Prevention is often called the best medicine — but research has shown that millions of Americans are not getting the preventive care they should to live long, healthy lives. Obstacles like inadequate access to care and financial barriers can keep people away from the doctor, but anxiety and feeling like care is unnecessary are also common deterrents.
“There are a lot of things that every person could do to stay healthy, and this could help people to feel better, improve their quality of life and help them to live longer,” says Dr. Alex Krist, a professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and vice chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), a panel of experts that sets a variety of preventive care recommendations for Americans. (See all of their recommendations here.)
While a person’s exact medical needs vary depending on their age, sex, lifestyle behaviors and family health history, Krist says there are four main kinds of preventive medicine that could help every American live their best, longest life.
Screenings are an important but complicated area of preventive care. “What’s right for an individual person depends a little bit on their overall health and their condition. It’s not always as simple as, ‘At this age, do this test,’” Krist says. “Science is continually evolving, so we’re continually learning new things, and the guidelines and recommendations frequently change.”
Even though the USPSTF does not offer a specific recommendation on annual physicals or wellness visits, Krist says it can be useful to regularly visit a primary care provider or family medicine physician, who can assess your specific risk profile and run the appropriate tests or refer you to specialists who can. “Primary care is really the specialty of preventive care,” Krist says. And that specialty is an impactful one: A recent study published in found that for every additional 10 primary care physicians in a population of 100,000, the group’s life expectancy would increase by 51.5 days.
Most adults should be screened regularly for high blood pressure, depression, sexually transmitted infections, skin cancer and substance misuse, according to the USPSTF. Most other screenings are specialized depending on age, sex and individual risk factors.
And while many Americans are not up to date with their recommended screenings, Krist also says it’s important to avoid over-testing. Cervical cancer is a good example, he says. While the USPSTF recommends screenings every three to five years for most women, some patients want yearly tests — which may increase the risk of false diagnoses and over-treatment, he says. “In some cases, more is not better,” Krist says. “It’s about getting the right preventive care at the right time.” Here, too, your doctor can help you figure out what screenings you really need, and on what schedule.
Getting the appropriate vaccines is an effective and easy way to avoid contracting and spreading diseases, Krist says. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains a detailed list of recommended vaccines by age, from birth through adulthood. While most are given in childhood and last for life, the CDC recommends the flu shot for almost every American each year. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which was recently approved for adults as well as teenagers, can also help prevent cervical cancer, potentially prolonging your life.
Any person with mental health concerns, or diagnosed conditions such as depression and anxiety, should see a professional. But counseling isn’t just therapy; talking with your primary care physician about lifestyle habits can have an impact on your overall health and longevity. “Four health behaviors probably account for about a third of excess premature deaths in America: not eating right, not exercising, smoking and unhealthy alcohol use,” Krist says.
Getting those habits under control, with help from a health care practitioner if necessary, can reduce your risk of conditions including obesity, depression, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and premature death, research shows. One 2018 study even found that exercising can be enough to help people override a genetic risk of heart disease. A 2017 study also found that about half of cancer cases are attributable to controllable factors such as diet, exercise and alcohol consumption.
Preventive medications guidance
Depending on your specific health profile, your doctor may recommend certain medications to help prevent chronic diseases, Krist says. For example, doctors recommend that some older Americans take a daily aspirin to help prevent cardiovascular disease (although research in this area is evolving, and a daily aspirin does not appear to be safe for everyone). Some medications have also been found to reduce a woman’s risk of breast cancer.
Working with your doctor to address these four areas of preventive medicine can help you feel better now and put you on the path to longevity.
Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme.