(USA TODAY) -- Few men would drive a beloved sports car into the ground, ruining its engine for lack of routine oil changes, tune-ups or new belts.
Yet many men don't think twice about neglecting their health, letting a decade or more slip by without scheduling a checkup, says Jeff Cain, president-elect of the American Academy of Family Physicians. One-third of men have no regular doctor, and the same number say they visit a doc only when really sick.
"Men are used to maintaining their cars, but they aren't used to maintaining themselves," says Cain, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver. "But it's just like taking your car to a regular mechanic: The same doctor who takes care of you when you're sick can take care of you when you're well, and hopefully prevent problems down the road."
Unlike women, however, men aren't handed a preventive maintenance schedule. Women learn from an early age to schedule a "well woman exam" every year. While young women often seek out these exams to obtain birth control, the visits give doctors a chance to screen for cancer and sexually transmitted infections, as well as provide essential health education, such as about nutrition, exercise and mental health, says Michael LeFevre, co-chair of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a volunteer panel that advises the government. Women stay in the medical system as they age, bear children and go through menopause, frequently connecting not only with their own doctors but with their children's pediatricians.
Men, on the other hand, may disappear from the patient rolls at age 18, avoiding checkups until age 40 or 50, when they show up for a cancer screening - often at the suggestion of their wives, Cain says.
Yet doctors say there are lots of things that men can do to take care of themselves - both inside and outside of the exam room - at every stage of life.
Eating well, exercising, avoiding tobacco and practicing safer sex are some of the keys to good health, LeFevre says. Annual flu shots are important at any age, as well.
"Those behavioral things are probably more important than getting tests," LeFevre says.
But unlike a car, men aren't all the same. A man's family history can play a far more important role in his risk of disease - and in setting the best time to test for certain conditions - than his age. While conditions such as diabetes may not develop until middle age, even young men can be at risk of sudden cardiac death during sports, says Michael Soleimani, a family physician at Kaiser Permanente Southern California.
While doctors may not have an owner's manual, experts say the average guy can help protect his health by paying attention to some of these issues as he ages.
Family history discussion with parents
•A meningitis shot, required at many colleges.
•HPV shot, to prevent infection with the human papillomavirus, which causes a variety of cancers and genital warts, if men haven't been vaccinated already. This vaccine is most effective if given before men become sexually active.
•Tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis (Tdap) booster. Everyone needs a tetanus booster every 10 years. And recent outbreaks of pertussis, or whooping cough, have led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend this vaccine for everyone.
•Men don't need to go to the doctor to track their weight, but they should monitor it to make sure they don't put on too many extra pounds after they graduate high school, LeFevre says. Online sites and apps can help guys calculate their BMI, or body mass index.
•Guys should get their blood pressure checked at age 18, too, although this can also be done by a nurse or even the trainer at the gym, LeFevre says. The American Heart Association recommends men check their blood pressure at least every two years. A blood pressure of 120/80 or less is considered healthy.
Your 20s and 30s
•Men should take a fasting cholesterol test every five years, beginning at age 20, according to the Heart Association. Men with unhealthy cholesterol may need more frequent tests.
•The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Baby Boomers, or those born between 1945 and 1965, get a one-time test for hepatitis C, which can destroy the liver. Many people with the disease don't know they have it.
By age 45, the American Heart Association recommends that men have a fasting blood sugar test, which can tell if men are diabetic or pre-diabetic. Men should repeat the test at least every three years. Many men don't realize they have diabetes or are on their way to developing it. Making early lifestyle changes can prevent the disease from developing, or keep it under control to avoid long-term complications, says Raul Seballos, vice chair of preventive medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.
•The task force recommends men at average risk get screened for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50. Men at higher risk should get screened earlier, LeFevre says. Men who choose screening colonoscopies should be checked every 10 years, while those screened with fecal occult blood tests - a non-invasive test - need to be tested annually.
•Experts disagree about the benefits of routine screening for prostate cancer. The preventive services task force has concluded that PSA testing typically does more harm than good. Other groups, such as the American Cancer Society, say men should discuss the risks and benefits with their doctors and make an informed decision.
•For the first time, major medical groups such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology this year began recommending lung cancer screening for certain older smokers and former smokers: those ages 55 to 74 who smoked the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes a day for 30 years. The society recommends the screenings only be performed at academic medical centers, such as universities, with specialized surgeons and radiologists on staff. Lung cancer screening is not recommended for other people, because the risks of invasive follow-up tests outweigh the potential benefits.
•While doctors don't recommend that everyone take aspirin, a daily low-dose pill can help reduce the risk of heart attack in men with certain risk factors, LeFevre says. By age 50, it's worth talking to the doctor about whether a daily baby aspirin could be beneficial. LeFevre cautions that no one begin taking aspirin on their own, without medical advice, because the pills can cause severe bleeding and ulcers in some people.
Your 60s and 70s
Peripheral artery disease
•The American Heart Association suggests having an ankle-brachial index test every year or two, starting in your 60s. The test measures the pulses in your feet to detect plaque build-up in the arteries of the legs, which can lead to blood clots.
Abdominal aortic aneurysm
•Men who have ever smoked should get a one-time ultrasound test for this type of aneurysm, in which the blood vessel balloons out and threatens to burst, between ages 65 and 75. Non-smokers don't need it, the preventive task force says.