Women’s Health: What Tests to Take

Women’s Health: What Tests to Take

Medical screening tests are a great way to stay on top of your health. Think of them as basic maintenance, just like checking the oil and tire pressure to keep your car gunning down the highway. Below is a list of the most important medical tests every woman should have and when to start them.

1. Cholesterol screening/lipid profile

Cholesterol is a type of fatty protein in your blood that can build up in your arteries, so knowing how much cholesterol is present is a good predictor of your risk for heart disease. And, women need to pay close attention to cholesterol levels, because they tend to rise after menopause.

When to start: Age 20

2. Diabetes screening

To check your risk for diabetes, doctors check your tolerance for glucose absorption, which means how readily your body digests sugar. Many women get diabetes while pregnant, and it’s dangerous for both mother and baby.

When to start: Get this test at the start of pregnancy, or at age 45 if you have no risk factors or symptoms. If you’re overweight, have high blood pressure, or have other risk factors for diabetes, such as family history of the disease, it’s a good idea to get tested sooner.

3. Bone density test

Osteoporosis happens when minerals such as calcium begin to leak from bones, thinning and weakening them. In women, this often happens as a result of low estrogen levels after menopause.

When to start: At age 65, but if you’ve had a hysterectomy or have reached menopause and have risk factors for bone loss such as being thin or having a history of fractures, you should talk to your doctor about being screened now.

4. Colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy

Colorectal cancer, which is cancer of the lower part of the intestines, is curable in 90 percent of all cases — as long as it’s caught early. Screening tests that look inside the colon, called colonoscopy and flexible sigmoidoscopy, are the secret to catching colorectal cancer early.

When to start: Age 50 for those with no risk factors. However, if you have a close family member who’s had colon cancer before the age of 50, begin colonoscopy screening ten years younger than the age at which your family member was diagnosed. If a family member was diagnosed at 45, for example, you should have your first screening at 35.

5. Fecal occult blood test (FOBT)

This test checks for blood in the stool that’s not visible to the eye. This test is considered key to catching colon cancer early; currently more women than men are diagnosed with colon cancer that’s already at an advanced stage. An FOBT is used to check for intestinal conditions such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

When to start: At age 50; your doctor may suggest it earlier if there’s cause for concern about intestinal conditions.

6. Eye exam and vision screening

Whether you have problems seeing at a distance or close up, you need regular eye exams as you age to check the overall health of your eyes.
A vision screening tests how well you can see; an eye exam checks for glaucoma, macular degeneration, retinopathy, and other eye diseases. Make sure you’re having both kinds of exams.

When to start: Age 18 or when signs of eye problem is noticed.

7. Thyroid test

The thyroid, a small gland in your neck, regulates your body’s metabolic rate. Women are at higher risk for most types of thyroid disease, probably because of hormonal factors.

When to start: Age 35

8. Pelvic exam and pap smear

Although many younger women are now being vaccinated against the HPV strain that causes cervical cancer, women who were past the age of 26 when the vaccine was introduced still need to be alert for this deadly form of cancer. (Current vaccine recommendations are for girls and women ages 9 to 26.) Sadly, cervical cancer remains the second leading cause of death from cancer for women worldwide, and the familiar pap smear remains the preventive screening test of choice.

When to start: At age 21 or within three years of becoming sexually active.

9. Physical breast exam

Checking your breasts for lumps, thickening, skin changes, and nipple discharge is the best way to be vigilant about preventing breast cancer. You can do this exam at home in the shower once a month; it’s usually best to do them just after your period ends, when breasts aren’t as tender or sore. Women over age 18 should have a doctor perform a breast exam once a year; this is usually done along with the pelvic examination.

When to start: Age 20

10. Mammogram

Breast cancer is the most common type of cancer in women, and the mammogram remains the most basic tool used to screen for tumors, aside from physical examination of the breasts.

When to start: Age 40; however, if your mother or sister was diagnosed with breast cancer, especially if she was younger than 40, experts recommend starting mammograms five to ten years earlier than the age at which your relative was diagnosed.