Maintaining the machine

Maintaining the machine

Read the owner’s manual, get regular oil changes and an
occasional tuneup, and a well-made car should serve you for
But the tons of information on how to take care of our
– and new studies every day – can confuse people on what we
should do throughout life to ensure good health.
Read the owner’s manual, get regular oil changes and an occasional tuneup, and a well-made car should serve you for years.

But the tons of information on how to take care of our bodies – and new studies every day – can confuse people on what we should do throughout life to ensure good health.

Should you get a flu shot? How often do you need a physical? At what age should you go for your first mammogram or prostate exam? And what can you do to keep your kids or elderly parents well?

Health experts, including federal officials, medical groups and doctor organizations, have created guidelines for the major stages of life: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle age and old age. Check out this guide, where we answer common questions, as well as offer information on the most important health screenings, common illnesses and causes of death at various stages of life.

Think of it as an owner’s manual for your body.

Early childhood

What to watch for

Perinatal conditions and birth defects are the leading causes of death for infants. That’s why precautions should begin before birth and delivery. Pregnant women should make sure they’re on an approved regimen of prenatal vitamins, including folic acid, iron and calcium.

Health recommendations

– Vaccinations: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that up to 56 percent of U.S. toddlers are not fully immunized. There are 11 recommended vaccines for children through age 6. Rates of infants hospitalized for whooping cough have increased since the 1980s, with about 17,000 infants hospitalized between 1999 and 2003. You can find a childhood vaccination schedule at


– Pediatricians: Find someone who’s board-certified. The American Board of Pediatrics can help ( You may want to consider someone with a subspecialty that fits your child’s health conditions – asthma care, for example. Get referrals from friends. You may want to consider getting a family doctor, someone who can provide primary care throughout life.

– Injury and accident prevention: Drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death for ages 1 to 14, and it happens everywhere from swimming pools to bathtubs to toilets. Preventive measures include installing fencing around pools, having the kids use flotation devices and constantly supervising them in the bathroom.


What to watch for

Sports injuries are common in this age group, so make sure any athletes in your household have proper safety gear, such as helmets, shinguards, elbow and knee pads, and ankle braces.

Also watch for signs of depression or other mental illnesses, as suicide is among the leading causes of death for teens.

Cancer is rare at this age, but consult a doctor about warning signs, such as unexplained pain or swelling in limbs, anemia or bone pain.

Parents also should watch for tobacco use. According to the American Lung Association, 90 percent of all smokers had their first puff before the age of 21.

Females should get screened for cervical cancer once they become sexually active; if not sexually active at this age range, then around 21.

Health recommendations:

– HPV vaccine: Parents of teen girls may want to consider the human papilloma virus vaccine, which can be given to females ages 9 to 26 to protect against the strains of HPV that most commonly cause cervical cancer and genital warts.

– Meningitis: Most colleges and universities require incoming freshmen to get the meningococcal meningitis vaccine, which prevents the serious and deadly disease spread most often through close contact.

Early adulthood

What to watch for

The human immunodeficiency virus first becomes a major killer at this age, so experts recommend safer sex practices and getting tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases at least once a year.

Women should begin doing monthly breast self-exams in addition to having annual breast exams administered by a doctor.

Testicular cancer also is most common in this age group. Self-screenings and reporting to a doctor any abnormal growth or aches surrounding the testes can help prevent the spread of this cancer, which is now treatable.

Health recommendations:

– The right doctor: Many people in this age group are moving from their parents’ doctor to their own, and picking a good physician to stick with you throughout your life changes is especially important. Discuss what you’re looking for with your family; rely on relatives and social networks for recommendations; and use Web sites such as to add or subtract from your list. In the end, your choice may depend on which doctor is covered under your insurance.

Middle age

What to watch for

Chronic liver disease is a major killer in this age group. Limit alcohol consumption – no more per day than about two drinks for men and one for women. Diabetes and heart disease also are major threats, so remember to maintain a healthy diet and engage in the federally recommended minimum of 30 minutes per day of exercise.

Health recommendations:

– Physical exams: Keep up with your annual checkups. Your physician can keep track of cholesterol and blood pressure and catch potential risks for heart disease.

– Prevention and screening: Women should get annual mammograms at this stage to screen for breast cancer, and men should get annual prostate-cancer screenings at around 50. Both men and women should begin getting colon-cancer screenings at age 50.

Old age

What to watch for

Strokes, emphysema and bronchitis are the most common killers at this age. Do your best to prevent a stroke by lowering high blood pressure, quitting smoking and treating heart disease and diabetes. Avoiding smoking is the main thing you can do to prevent emphysema and bronchitis.

Health recommendations

– Geriatrician: Doctors who specialize in caring for seniors are hard to find but may understand your health concerns better than a general practitioner. Use to find one.

– Living will: Also called advance directives, living wills are legal documents that instruct others on what to do on your behalf if you are alive but unable to make decisions about your health care. Store one with a lawyer, one with close family and an electronic version at (so your documents are available to hospitals nationwide if needed).

All ages

– Sunscreen: Use one with a SPF of at least 30. To try to prevent skin cancer and premature aging, apply daily for full protection, or at the very least, when you plan to be in the sun for an extended period of time.

– Infection prevention: Simple habits are key. Wash your hands after using the bathroom, before handling food and before and after handling cuts and scrapes. Rub hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use foods by their expiration date, and wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly.

– Diet and fitness: Getting at least 30 minutes per day of exercise and eating a moderate, well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats can keep away a host of problems such as heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

– Car accidents: Motor vehicle crashes kill more people younger than 33 than any other cause, according to federal health statistics. Protect yourself by always wearing a seat belt and never driving while sleepy or under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

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