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Annual health checkups: Nip potential problems in the bud

Annual health checks detect abnormalities and should be carried out regularly.
Older people are more prone to developing medical conditions but young people aren't immune and should be checked out regularly. (Photo: Freepik)
Written by Nompilo Gwala

No one ever squeals with delight when they have to go for annual health checkups – but this is no reason to dread or avoid them. They are designed to assess the risk of potential medical conditions and allow a doctor to pick up early warning signs.

Once you reach the age of 45, these yearly visits become imperative. Early detection and treatment will not only give one a better quality of life, but also possibly a longer life.

Dr Mvuyisi Mzukwa, Vice Chairperson of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), highlighted the importance of these health checkups. He also reminded the younger generation that they aren’t immune.

“Having an annual checkup is very important. And the purpose is to detect any abnormalities in your system, before they develop. So, it’s very important that you pick it up in in the early stages of the disease,” said Mzukwa.

Health tests you SHOULD have

Here are the recommended health tests you should have at least every one to two years – more frequently if you are in the high-risk category:

“First of all, you need to know your weight versus your height, and it will give you what we  call a body mass index (BMI). A normal BMI is between 18 and 25. Anything above 25 indicates obesity,” he explained.

Men aged between 18 and 39

Blood pressure screening should take place at least once every two years. If the systolic number (top number) ranges between 120 to 139, you should have it checked every year. If the top number is 130 or greater, schedule an appointment with your doctor and learn how you can reduce your blood pressure. People with blood pressure have twice the risk of heart disease and an increased risk for stroke.

Cholesterol screening is recommended for men aged 35 with no known risk factors for coronary heart disease. Younger men, as young as 20, with known risk fators should also go. The test must be conducted for five years if your cholesterol is normal. But if lifestyle changes occur, such as weight gain and dietary choices, the test must be repeated. Doctors recommend that all blood lipid levels are also checked.

Diabetes screening is very important and everybody, no matter their age, should be tested every three years. People who are most at risk are those with a family history of diabetes, are overweight, or who have high cholesterol levels or high blood pressure.

Immunisation is very important in preventing viruses and we have seen that with developed vaccines. You should get a flu shot every year and  two doses of varicella vaccine if you never had chickenpox.  You should receive one to two doses of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine if you are not already immune to MMR.

Cancer and early detection

The 2017 National Cancer Registry states that the lifetime risk for testicular men in South Africa is one in 1 737.  The five-year relative survival rate is over 95% and is most common in males aged between 15 and 35.  Early detection may really save your life.

More than 4 300 South African men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. You should do a self-examination monthly especially if you’ve had a testicular tumour before, have a family history or if you’re infertile.

“As a parent, you need to check the development of your son’s testicles. You need to make sure that you can feel both testicles and both testes are at the same level. If not, one may be stuck in the abdomen. It may develop into cancer if not attended to. Make sure that both testes have descended and they’re down in the scrotum,” said Mzukwa.

Infectious disease screening should be done by all adults who are sexually active. You should get a one-time test for hepatitis C. Depending on your lifestyle and medical history, you should test every six months if you’re practising unsafe sex for syphilis, chlamydia, and HIV.

“Mature people are more likely to develop conditions but that shouldn’t exempt younger people from going for annual health checkups. Young people can develop cancer, develop juvenile arthritis as well as diabetes type one. Everyone from the age of 18 should go for yearly checkups,” said Mzukwa.

Health screenings for men ages 40 to 64

Colon cancer is the second most common cancer among men, affecting 1 in 74. The problem with colon cancer is that there are no early symptoms. Once diagnosed, it’s at an advance stage and has spread to other parts of the body. It is therefore important to be aware of family history and take advantage of screening for colorectal cancer before symptoms show. If you don’t have a family history, you should have your first colonoscopy at the age of 50.

If close family members have been diagnosed, you should go for a checkup every 3 to 5 years since one in four cases are genetic and may be detected early with DNA tests.

There are several screening tests available:

  • A stool-based fecal occult blood (gFOBT) or fecal immunochemical test (FIT) every year
  • A stool sDNA test every 1 to 3 years
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy every 5 years or every 10 years with stool testing FIT done every year
  • CT colonography (virtual colonoscopy) every 5 years
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years

Eye tests, prostrate checkups

If you have vision problems, have an eye exam every two years. It is important that you keep a look out for symptoms such as blurry vision, obstructed vision or pain in the eye. Regular eye tests are important as they will detect weak eyesight, glaucoma and cataracts and may even save you from blindness.

One in every 23 South African men will develop prostate cancer in their lifetime. According to the Men’s Foundation, on average 5 South African men will die from prostate cancer every day and 4300 South African men are newly diagnosed with prostate cancer each year. If you are 50 years or older, you need to get checked once a year. Typical signs of prostate cancer may include difficulty in passing urine, enlarged lymph glands or blood in the urine.

Prostrate cancer statistics

Men, aged 35 to 40, are encouraged to do a prostate specific antigen (PSA) blood test which detects any abnormalities. (Screenshot: Men’s Foundation)

Skin exam: Your doctor may check your skin for signs of skin cancer, especially if you’re at high risk. People at high risk include those who have had skin cancer before, have close relatives with skin cancer, or have a weakened immune system. Sporty men like golfers, cricketers, farmers and fishermen should have their skin checked out regularly.

Women aged 18 to 39

Approximately 19.4 million women, aged 15 years and older, are at risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer. Mammograms aren’t recommended for most women younger than 40. However, if you have a mother or sister who had cancer at a young age, consider yearly mammograms. You can self-examine yourself monthly through touching and feeling for any lumps in your breasts.

“Females, younger than 40, are less likely to develop cancer of the breast. This is where budgets and medical aids come in. If you are covered, your provider may not want to waste funds on people who have a lower risk. You also don’t want to expose people to radiation who are less likely to have cancer at that stage,” said Mzukwa.

Pap smears

Pap smear: Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths and the second most common diagnosed cancer among South African women. The Cancer Registry reported in 2017 that 6 600 women were diagnosed with cervical cancer of whom 61.8% were African. Women aged between 21 and 29 should have a Pap test every 3 years. Women aged 30 and above should have a Pap test every three years or an HPV test every five years.

“We recommend that if you are HIV positive that your have a pap smear every year. But if you are HIV negative, you can do it every three to five years,” said Mzukwa.

Infectious disease screening is very important – especially in women who are sexually active and have more than one partner.  In 2017, there were an estimated 2.3 million new cases of gonorrhoea, 1.9 million new chlamydia cases and 23 175 new syphilis cases among women aged between 15 and 49.

Sexually active women are at risk of chlamydia and gonorrhoea. All adults aged 18 to 79 should test for Hepatitis-C on a once-off basis.

Don’t forget diabetes

Diabetes: The 2021 report on mortality and causes of death by Statistics South Africa, found that diabetes is the second deadliest disease in the country. Type two diabetes, known as a “lifestyle disease”, accounts for 90% of diabetes cases in SA. Gestational diabetes is another common type which develops during pregnancy.

If you have close relatives with diabetes, or have a history of heart disease within your family and you are overweight, your doctor will likely screen you.

Women aged 40 to 64

Breast cancer: Any woman aged 40 and older, are prime candidates for mammograms every 1 to 2 years. Women with a family history of breast cancer are at risk. Being overweight, inactive, consuming alcohol regularly, having poor dietary habits and smoking adds increases risk.

Cholesterol: The recommended starting age for cholesterol screening is 45 for women with no known risk factors for coronary heart disease. Once you start, you should do it every five years and if your lifestyle changes, even more frequently. Afrikaans, Indian and Jewish communities often have high cholesterol due to family histories of premature heart disease.

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in women and usually occurs in women over the age of 40. Like most cancers, the symptoms are frequently found too late for effective treatment or a cure. Visit the doctor if you have a family history or if you’ve had inflammatory bowel disease or polyps. If you are aged between 45 and 76, get screened for colorectal cancer.

Diabetes: Almost half of South Africans living with diabetes don’t even know it. National Department of Health spokesperson, Foster Mohale, said 207 372 adults – over the age of 45 – were diagnosed with diabetes during the 2020/2021 financial year. If you are 44 and older, consider a screening, especially for type two diabetes.

Check that cervix

Cervical cancer screening: Cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in South African following breast cancer. The screening process involves taking a pap (or cervical) smear, which is a quick and simple vaginal examination to check if the cervix is healthy. Women, aged 30 to 65, should visit their gynae for a test every three years. However, women aged 65 to 70, can stop having a pap smear test as long as they have had three regular tests within the past 10 years.

Eye exam: An eye exam should be conducted every 2 to 4 years ages for 40 to 54-year-olds and every 1 to 3 years for 55 to 64-year-olds. The doctor may recommend more frequent eye exams if you have vision problem or glaucoma. It is also important to have an annual eye exam if you’re diabetic. – Health-e News 

 

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Nompilo Gwala

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