Women develop different health issues throughout their lives that should be tested for and treated. Learn which screenings you might need and when.
Health screenings are an important way to detect serious health problems early on, but they’re also an essential way to access the information you need to improve and maintain your health at every stage of your life. Here are eight top screenings every woman needs on her radar, along with recommended times for getting screened.
1. Cholesterol and Blood Pressure
High blood pressure and high cholesterol can increase a woman’s risk of heart disease and stroke. Neither medical problem shows outward symptoms, which is why it’s important to be screened. Starting at age 20, women should have their blood pressure checked at least every two years and their cholesterol every four to six years. Women at higher risk due to age, weight, lifestyle habits, and family history may need to be checked more frequently. Exercise, a healthy diet and, if needed, medication can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
Related: Know Your Numbers: Blood Pressure
2. Cervical Cancer
A Pap test screens for cancerous or precancerous cells in the cervix, and while it’s recommended for women between the ages of 21 and 65, the guidelines for frequency have changed. “What we’re trying to do is educate women that they don’t need a Pap smear every year,” says OBGYN Matthew Breeden, MD, of Rocky Mountain Women’s Care in Denver, Colorado. The American Cancer Society recommends a Pap test every three years for women ages 21 to 29 and, starting at age 30, a Pap test combined with testing for the human papilloma virus (HPV) every five years. Women (including those over 65) with risk factors, such as prior cervical cancer treatment, may be advised to have more frequent exams.
3. Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI)
Sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, aren’t infections only reckless teenagers get. If you have unprotected sex with a new partner or more than one partner, you’re at risk and should talk to your doctor about being tested. It’s important to share your sexual history with your OBGYN — even if your physician doesn’t ask about it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), sexually active women should be tested annually for chlamydia and gonorrhea; you may require tests for other STIs as well. Screenings are done with a blood test, urine sample or swab from your mouth, genital or other affected area, depending on the STI you’re being tested for.
4. Breast Cancer
A mammogram is an X-ray that can show changes in a woman’s breast that may indicate signs of cancer. Mammograms are performed regularly — annually or biennially — in women, beginning at age 45 to 50. “You can individually tailor, between 40 and 50, what you want to do as far as screenings,” says Dr. Breeden. Mammograms are effective in detecting early stages of breast cancer before a woman experiences symptoms. Research shows that mammography screenings in women aged 40 to 74 can decrease mortality from breast cancer by 15 percent to 20 percent. The earlier breast cancer is detected, the greater the odds of successful treatment.
Screening for depression is now recommended by many health organizations, but it’s still one of the most under diagnosed and undertreated mood disorders — and women are roughly two times more likely than men to suffer from it. It’s important to know the signs of depression and, if you experience them, see a doctor or mental health specialist. Testing may include answering a series of questions, a possible physical exam, and blood tests to rule out other conditions. According to Breeden, depression screenings for pregnant women and new mothers are normal. “It’s usually done once or twice during the pregnancy, and certainly a screening is done before the mother leaves the hospital,” he says.
The CDC recommends that women 45 and older be tested for diabetes, which is diagnosed through various blood tests. It further recommends that younger women with higher risk factors, such as being overweight or having a family history of diabetes, also have their blood sugar (glucose) levels checked. Tell your doctor if you experience signs of diabetes, such as fatigue, blurry vision, or extreme thirst. A blood test may also reveal prediabetes: your blood sugar levels are elevated, but not high enough to qualify as full-fledged diabetes.
7. Colorectal Cancer
Screening for colorectal cancer typically starts at age 50; a colonoscopy is one of the most common procedures used to screen for this type of cancer, which begins in the rectum or colon. A specialist uses a long, flexible tube with a light and small camera at the end to examine the colon and rectum for abnormalities such as polyps, which can become cancerous over time. One advantage of a colonoscopy over other less invasive tests is that polyps can be removed during the procedure. Colonoscopy screening is recommended once every 10 years for an individual at average risk, or more frequently for people with family or personal history of colorectal cancer.
8. Bone Loss
The standard bone density test is called dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA or DEXA) and is used to measure bone loss in your hips and spine and diagnose osteoporosis. When bone density decreases, your risk of suffering a fracture increases. Women age 65 and older should have a bone density test. Those who may need an earlier screening include women who smoke, consume three or more alcoholic drinks per day, have a parent who broke a hip at any age, or have very low vitamin D. Detecting weakened bones or bone loss can give you the information you need to make lifestyle changes — such as increasing your calcium intake, exercising daily, and stopping smoking — to help improve bone health.