Can an annual physical exam spot early signs of cancer or heart disease?

For this, we turned to Matthew Ellman, M.D., Director of Yale Internal Medicine Associates. He writes:

“Absolutely.  During a complete preventive clinical examination, your primary care physician can assess any changes in your body you may have noticed or physical exam findings that might be early signs of serious problems which require further medical evaluation.

“In addition, your physician can conduct a comprehensive review of your personal and family medical history and lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and tobacco and alcohol and use this information to guide additional medical tests needed for early detection of cancer or cardiovascular disease.

“For example, potentially life-saving screening mammography to detect early breast cancer or colonoscopy to detect early colorectal cancer (or precancerous polyps) may be recommended by your physician at the time of your examination.

“With regards to cardiovascular disease, simple and standard assessments such as blood pressure measurements and a blood test for cholesterol readings can help your physician identify your risk cardiovascular disease and need for additional testing or treatment. Untreated high blood pressure, which often causes no symptoms, can lead to strokes, heart attacks, heart failure as well as kidney and eye problems. Depending on your particular medical and lifestyle issues, your physician may suggest additional testing for early detection of cardiovascular disease. For example, for men age 65-75 who have smoked cigarettes in their lifetime, an ultrasound may be recommended to check for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. An aneurysm, which is a bulge in a weakened blood vessel, can lead to very serious problems if left untreated.

“In addition to spotting early signs of cancer or heart disease, the complete preventive exam is a great opportunity for your physician to work with you on identifying and improving any medical or lifestyle factors to reduce your chances of developing these serious health problems in the future and keep you as healthy as possible.”

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