Staying healthy is not the most difficult thing you'll ever do, but it does take some effort and vigilance. Important tests for women start their 20s with a pap smear and pelvic exam. With each decade that passes, more tests and screenings will be needed to ensure your lifelong health. Once you start a test, it will likely be required periodically (usually every one to five years) for most of your life.
In Your 20s ...
Regardless of sexual history, women age 21 and older should have a Pap smear every one to three years to look for signs of cervical cancer. Get a Pap smear every year if you have multiple partners. After age 30, if you have three consecutive normal Pap tests, you can get a Pap every two to three years.
This exam should be a regular checkup done every year, regardless of your health. In a pelvic exam, your gynecologist will visually and manually asses your reproductive organs. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that a girl make her first visit to a gynecologist when she is between the ages of 13 and 15 and then go once a year (or as needed) after that.
Get a baseline screening for cholesterol levels and triglycerides at age 21, and get rescreened every five years until you’re 40. After that, it’s important to be tested every year because heart disease risk increases with age.
Get yearly vision screenings if you wear contacts or glasses; if you don't, get screened every other year. Women are at higher risk for dry-eye syndrome and autoimmune diseases that affect eye health.
At one of your twice-annual cleanings, ask your dentist to perform a periodontal exam. This involves taking X-rays and checking for gum inflammation.
In Your 30s ...
More than one million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year. To catch it early, check yourself once a month for new or suspicious moles and see your dermatologist once a year for a full-body exam. If you’re in the sun a lot, have very fair skin, or have a family history of skin cancer, begin your skin checks in your 20s.
Depression affects one in four women, and the chances go up with age. 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, irritability, loss of libido or sexual interest, and sluggishness.
In Your 40s ...
If your breast cancer risk is elevated because of a personal or family history, yearly mammograms starting at age 40 (or younger) are advised. Discuss your individual cancer risks with your doctor during your annual physical.
It’s important that you get screened for prediabetes and diabetes starting in your 40s, even if you don’t have a family history of the disease. Screenings are recommended every three years after age 45.
Vitamin D Test
Adequate levels of this important vitamin in your 40s and beyond help protect your bones. Vitamin D may also defend against heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. You only need the test every two or three years at first, but as you get older and your body has a harder time synthesizing the vitamin, you may need it more often.
In Your 50s ...
Get an audiogram—a check of your hearing at various pitches and intensity levels—once a year starting at age 50, when hearing typically begins to decline. If you blast your MP3 player at full volume or had a youth full of rock concerts, you may want one sooner.
Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone Screening
Women over age 50 are more likely to develop hypothyroidism (also called underactive thyroid). Although a thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) blood test is not always given during an annual exam, your doctor may order one depending on your medical history. The results of the test may help explain tiredness, weight gain, or unusual aches.
Get a colonoscopy, a procedure in which the doctor uses a camera to see the inside of the colon to look for polyps and abnormal tissues. Start at age 50, and then get one every 10 years (more frequently if polyps are found or you have a family history of colorectal cancer). Because most colorectal cancer begins as a polyp, early polyp detection and removal can help prevent cancer.
Bone Density Scan
This X-ray is used to measure bone mass (which is based on the amount of minerals such as calcium in bones), a key indicator of bone strength. As you approach menopause, estrogen levels decrease. A low estrogen level increases the risk for osteopenia, which can lead to osteoporosis if not treated. Women with a family history of the condition, especially those who are Caucasian or of Southeast Asian descent, are at a higher risk.
In Your 60s ...
It’s not the most comfortable test, but starting at 60, it’s important to receive a rectal exam. This exam includes an examination of the anus for hemorrhoids or fissures and then a fecal occult blood test (FOBT), which checks for trace amounts of blood in your stool that may not be visible to the naked eye. This can lead to early detection of colon polyps or cancer.
Get a tetanus booster every 10 years. For people over age 65, yearly influenza and pneumococcal vaccines are important to protect against the flu and pneumonia. (The CDC recommends flu shots for people age 50 and older, especially those who are chronically ill.)