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Harvard Health Letters

Q: I see my doctor every year for an annual physical examination. I recently heard that people who have annual physicals don’t really live any longer. Should I still go?

A: It is worth doing, but not for the reasons you might expect. A recent analysis of past research found that annual exams do not reduce deaths from cancer or heart disease, which are the leading causes of death. On the other hand, many of the studies that were reviewed date back to a time when fewer preventive services were available, which might explain why people benefited less.

But even if routine check-ups don’t promise a longer life, there are other important benefits. Office visits help you establish a relationship with your primary care provider. They allow your doctor to understand how you prefer to approach your health issues, which is important when choosing the best treatment for you.

In addition, an established and trusting relationship is essential when you are faced with a major health problem. An annual exam also establishes your “baseline” health and physical status. Although medical studies are unlikely to demonstrate how this helps, most physicians will confirm that having a baseline helps them diagnose a new condition if it arises.

But there are some things you can skip if you are feeling healthy and your primary care provider does not identify any concerns. Yearly blood tests and electrocardiograms don’t appear necessary in healthy adults. Routine X-rays and stress tests should also be avoided.

Our advice is to take advantage of those regular visits as an opportunity to engage your health-care provider and take an inventory of your current health status.