10 Health Screenings All Women Should Have
Every woman should make time for healthy habits — regular exercise, stress management, and choosing the right foods. Scheduling routine health screenings, which can detect potential problems early, is one of those habits.
Regular screening may even save your life. “When you detect a disease early you can prevent complications and improve quality of life,” says Keri Peterson, MD, who practices internal medicine in New York City. “I’ve had many patients who diligently went for their screenings, and it changed the course of their lives. Many of my patients have been diagnosed with breast cancer in its early stages, and were able to undergo breast-sparing surgery and have had excellent prognoses.”
So what screenings should you be getting? Here are 10 essential tests.
1. Blood Pressure Screening
The American Heart Association (AHA) says that if your blood pressure is below 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), which is the ideal reading, you should have it checked at least once every two years, starting at age 20. For adults ages 40 or older, African-Americans, or for those with conditions like obesity that put them at increased risk for hypertension, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends an annual screening.
2. Cholesterol Check
This is a tool used to assess your risk for developing heart disease or stroke. If you’re age 20 or older, you should have your cholesterol measured at least once every five years, says the National Institutes of Health. Your total cholesterol levels should ideally be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dl); a borderline high reading is between 200 and 239 mg/dl. If you are at risk for heart disease or stroke, make a plan with your doctor for how often you should have this blood test.
3. Pap Smears
Beginning at age 21 and until age 65, you should have a Pap smear every three years, says the USPSTF. In the Pap smear, your doctor uses a speculum to widen the vaginal canal, takes cells from the cervix with a small brush, and examines those cells for changes that may lead to cervical cancer. If you’re 30 or older, you can have the test every five years if you combine it with a screen for HPV, which is a STD that can lead to cervical cancer.
A mammogram, which screens for breast cancer, involves compressing the breast between plates so that X-ray images can be captured. There has long been discussion about when and how often a woman should have them, given that the risk for breast cancer increases as you age, and the false positives from frequent screening might do more harm than good. The most recent guidelines from the USPSTF recommend that starting at age 50, women should have a mammogram every two years. The American Cancer Society, however, says that women should start annual screenings at age 45, and can then switch to a biannual mammogram at age 55. If you have a family history of the disease, or other concerns, talk to your doctor about starting annual screening earlier.
5. Bone Density Screening
Women should start getting screened for osteoporosis with a bone density test at age 65. Those with risk factors for osteoporosis, such fractures or low body weight, should be screened earlier. For this test, called a DEXA scan, you lie on a table while a low-dose X-ray machine captures images of your bones. The frequency of this screening varies depending on bone density and other risk factors.
6. Blood Glucose Tests
Starting around age 45, women should get a blood glucose test every three years to check for diabetes or prediabetes. The range for normal tests can vary, but a fasting plasma glucose test reading of 100 mg/dl or higher, says the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, indicates that you may be prediabetic, while a reading greater than 126 mg/dl indicates diabetes. If you are obese, or have a family history of diabetes, or are of a race or ethnicity that’s at particular risk, you may want to start earlier and get screened more often. Your doctor can help you strategize.
7. Colon Cancer Screening
Colon cancer screening, which can be done at a doctor’s office or hospital, should start at age 50, according to the USPSTF. You’ll have either a sigmoidoscopy, in which a lighted tube and camera are inserted in the anus to examine the lower colon, or a colonoscopy, in which a longer tube examines the entire colon. Unless a problem is found or you have a greater risk of colon cancer, a sigmoidoscopy is repeated every 5 years, and a colonoscopy every 10 years.
8. Body Mass Index
Starting at 18, says the USPSTF, adults should be screened for obesity, which usually requires having your body mass index (BMI) calculated. While there are no hard and fast guidelines for how often your doctor should take this measurement, it’s an important number. Your BMI indicates whether or not you are obese, a condition that raises your risk of serious health problems like diabetes and heart disease.
9. Skin Examination
Women should examine their skin every month at home, according to the American Cancer Society. Carefully inspect the skin all over your body, looking for any new moles or changes to existing moles, which can be early signs of skin cancer. If you are at increased risk for skin cancer, or have a family history of it, the American Academy of Dermatology says to talk to your doctor or dermatologist about how often you should have an in-office exam.
10. Dental Checkup
Good dental health is important from the moment your first baby tooth sprouts, and all adult women need twice-yearly dental checkups. Through regular dental checkups, which involve cleaning and examining the teeth, along with X-rays, you can spot early signs of decay and any other problems.
Because these tests are considered preventive, many insurance plans cover them. But while they’re vital for your health, they can also be expensive — so check with your insurance company before making appointments, and check to see whether your community offers any of these tests for free.