A woman’s health depends on a lot of factors. Every woman should make time for healthy habits — regular exercise, stress management, choosing the right foods — and she should also be scheduling routine health screenings so potential problems can be spotted early. In fact, health screenings can make keeping tabs on your health simple.
So what screenings should you be getting? These 5 are a good start.
1. Blood pressure screening. Starting at age 18, every woman needs to have her blood pressure checked at least every two years. This health screening involves wrapping a cuff around the arm and pumping it up tightly. Ideal blood pressure for women is less than 120/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury). If your insurance doesn’t cover a blood pressure screening (though most insurance companies do), check into free screenings in your community.
2. Cholesterol check. Women should have their cholesterol checked at least every five years starting at about age 20. This screening is important for decreasing your risk of heart disease, and can be done at your doctor’s office or at a lab with a doctor’s order, as the test only involves drawing a blood sample. Some community health fairs offer quick cholesterol screenings, involving nothing but a finger-prick. If you get a high reading on this screening test, you will be referred to your doctor for more complete testing. The ideal level is below 200 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter) for total cholesterol.
3. Pap smears and pelvic exams. Beginning at age 21, or earlier if you are sexually active, women need to have a pelvic exam and Pap smear every two years to check for any abnormalities in the reproductive system. Guidelines for this cervical cancer screening recently changed from once a year, as studies found no benefit to such frequent screenings. Barring any problems, women age 30 and older only need a Pap smear every three years if they have had three normal tests in a row. To take the Pap smear, a speculum is placed inside the vagina to widen the vaginal canal, and your doctor uses a small tool to take cells from the cervix to detect any cell changes that can lead to cervical cancer. Your doctor can also screen for sexually transmitted diseases.
4. Mammograms and breast exams. Starting around age 20, women should have a clinical breast exam at least every three years until age 40, when this should be done annually, according to most experts. This is a manual exam — your doctor uses her fingers to examine the breasts for any lumps or abnormalities. A mammogram is a screening test for breast cancer and involves applying moderate compression to the breasts so that X-ray images can be captured. Mammograms are done every one or two years beginning at age 40. (The United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends mammograms beginning at age 50, but the American Cancer Society still recommends earlier screening.)
5. Bone density screen. Women should start getting screened for osteoporosis with a bone density test at age 65. Women with risk factors for osteoporosis, such as having a slender frame or a fractured bone, should be screened earlier. For this test, you lie on the table while a scanning machine takes X-ray images of certain bones in your body. Healthy bones show a T-score (the measurement used to describe your bone density) of -1 or higher. The frequency of this health screening varies from woman to woman based on bone density and risk factors.