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Healthy at every age: Your 20s

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From getting regular checkups to finding your best birth control, here’s how today’s healthy habits can pay off in the future.

We all want to have a long and healthy life and to stay strong, active and vibrant as we age. No matter how old you are, certain basic habits are key for feeling good and fending off disease: Eat healthy food. Get enough sleep. Exercise. Wear sunscreen. And get regular health screenings. But other health advice may vary based on your age. In this special five-part series, we offer focused wellness tips for your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s and beyond. 

Read the whole series:

Your 20s can be an exciting but also a hectic time. You may be starting a career and thinking about marriage and kids. Or maybe you’re just trying to figure out who you are and what kind of life you want to have.

The good news? Your risk of serious health problems, like cancer, is relatively low at this age. But now is a great time to form good habits that can help you sidestep serious problems down the road. If you weren’t the greatest eater in college, try working on planning and cooking healthier meals. And figuring out how to sneak in workouts around your first full-time job will help you manage stress and stay on top of your health.

Here’s what else is worth focusing on now.

1. Choose a primary care provider (PCP)

It can be tempting to go to an urgent care center when you’re feeling sick instead of seeing a doctor for regular well visits. But finding a PCP can help you catch and even prevent illnesses in the future. 

“You could have health issues right now that can lead to heart disease and diabetes over time. High blood pressure and high blood sugar don’t always cause symptoms,” says Sarah Kent, MD. She’s a family medicine physician at USMD, part of Optum, in Cross Roads, Texas. “Getting baseline health screenings now is important. Once symptoms appear, the damage is already done.”

A PCP will also go over your family’s medical history with you. And that can play a big role in your care. For example, if breast cancer runs in your family, you may need certain screenings at an earlier age.1

Mental health problems can also run in families. And if you’ve been feeling down or more anxious than usual, seeing your PCP is an excellent first step. They can help you pinpoint what may be behind those emotions. And if necessary, they can connect you with a therapist for more support. Your 20s can bring a lot of big changes. If you’re having trouble getting a handle on them, asking for help is one of the best things you can do.

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2. Always use condoms

Here are two important reasons why: They help prevent an unplanned pregnancy. And they can help protect against many sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Common STIs include:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Herpes
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
  • Chlamydia
  • Gonorrhea2

Untreated, STIs can lead to pelvic infections and sometimes even infertility and cancer.

Remember, condoms don’t cover all the skin around the genitals. So you should always ask a new partner about their STI status before you have sex. And that means it’s important for you to also stay on top of your screenings.

The recommendations vary based on age and sexual history. Be honest with your doctor about your sex life, and they can help you figure out which tests are right for you.

3. Find the best birth control for you

What you used in high school or college may not fit your life now. And that’s OK. Your birth control should evolve with your life. What you choose should depend on the number of partners you have and how soon you may want to have children.

Convenience is also important. The best birth control is one you use correctly and consistently. For example, the pill is a popular choice. But will you remember to take it at the same time every day with everything else you have going on in your life? If not, you may want to think about a longer-term birth control choice like an intrauterine device (IUD). That’s a small device your doctor inserts into your uterus. It can stay in place for up to 10 years.

You can learn more about all your birth control options here. And if you choose to go with the pill, patch or ring, the Optum Store can help, no insurance required.

4. Don’t vape

You might think vaping isn’t as bad as smoking cigarettes. But young people who vape are more likely to become frequent and heavy cigarette smokers.3 Tobacco use can cause cancer almost anywhere in your body.

And vaping on its own is also unhealthy. Most vapes contain nicotine, which is habit-forming. They can also contain other dangerous substances that harm your lungs.4 We don’t know all the risks of vaping yet. “But the fact is you’re still inhaling chemicals that could be harmful,” says Dr. Kent.

5. Choose health insurance that covers your needs

Once you turn 26, you’re no longer eligible for coverage through your parents’ health plan. If your employer doesn’t offer health insurance, start shopping for a plan before your 26th birthday. 

You can compare options in your state at healthcare.gov/get-coverage. Or you can work with a health insurance broker to find one that’s best for you.

One more insurance-related thing to explore: medical expense accounts. These accounts help you set aside pre-tax money to help pay for eligible health care products and services.

6. Limit (or quit) drinking alcohol

Why is now a good time to be mindful of how much booze you drink? Because more Americans are drinking too much in their mid- and late-20s compared to a generation ago.5 And that can raise your risk of a variety of health conditions, including heart problems, liver disease and cancer.

General recommendations: Stick to two drinks or less a day if you’re male. Aim for one drink a day or less if you’re female.6 And it’s not OK to save up your drinks for the weekend either. Binging on alcohol can cause more than a hangover. It interferes with your ability to think clearly and make healthy choices. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risks7 include:

  • Unintentional injuries, including car crashes, falls and alcohol poisoning
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Violence, including sexual assault
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Memory and learning problems

If you’re struggling to get a handle on your drinking, reach out to your doctor. You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline. It’s free, confidential and staffed 24/7. Just dial 1-800-662-4357.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast and ovarian cancer and family history risk categories. Last reviewed March 25, 2020. Accessed July 18, 2022.
  2. Planned Parenthood. Safer sex. Accessed July 18, 2022.
  3. JAMA. Association of e-cigarette vaping and progression to heavier patterns of cigarette smoking. Published November 8, 2016. Accessed July 18, 2022.
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Quick facts on the risks of e-cigarettes for kids, teens, and young adults. Last reviewed June 23, 2022. Accessed July 18, 2022.
  5. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Shifting age of peak binge drinking prevalence: Historical changes in normative trajectories among young adults aged 18 to 30.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol use and your health. Last reviewed April 14, 2022. Accessed July 18, 2022.
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Binge drinking. Last reviewed January 6, 2022. Accessed August 8, 2022.

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