Staying healthy is not the most difficult thing you'll ever do. However, it does take some effort and vigilance. One part of that effort is getting appropriate screening tests. Screening tests are used to detect potential health problems when they’re still treatable. They can prevent more serious disease.
The screening tests you’ll need will change as you age. Once you start a test, it will likely be required periodically for of the rest of your life.
Pelvic Exam and Pap Smear
Regardless of sexual history, women ages 21 and older should have a Pap smear every three years. The Pap smear looks for signs of cervical cancer. Your doctor may let you have smears less often after three consecutive normal Pap tests. This interval can also be extended in older women with a negative HPV test.
Sexually active women should also be screened for other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Screening for Breast Cancer
If you have family members with breast cancer, your doctor will screen you to see if you are at risk for more dangerous types of breast cancer that are linked to certain genes (BRCA1 or BRCA 2). If you’re at risk, your doctor may recommend genetic counseling or BRCA testing.
You should have two physicals during your 20s. At each exam, your doctor should check your:
- body mass index (BMI)
Your doctor may also ask you questions about:
- alcohol and drug use
- diet and exercise
Women ages 20 and older should get a baseline screening for cholesterol levels and triglycerides if they are at risk for coronary heart disease. After age 45, screening for cholesterol is very important, as heart disease risk increases with age.
Blood Pressure Screening
A diagnosis of hypertension, or high blood pressure, is made if your blood pressure is higher than 140/90. Because high blood pressure can lead to other complications it should be checked every two years if it’s 120/80 or under, and every year if it’s between 120-139/80-90. If you are diagnosed with high blood pressure, you should also be screened for diabetes.
Get vision screenings every other year if you wear contacts or glasses. If you don’t have vision problems, screening may not be necessary. However, you should see an eye doctor if you any concerns.
You should go to the dentist every year for an exam and cleaning.
You should get a flu vaccine every year.
You should get one tetanus-diphtheria booster every ten years. Your first should be sometime after age 19.
If you are below 26, you should consider the HPV vaccine.
If you have never had chickenpox, you should get the varicella vaccine.
The tests you began in your 20s will still be used in your 40s. However the timing of the exams will change. You should:
- have an eye exam every two years, even if you don’t wear glasses
- be checked for glaucoma at your eye exam, once you turn 45
- have physical exams every one to five years
- get a professional breast exam every year
- consider getting a shingles vaccine after age 60
You will also need several new tests starting in your 40s. These include the following.
All women should have a mammography to screen for breast cancer. How often you seek treatment varies by age. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends mammograms every other year for women between 50 and 74 years old. Women younger than 50 should work with their doctors to determine how often to have mammography, depending on their individual situation and patient history.
Colon Cancer Screening
Once you turn 50, you should start being screened for colon cancer. Possible tests include a:
- yearly stool test
- flexible sigmoidoscopy — every five years
- colonoscopy — every 10 years
- double-contrast barium enema — every five years
- computed tomographic colonoscopy — every five years
You may need screening more often if you are at high risk of colon cancer. You should be screened for this until age 75.
Bone Density Test
Women age 65 and older should be screened for osteoporosis. If you have ever had a fracture, you should have a bone density test once you go through menopause. You should also have this test if you are under 65 and have high fracture risk.
According to the American Cancer Society, more than 3.5 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year. To catch it early, check yourself once a month starting at age 50. You should look for new or suspicious moles. See your dermatologist once a year for a full-body exam.
People at high risk for skin cancer should begin screening earlier. These include people who:
- are in the sun a lot
- have a family history of skin cancer
- have very fair skin
Timing for screening tests continues to change as you get older. For example your blood pressure should now be checked yearly.
Your cholesterol should be checked every three to five years. It should be checked more often if it’s abnormal.
You will also need to add one last screening test to your regimen.
An audiogram is a check of your hearing at various pitches and intensity levels. You may need one once a year.
In addition to the standard screening tests based on age, your health may prompt your doctor to order other screening tests. Not all women will need all of the following tests.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in eight women will experience major depression in their life. If you're concerned about your mood, ask your doctor for this screening. Your doctor will ask a series of questions about symptoms, which might include:
- sleep troubles
- loss of libido or sexual interest
If you are at high risk of diabetes, you may need to be screened for prediabetes and diabetes starting in your 40s. If your blood pressure is over 135/80, your doctor may screen you for type 2 diabetes.