Many of us want to improve our health. The most common things I hear my patients say are: "I want to quit smoking, lose weight, exercise, practice safe sex, use seatbelts, eat a healthier diet and be nicer to family and friends."

While these are all great goals, another important but often overlooked goal is to get rid of that two-letter word "If." You know, the one where you say: "Doctor, if I only knew to check my skin for those moles; if I only took the time to get my blood pressure checked; if I only got that mammogram when I should have."

Knowledge Is Key

The first defense against the "if" factor is to take charge of your health and learn what you need to do, and when you need to do it, to keep your body running at tip-top shape. After all, when you buy a car, you maintain it according to schedule. So why not have a similar schedule to maintain your body?

Sure, making all those appointments may cost some money and be time-consuming, and while it isn't much fun to get poked and prodded and tested, the point is to keep preventable diseases from stealing your time, your health and very possibly your life.

The Starting Line

To get you started, here is a general health schedule for people age 20 and above. Please remember that it is a recommendation only. Your personal health schedule may involve other tests, such as a fasting blood glucose test to screen for diabetes, and it may need to be more frequent if you have a medical condition that necessitates it.

The Complete Physical

People age 20 to 45 should have a physical exam once every five years; those who are 45-65 should have a physical every two years. After 65, a yearly exam is recommended (unless you have a condition that requires you to be examined more frequently).

Dental Checkup

Your teeth should be cleaned and examined every six months to a year. This would change, of course, if a specific problem needed to be addressed. If you smoke or chew tobacco products, these exams may save your life.

Eye Exam

Generally you need to undergo an eye exam every two years if you wear glasses or contacts or yearly if you have diabetes or other eye problems. If you have good vision, get a complete eye exam starting at age 40 every two years. This schedule will be adjusted by your eye specialist based upon your exam.

Colon Exam

Colon cancer is the third most common form of cancer among men and women. Early detection is crucial because colorectal cancer, which runs in families (10 to 15 percent of all colon cancers are inherited), is a very deadly form of cancer, killing about 40 percent of its victims. I know this exam is no fun and makes many people feel embarrassed. But what's to be embarrassed about? After all, we're talking about your life.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), age 50 is a key milestone to begin screening for this type of cancer. However, please know that many physicians begin testing at age 40, especially if there's a history of colon cancer in your family.

Here are the recommended screening options:

  • Yearly fecal occult blood test (FOBT), which screens for blood in the stool (even if you can't see blood in your stool it may be there!).
  • A flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years (in addition to an annual FOBT).
  • Double-contrast barium enema every five years.
  • Colonoscopy every 10 years. This test is increasing in popularity due to its reliability and accuracy.

Please don't be scared off by these tests. Your physician may recommend only one or two of these diagnostics to screen for colon cancer. If colon cancer runs in your family, be sure to tell your physician and ask if you need a colonoscopy sooner rather than later.