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Are you a Queenslander in your 20s? Here are the health issues to have on your radar

Thursday 19 January 2017

Five friends seated in a row on a hill, wearing sunglasses and taking a selfie
Building good social support networks is a smart health choice, particularly for young men

Long term health is rarely on anyone’s radar in their 20s. For one thing, you’re busy – your 20s are a time of learning, starting careers, travelling, having fun, or generally figuring out what you’re going to do with your life.

For another, the vast bulk of the things that tend to kill Australians are statistically unlikely to hit until well into your future, and you’re part of a generation that has a higher life-expectancy than those who came before you.

That’s the good news, but it’s no reason to be complacent. While it’s important to have fun and live your life, this post takes a close look at some of the health issues we’d recommend having on your radar throughout your 20s.

Tests and checks for both genders

Let’s start with the serious stuff. Regardless of your gender, this is the short-list of medical tests and checks you should be prioritising in your 20s.

Start doing regular skin checks for melanoma at home every month

Your teachers tried to drill it into you at school, but your 20s is where it’s easy to forget, so here’s your quick reminder: be sun safe. Wear a broad brim hat, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing. Use SPF30+ (or higher) sunscreen when you’re outdoors. Spend as much time in the shade as possible.

It is also a good idea to, start doing regular skin checks in front of the mirror every month. Get to know your moles and if there are any changes have them checked by your doctor. Queensland has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, across all age groups, and it's the most commonly diagnosed cancer among those under 35 in our state. More of us get it, and more of us die from it. Start paying attention now.

Get your blood pressure checked every three to five years

Blood pressure is the pressure of the blood in the arteries as the heart pumps it around the body. You’ll probably have this checked fairly regularly without paying too much attention to it – your regular GP will frequently check your blood pressure as a part of treating other illnesses– but it’s probably a good idea to have one at least every two years.

Get your cholesterol levels and blood glucose checked as recommended by your GP

Your 20s are the point where you need to start paying attention to your cholesterol and/or glucose levels, especially if you’re a smoker, you’re overweight, or you’ve got a family history of heart disease or type 2 diabetes. Get your first cholesterol and/or glucose test close to your twentieth birthday, and your GP can advise you on how often you need to be retested based on the results.

Get your eyes checked every two years

Medicare will cover the cost of an eye check every 3 years at the optometrist of your choice. Putting these checks on your radar is useful, because it’s not always obvious when you’re developing an eye condition and the test can pick up early warning signs, many of which can be treated.

Have a dental check-up twice a year

Eating and drinking healthy, brushing your teeth regularly, and using fluoride toothpaste will go a long way towards keeping your teeth in good condition, but the reality of tooth decay is that you won’t notice the physical symptoms until it’s pretty advanced. A dental check-up every six months gives a dentist the opportunity to spot the early warning signs and treat problems before they’re advanced.

Lifestyle choices for both genders

Here’s the thing: if we go by the mortality statistics in Queensland there is a really good chance that you’re not going to die in your 20s. That means it’s really hard to sit here and go please pay attention to this thing that may kill you in twenty-to-forty years, particularly when it involves making changes to a lifestyle that you’re enjoying a whole lot in the here and now.

But a lot of the really common causes of death in Australia are the result of us making decisions about how we live our lives, starting from the choices that are made in our 20s. So if you’re inclined to do a little forward planning and would like to set yourself up for a healthier time in your thirties, forties, and fifties, here’s a short-list of things to pay attention to.

If you’re a smoker, it’s time to quit

The long-term health benefits of quitting cigarettes now, as opposed to later in life, are considerable. While you start getting the benefits 20 minutes after you quit, it can take years before some of the risk around heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer are reduced.

On the other hand, the long-term health benefits to staying a smoker are…well, non-existent. Call Quitline (13 78 48) or take a look at our advice about quitting smoking.

Develop healthy drinking habits

Your 20s are full of opportunities to go out and have fun, but alcohol related violence, drink spiking, and engaging in high-risk behaviour while drunk are all potential health threats. This makes your 20s a good time to develop healthy habits around drinking. If you're not sure whether your habits qualify, visit mydrinkchoices.qld.gov.au to find out more about your relationships with alcohol.

Eat healthy, be physically active, & control your portions

Your 20s are a great time to make sure that you’re making smart choices about what you eat, how much you eat, and how much you move. You’re in a position to set the habits that will carry through to your later life.

Paying attention to what you eat, your portion sizes, and getting a half-hour of exercise each day helps minimize the chances of heart disease, bowel cancer, type 2 diabetes, and other unpleasant conditions.

Maintain a healthy work-life balance and develop support networks

Stress is a natural part of everyone’s life in their 20s, but it’s important to realise the difference between normal stress and the point where it’s becoming a problem. The same applies to your mental health – it’s normal to feel sad or low for a time, but when it persists for a period of two weeks or more, you’re moving into the terrain where it could be depression or anxiety.

One of the best things you can do for your mental health is maintain a healthy work-life balance and develop healthy relationships with friends, family, and your romantic partner. Create boundaries between your work and your personal life, and prioritise the relationships that are built on respect and a willingness to lend one-another support.

Practice safe sex and protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections

There’s a lot of advice about this one out there, so let’s focus on one of the important ones: use condoms when you’re having vaginal, oral, or anal sex. Have this conversation with your partner early, when you can, so there’s no confusion about it.

Even if you’re using other contraception methods to avoid pregnancy, use the condoms as well. They’re the only method that protects you against both sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy, and you’re always within your rights to say no to sex if you can’t agree on how to have sex safely.

Women’s health

With the general stuff out of the way, let’s take a look at some of the tests that should be on your radar if you’re a woman in your 20s.

Get a pap smear every five years

If you’re over eighteen and you’ve had sex, you should schedule a pap smear every five years. This applies even if you are no longer having sex, regardless of whether your partner was male or female, and whether you’ve had the HPV vaccine or not.

Your pap smear detects early changes in the cells of the cervix that may, if not checked or treated, evolve into cervical cancer. In the vast majority of cases women who develop cervical cancer have never had a pap smear, or not had a pap smear at the recommended five year interval, so schedule your cervical screening regularly.

You may be used to hearing this advice every two years, but new evidence and better technology have changed the interval between screenings from May 1st, 2017.

Be breast aware

Breast cancer isn’t common in younger women, but it pays to be breast aware. Get to know the look and feel of your own breasts, and check for any changes. Breast changes to look out for include:

  • a new lump or lumpiness, especially if it's only in one breast
  • a change in the size or shape of your breast
  • a change to the nipple, such as crusting, ulcer, redness or inversion
  • a nipple discharge that occurs without squeezing
  • a change in the skin of your breast such as redness or dimpling
  • an unusual pain that doesn't go away.

Most breast changes aren’t cancerous, but it pays to make sure so go see your doctor, True Relationships and Reproductive Health Clinic or local sexual health clinic if you find something.

Men’s health

Right, let’s take a moment to talk through some of the checks and lifestyle conditions you should definitely have on your mind if you’re a young bloke in your 20s.

The good news: it’s a short list. The bad news: the two things on this list have some pretty unpleasant consequences, and cover the things where young men are leading the way in terms of mortality statistics.

Start regularly examining your testicles for any changes 

Right, gents, here’s the really, really bad news: testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men between 20 and 35 years old, and there’s currently no known way to screen for or prevent testicular cancer.

The burden of checking for this one is all on you, so stand in front of a mirror, then examine each testicle with both hands, gently rolling the testicle between thumb and forefinger to check  for potential warning signs. The stuff to look out for includes:

  • a painless lump or swelling in either testicle
  • a change in how the testicle feels
  • an ache in the lower abdomen or groin
  • a sudden build-up of fluid in the scrotum
  • pain or discomfort in a testicle or in the scrotum.

If you notice changes or experience any of the above symptoms, go talk to your doctor as soon as you can. This is not one of those situations where you want to take a wait-and-see approach.

No, really, develop your support networks

Let’s put this as plainly as we can – men aren’t great with mental health. In Australia, it’s men who account for 75% of suicides, and suicide is the leading cause of death in young blokes between the age of 15 and 25. Depression is more likely to affect women, but its men who are more likely to die from it.

When it comes to mental health, men are less literate about the specific effects and treatments of mental illness, less likely to seek out help, and they’re more likely to avoid admitting they have problems with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues due to the stigma attached.

Worse, men tend to look towards their romantic relationships for emotional support, rather than friends and family, which can put an increased burden on their partners and leave men vulnerable if the relationship ends.

If you’re a man in your 20s, one of the best things you can do for your long-term health is start building support networks outside of your relationship and start supporting your friends in return. Make sure you’ve got people you can rely upon for emotional support, and places where you feel that you can talk about your feelings without being judged. Get familiar with the effects and treatment of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses, and make sure you’re aware of options outside your support network such as Beyond Blue, Headspace, and the Lifeline crisis counselling service.

A final reminder for everyone

No list on the internet is ever going to cover everything you need to know about your health in your 20s, but it can provide you with a good overview of things to keep in mind. When in doubt, consult with your GP and be guided by their advice.

If you’re interested in seeing what you’ll need to be aware of in later decades, here's a decade by decade breakdowns of common health issues for both men and women.

Last updated: 20 January 2017