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Opinions vary on the necessity of annual physical exams, particularly for men under age 40 and women under age 50. But it won't hurt, and in fact, you might find it to be a good opportunity to clarify your short- and long-term health needs with your doctor. A clean bill of health can give you peace of mind as you go about your normal activities, or it could result in the early detection of a dreaded illness, which in turn, could lead to a more successful treatment and cure.

Whether it's your first physical exam in years or a regular annual check-up, here's how to prepare and what to look for.

Before the appointment

You will want to be prepared to discuss your recent physical condition, including any recent health problems. If there have been some illnesses, it won't hurt to jot down a brief history to make certain nothing is forgotten. You could even fax this information to the doctor's office ahead of time so the office will be prepared. Include details of your family's medical history as this can help the physician to pay particular attention to potential problem areas. Include any medications or supplements you are taking, particularly ones prescribed by another physician. If it is necessary for the current doctor to prescribe medication, you don't want a drug that might cause a reaction with something you are already taking.

Also include details about your lifestyle, particularly elements that might affect your health. Do you use tobacco or alcohol (and in what quantities), any recent weight loss or gain, trouble sleeping, stress, etc.

An exam checklist

Depending on the depth of the physical exam, some or all of the following tests might me performed

a.. Blood pressure - any reading over 140/90 could be cause for concern.
b.. Cholesterol - a blood test result over 200 mg/dl should lead to a more detailed look at your LDL, HDL and triglyceride levels.
c.. Skin cancer screening exam - a look at every part of your body for suspicious lesions and/or changes in existing moles.
d.. Electrocardiogram (EKG) - this is to check the rhythm of your heart.
e.. Fecal occult blood test - a check for colon cancer (the number two cancer killer).
f.. Height/weight - is weight consistent with height?
g.. Urinalysis - screens for diabetes and kidney function problems.
h.. Additional tests for women:
a.. Pap smear - to check for cervical cancer
b.. Pelvis and breasts - to check for cancer or other abnormalities
i.. Additional tests for men:
a.. Testicles - for tumors
b.. Prostate - for cancer
Talk with the doctor after the exam (or after the test results come in)

a.. If no problems are found - ask if you are at risk for any potential problems and what lifestyle changes can be made.
b.. If you are diagnosed with a condition - find out if it is under control or map out a treatment plan. Make certain you understand everything and are in complete agreement with proposed treatment.
A clean bill of health can bring peace of mind, and your ticket to peace of mind is an annual physical exam.