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8 Essential Health Screenings for Women

Don't sit on the sidelines. Play an active role in protecting your health.

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Health screenings can help detect serious problems early on. They’re also an essential way to access information to maintain and improve your health at every stage of your life.

Here are eight screenings every woman should have on her radar—plus, recommendations on when these tests should begin and how often they should be repeated.

Medically reviewed in December 2020.

Cholesterol and Blood Pressure

2 / 9 Cholesterol and Blood Pressure

High blood pressure and high cholesterol can increase a woman’s risk for heart disease and stroke. Neither medical problem shows outward symptoms, which is why screening is critical. Starting at age 20, women should have their blood pressure checked at least every two years. They should have cholesterol checked every four to six years.

Women at higher risk for heart disease due to age, weight, lifestyle habits, diabetes or family history of high cholesterol may need to be screened more frequently. Exercise, a healthy diet and medication (if needed) can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

Keep an eye on your systolic and diastolic blood pressure by recording them in a tracker, like Sharecare for iOS and Android. It can let you know if your reading is healthy and help you track changes over time.

Cervical Cancer

3 / 9 Cervical Cancer

The American Cancer Society recommends that screening for cervical cancer start at age 25. They suggest women between age 25 and 65:

  • Get a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved “primary” HPV test every five years, or
  • If a primary test is not available, get an HPV/Pap co-test every five years, or get a Pap test by itself every three years

“What we’re trying to do is educate women that they don’t need a Pap smear every year,” says Matthew Breeden, MD, an OBGYN at Presbyterian/St Luke's Medical Center in Denver, Colorado.

Cervical cancer screening is not recommended for women older than age 65 who have been screened for the disease routinely and are not at high risk, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF).

It’s important to note: Women with risk factors such as prior cervical cancer treatment may be advised to have more frequent exams. This includes women aged 65 and over.

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI)

4 / 9 Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI)

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) aren’t exclusive to teens and young women. If you have unprotected sex with a new partner or more than one partner, you’re at risk and should talk to your healthcare provider (HCP) about being tested. It’s important to share your sexual history with your OBGYN—even if your HCP doesn’t ask about it.

Sexually active women younger than 25 should be tested annually for chlamydia and gonorrhea, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). You may require tests for other STIs, as well. How STI tests are performed depends on the infection for which you’re being screened. They may involve a blood test, urine sample or swab from your mouth, genitals or other affected area.

Breast Cancer

5 / 9 Breast Cancer

A mammogram is a type of X-ray used to examine your breasts. It can show changes that may indicate signs of cancer. Mammograms are good at detecting early stages of breast cancer, often before women experience symptoms. The earlier the disease is detected, the better the odds of successful treatment.

For women at average risk of breast cancer, mammograms are performed annually or every other year, typically beginning between the ages of 40 and 50. (Women at high risk will begin screening at an earlier age.) The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends starting yearly mammograms at age 45, with the option to begin at 40.

The benefits of mammograms are best established for women age 50 to 69. For these women, the screening can reduce breast cancer-related mortality by 22 percent, according to the USPSTF.

To note: The benefits of mammography are smaller and less clear for younger women, ages 40 to 49, and older women, ages 70 to 74. Still, the USPSTF recommends that women begin biennial mammograms by age 50—though they may choose to begin sooner—and continue until the age of 75. If you are over the age of 40, talk with your HCP to make an informed decision about when you should begin.

Depression

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Screening for depression is recommended by many health organizations. But it’s still one of the most under-diagnosed and undertreated mood disorders—and women are roughly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed. Adolescent girls are at especially high risk.

It’s important to know the signs of depression, such as prolonged sadness, fatigue and losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed. It’s also critical to talk to your HCP or a mental health specialist about these symptoms.

Testing for depression may include:

  • Answering a series of questions
  • A possible physical exam
  • Blood tests to rule out other conditions

Depression screenings for pregnant women and new mothers are the norm, Dr. Breeden notes. “It’s usually done once or twice during the pregnancy, and certainly a screening is done before the mother leaves the hospital,” he adds.

Diabetes

7 / 9 Diabetes

About 1 in 9 women in the United States have been diagnosed with diabetes. Women age 45 and older should be tested for the condition, according to the CDC. Younger women with risk factors for diabetes should also have their blood sugar (glucose) levels checked. These risk factors include obesity, a family history of the disease and a history of gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy).

A blood test may also reveal prediabetes, or elevated blood sugar levels not high enough to qualify as full-fledged diabetes. People with prediabetes are at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

Tell your HCP if you experience signs of diabetes, including fatigue, blurry vision or extreme thirst.

Colorectal Cancer

8 / 9 Colorectal Cancer

Screening for colorectal cancer, which affects the rectum and colon, typically starts at age 50 for people at average risk. The ACS revised their recommendation in May 2018, however, advising those at an average risk for the disease to begin screening at age 45.

A colonoscopy is one of the most common procedures used for this purpose. For the exam, a specialist uses a long, flexible tube with a light and small camera at the end to look for abnormalities like polyps. Polyps are growths that can become cancerous over time. One advantage of a colonoscopy over other, less invasive tests is that suspicious polyps can be removed during the procedure if necessary.

Colonoscopy screenings are recommended once every 10 years for a person at average risk. For those with a family or personal history of colorectal cancer, they may be recommended more frequently.

Other screening options include CT (virtual) colonoscopy, flexible sigmoidoscopy and at-home stool tests (which may have to be performed more frequently). Speak with your HCP about the best option for you.

Bone Loss

9 / 9 Bone Loss

The standard bone density test is known as dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA or DEXA). It is used to measure bone loss in your hips and spine and to diagnose osteoporosis. When bone density decreases, your risk of fracture increases.

Women age 65 and older should have a bone density test. Those who may need an earlier screening include women who smoke, have a low body weight, consume three or more alcoholic drinks daily or have a parent who broke a hip at any age. Women age 50 and older may need screening if they’ve fractured a bone after a mild trauma—in other words, an event that probably shouldn’t have caused the bone to break.

Detecting weakened bones or bone loss may indicate a need for lifestyle changes to help improve bone health. These can include getting more calcium in your diet, exercising regularly and quitting smoking.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. “American Cancer Society Guideline for Colorectal Cancer Screening.” November 17, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020.
American Heart Association. “Heart-Health Screenings.” March 22, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2020.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Blood Cholesterol.” 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.
WomensHealth.gov. “Pap and HPV tests.” 2017. Accessed November 9, 2020.
American Cancer Society. “The American Cancer Society Guidelines for the Prevention and Early Detection of Cervical Cancer.” July 30, 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.
American Sexual Health Association. “STI Testing.” 2020. Accessed November 9, 2020.
WomensHealth.gov. “Mammograms.” April 1, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2020.
American Psychological Association. “Women’s Health.” October 2017. Accessed November 9, 2020.
WomensHealth.gov. “Diabetes.” April 1, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2020.
National Cancer Institute. “Colorectal Cancer Screening (PDQ)–Patient Version.” March 15, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2020.
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Diagnostic Tests.” Accessed November 9, 2020.
WomensHealth.gov. “Osteoporosis.” May 20, 2019. Accessed November 9, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Getting Your Cholesterol Checked.” September 8, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Which STD Tests Should I Get?” June 30, 2014. Accessed December 8, 2020.
United States Preventive Services Task Force. “ Breast Cancer: Screening.” January 11, 2016. Accessed December 8, 2020.
Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute. “Depression in Female Adolescents: Signs, Symptoms, and Solutions.” June 30, 2015. Accessed December 8, 2020.
RH Salk, JS Hyde, & LY Abramson. “Gender differences in depression in representative national samples: Meta-analyses of diagnoses and symptoms.” Psychological Bulletin. April 27, 2017. 143(8), 783–822.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “National Diabetes Statistics Report: 2020.” 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prediabetes - Your Chance to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes.” June 11, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Colorectal Cancer Screening Tests.” February 10, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020.
UCSF Department of Radiology & Biomedical Imaging. “Bone Density Scan (DXA or DEXA).” 2020. Accessed December 8, 2020.
MP Jeremiah, BK Unwin, et al. “Diagnosis and Management of Osteoporosis.” American Family Physician.  2015 Aug 15;92(4):261-268.
American Cancer Society. “Colorectal Cancer Screening Tests.” June 29, 2020. Accessed December 9, 2020.

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