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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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By Taylor Lupo

Health screenings can help detect serious health problems early on, and they’re also an essential way to access the information you need to improve and maintain your health at every stage of your life. Here are eight screenings every woman should have on her radar—and the recommendations on when these tests should begin and how often they should be repeated.

This article was medically reviewed and updated in September 2019.

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 it’s important to be screened. Starting at age 20, women should have their blood pressure checked at least every two years and their cholesterol checked every four to six years.

Women at higher risk due to their age, weight, lifestyle habits and family history may need to be screened more frequently. Exercise, a healthy diet and, if needed, medication 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—which can let you know if your reading is healthy and help you track changes over time.

Cervical Cancer

3 / 9 Cervical Cancer

A Pap test screens for cancerous or precancerous cells in the cervix, and while it’s recommended for women between the ages of 21 and 65, the guidelines for frequency have changed. “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.

The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 21 to 29 get a Pap test every three years. Those age 30 and older should get a Pap test combined with testing for the human papilloma virus (HPV) every five years. (Some guidelines say an HPV test alone every five years is another option.) 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 for this form of cancer, according to the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF). It’s important to note however, women (including those older than 65) with risk factors, such as prior cervical cancer treatment, may be advised to have more frequent exams.

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI)

4 / 9 Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI)

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) aren’t infections only reckless teenagers get. 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 about being tested. It’s important to share your sexual history with your OBGYN—even if your doctor doesn’t ask about it.

Sexually active women 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 depend 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, a form of an x-ray, can show changes in a woman’s breast that may indicate signs of cancer. Mammograms are effective in detecting early stages of breast cancer— before women experience symptoms.

These screenings are performed regularly—annually or biennially—in women typically beginning between the ages of 40 and 50. “You can individually tailor, between age 40 and 50, what you want to do as far as screenings,” Dr. Breeden says.

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. The benefits of mammography however 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 and continue to be screened at least until the age of 75.

The earlier breast cancer is detected, the greater the odds of successful treatment.

Depression

6 / 9 Depression

Screening for depression is now 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. It’s important to know the signs of depression and, if you experience them, to talk to your doctor or mental health specialist about your symptoms.

Testing for depression may include answering a series of questions, a possible physical exam and blood tests to rule out other conditions. Depression screenings for pregnant women and new mothers are the norm, 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

Women age 45 and older should be tested for diabetes, according to the CDC. This chronic condition is diagnosed with the help of blood tests. The CDC also recommends that younger women with risk factors for diabetes, such as obesity or a family history of the disease, also have their blood sugar (glucose) levels checked. Tell your healthcare provider if you experience signs of diabetes, including fatigue, blurry vision or extreme thirst. A blood test may also reveal prediabetes, or elevated blood sugar levels not high enough to qualify as full-fledged diabetes. Those with prediabetes are still at higher risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

Colorectal Cancer

8 / 9 Colorectal Cancer

Screening for colorectal cancer typically starts at age 50, though in May 2018, the American Cancer Society revised their recommendation, 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 to screen for this type of cancer that affects the rectum or colon. A specialist uses a long, flexible tube with a light and small camera at the end to examine the colon and rectum for abnormalities like polyps, which can become cancerous over time.

One advantage of a colonoscopy over other less invasive tests is that polyps can be removed during the procedure. Colonoscopy screenings are recommended once every 10 years for a person at average risk, or more frequently for those with a family or personal history of colorectal cancer.

Bone Loss

9 / 9 Bone Loss

The standard bone density test, known as dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA or DEXA), 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.

Detecting weakened bones or bone loss may indicate a need for lifestyle changes—such as increased calcium intake, daily exercise and smoking cessation—to help improve bone health.

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