?

Is your life — work, family, friends — so busy it’s easy to forget to make an appointment?

You’re not alone — and if you’re like other men in your situation, you may prefer to tackle that pesky home project or find any other excuse to reschedule. Anything to keep you from stepping into an exam room. In fact, one survey found that 72% of men would rather do household chores like scrub a toilet than see their doctor.

An annual physical is one of the best things you can do for yourself, so why is it so hard to make that appointment?

Making the appointment matters

If you had a choice between a pick-up basketball game during lunch hour with the guys or a doctor’s appointment, which are you choosing? Likely, you’re skipping the doctor — especially if you’re worried they might find something wrong.

But making that appointment with your primary care physician matters. You could catch a problem or two before they develop. That means you’ll have better health in the long run, says James Kuan, M.D., a urologist and medical director of Urology at Swedish-First Hill.

“The primary care doctor steers the boat, and we, as specialists, are part of that team. But we can’t offer you preventive care if we don’t see you,” he says. “The important thing is to get started with routine health care when there’s nothing wrong. Get familiar with the rhythm and the routine and build a relationship and trust with your doctor so you feel comfortable talking about the real stuff when it happens.”

Having that quick visit now can eliminate the need for more appointments later due to poor health or developing conditions.

Virtual care: faster and more convenient

Maybe you’ve put off going to the doctor because it can take weeks or months to get an appointment. Perhaps it’s a hassle to time off work and sits in traffic when you’d rather be doing leg day at the gym. Getting to the doctor’s office can be inconvenient. Add in concerns about COVID-19 exposure during the pandemic, and an in-person annual visit could be at the bottom of your list.

If that’s the case, Dr. Kuan suggests virtual care. Not only do you get to see your doctor but making an appointment for a video visit frequently takes less time and is easier to fit into your day.

“We’ve found many patients prefer virtual visits because they don’t have to sit in the waiting room or leave work. They get to be comfortable in their own office or home, and they come prepared to have a conversation and take notes,” he says. “As a urologist who treats a lot of sexual dysfunctions, virtual visits for many men can be a less threatening way to begin discussing sensitive topics.”

On-screen appointments can also be an effective way to start building your medical relationship with your doctor.

“In some ways, virtual care is a return to a more traditional specialist model,” he says. “You see your doctor for a consultation. Then, you can schedule in office examination and testing if needed. I encourage men to take advantage of this type of appointment opportunity if their caregivers offer it.” 

Of course, he says, there are times when an in-office appointment is required to provide the best and safest care.

What to expect from an annual exam

If you’ve never had an annual wellness exam, you may not know why it’s important or know what to expect. This appointment presents the opportunity to discuss:

  • Any changes to your health, your family history, or any other concerns you may have.
  • Warning signs that may signal you’re at risk of developing a serious health condition, like diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • Resources, support, and encouragement to help you melt away those pandemic pounds.

Your annual exam can include a lot of tests, but remember the ultimate goal: keeping you healthy, happy, and well. Based on your current health and medical and family history, your appointment will likely include several different types of screenings.

Height and weight

This assessment calculates your body mass index (BMI). While BMI is an imperfect tool, it can help determine your body fat and risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and other diseases.

Blood pressure

Your blood pressure measures how much blood your heart is pumping to your body and how much resistance it meets as it goes through your arteries due to plaque build-up or heart or vascular disease. Men are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease at a younger age than women so it’s important to take steps to head off a heart attack or stroke. Your doctor will check your blood pressure once a year — or more frequently if you have a history of hypertension.

Cholesterol screening

A simple blood test can assess your cholesterol levels, which are an indicator of cardiovascular disease risk. If your levels are off, your doctor can help you develop an action plan that may involve simple dietary or activity changes. The American Heart Association recommends that everyone (men and women) over the age of 20 have their cholesterol levels checked every four to six years if the risk remains low.

Blood glucose test

Based on age, family history, and lifestyle, your doctor can recommend if it’s time for you to have a blood glucose (sugar) screening. If your levels are higher than normal, your doctor may classify you as “pre-diabetic.” The good news is that there are many steps you can take to get your blood glucose levels back to normal even if your tests indicate any level of diabetes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 37.3 million people in the U.S. have diabetes. Nearly 95% of those people have type 2 diabetes. Even more startling is that 21% of all individuals with diabetes don’t even know they have it. Diabetes can lead to serious health complications so it’s important to find out early if you may be developing this condition. 

Immunizations

Vaccinations aren’t just for kids. In fact, staying current with immunizations can help you avoid severe problems in adulthood. COVID-19 is still in the news and infection and vaccine rates show how important these shots are for men. In some states, men are being infected with COVID-19 at higher rates than women. A lower vaccination rate among men could be partly responsible – nationwide, roughly 40% of men got the shot versus approximately 60% of women.

Alongside your COVID-19 vaccine (or booster), your annual wellness exam is the perfect time to talk with your doctor about what vaccines you may need, including:

  • Influenza (men are 25% more likely to die from the flu)
  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis)
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV) (men are three times more likely than women to be affected by throat cancer caused by HPV)
  • Shingles (adults 50 years and older)
  • Pneumonia (adults 65 years and older or those with certain health conditions)

Basic metabolic panel and complete blood count (CBC)

These blood tests are often done together. A basic metabolic panel is a blood test that measures your metabolism, your body’s chemical balances, and the function of your vital organs like the kidneys, lungs, and liver.

CBC helps assess your overall health. It screens for anemia, infections, inflammation, bleeding disorders, and blood cancers.

Sexual health

If you’re sexually active with multiple partners, talk to your doctor about your risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Actual cases of STIs among older adults (age 55 and up) are still pretty low, but the infection rate itself is accelerating. In recent years, the STI rate for this age group jumped roughly 107%. So, while it may be a little uncomfortable to talk about it, discuss STIs, symptoms, and protection with your doctor. It could help prevent an infection you can’t cure like herpes or HIV.

Cancer screenings

Cancer screenings help detect cancer earlier and save lives. In fact, cancer survivorship has skyrocketed in the past decade, largely due to advances in treatment and regular screenings that help find cancer earlier when it’s easier to treat.

During your physical exam, your doctor may discuss which cancer screenings may be best for you – and why. These are the most common:

Lung cancer

If you are a current or past smoker between the ages of 50 and 80 and have a 20 pack per year (or more) smoking history, your doctor may recommend a low-dose CT scan that screens for early-stage lung cancer.

Prostate cancer

Your doctor may perform a digital rectal exam during your annual exam to assess the health of your prostate. Sometimes, this can also identify lumps or growths around the prostate. Depending on your age, race, and family history, your doctor may also recommend a prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test that can detect elevated protein levels that may suggest prostate cancer. Keep in mind that an elevated PSA test result does not mean you have prostate cancer but it may be a reason for additional testing.

If you have a family history (father or brother) of prostate cancer or you’re of African American descent, doctors strongly recommend early screening, Dr. Kuan says.

Colorectal cancer

The American Cancer Society recommends that men who are 45 years old and above, and are at average risk of developing colorectal cancer, start regular screenings. If you are at higher risk because of family history or pre-existing conditions, then you may need to start screenings earlier. A colonoscopy is a gold standard for detecting colorectal cancer. In most people, colorectal cancer cells grow very slowly, and symptoms don’t arise until the disease is more advanced so it’s important to get screened regularly.

If you’re not ready to commit to a colonoscopy, your provider may discuss other alternatives, like Cologuard®, an at-home fecal blood test. At-home tests are not as accurate as a colonoscopy, but they do offer a 93% sensitivity rate and are non-invasive.

Dental Care

Remember to schedule these appointments, too:

  • Dental exams: Good oral health can affect your overall health, including your heart health and digestive health. See your dentist every six months.
  • Eye exams: Visit an ophthalmologist once a year to screen for vision changes and issues, including cataracts or glaucoma.

Don’t forget your mental health

It’s important to remember that taking care of yourself means more than just handling physical problems when they pop up. You must pay attention to your mental health, too.

“Mental health, in many ways, defines and separates men’s health from men’s wellness. Good mental health helps us deal with the unhealthy aspects of men’s health in better ways,” Dr. Kuan says. “Wellness is focused on being proactive and preventive.”

Mental and physical health are closely connected. Whether you’re worried about a sensitive issue like erectile dysfunction or are feeling like stress at work is affecting your heart, talk with your doctor about things that weigh heavily on your mind, he says.

Seeking LGBTQIA+ and Gender-Inclusive Care

If you’re part of the LGBTQIA+ community, it’s equally as important for you to get the health services you need. Through its Office of Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and Transgender Health services, Swedish is dedicated to providing compassionate care to all patients regardless of gender identity or expression or sexual orientation.

Whether you identify as transgender or non-binary, keep a close relationship with your primary care physician, Dr. Kuan says, because there are some health conditions that are tied to your genetics, anatomy, and hormones.

“While there are unique health concerns related to transgender care, we cannot overlook that transgender people, who were genetically born as a male, may remain at risk for many of the conditions that affect men’s health, including prostate diseases, sexual dysfunction, or cardiovascular disease.” he says.

Your doctor can also talk with you about the most appropriate annual screenings if you’re undergoing gender-affirming hormonal therapy.

Making healthy choices

During your annual exam, your provider will also discuss the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. These behaviors top the list:

  • Exercise at least 150 minutes a week
  • Eat a healthy diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fats
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Stop smoking if you do

Following these behaviors can make you feel empowered and in control of your good health – long after you leave the exam room.

Take control of your health

Phew. There’s a lot that can happen during your annual visit. It’s all aimed at maintaining your overall health. Don’t worry, though, you likely won’t need all these screenings at the same time. Your doctor will let you know when the time is right. Just remember, getting started with regular appointments early can make it easier to spot problems when they pop up.

Knowledge is power when it comes to your health. Although it can feel daunting to head to the doctor because of the time commitment and worries about embarrassing conversations or scary test results, you may feel more empowered afterward.

When your doctor notices any red flags, they will help you make a plan to reduce your risk of certain conditions. And, rest assured, Swedish is taking steps to keep you safe when you visit – including wearing masks, encouraging physical distancing, and disinfecting surfaces.

So, please, don’t put off your annual wellness exam or cancer screenings any longer. The doctor’s office is a safe place, free of judgment and full of encouragement and support.

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Learn more and find a provider

If you have concerns about your health or it’s time for a check-up, it’s important to see a primary care provider. Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Don’t put off your diabetes and blood pressure screenings

Take control of your good health with regular cancer screenings

When to schedule a prostate cancer screening

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Men's Health Team is dedicated to helping men of all ages reach and maintain their optimal health by providing relevant and helpful clinically based advice.

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