You might be a college student in your 20s, balancing your job and your classes, a mom in your 40s shuttling kids to soccer practice and dance lessons after work, or a retired woman in your 60s enjoying your new leisure time and taking on a new hobby.
It doesn’t matter what age or life stage you’re in — keeping track of the screening tests you need and making the time to get them done can help you stay healthy. “Screenings can detect possible health disorders before you have any symptoms,” said Kimberly Koike, MD, a family medicine specialist with Banner Health Center in Phoenix, AZ. “When we detect problems early, we can treat them more effectively and reduce the likelihood of serious harm.”
Seeing your health care provider once a year for a physical or well-woman exam can help ensure you get the right screenings and take the right preventive steps at the right time. “The timing of screenings is based on intervals that are most likely to catch health issues early without unnecessary testing,” Dr. Koike said. “If you are late getting your screening, it’s more likely that you may have developed the disease, and the disease may be harder to treat.”
Here are the top screenings and exams the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends at each stage of your life.
1. Blood pressure
- Why: High blood pressure increases your risk of heart attack and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Also called hypertension, it usually doesn’t cause symptoms, so blood pressure screening is crucial. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), certain types of birth control may increase your risk for high blood pressure. And if you have high blood pressure and become pregnant, your chances of complications are higher.
- When: All ages.
- How: With a monitor that tightens briefly around your arm. You can check it at your doctor’s office, some pharmacies or at home.
2. Folic acid
- Why: Folic acid is a B vitamin that can help prevent serious disabilities in your baby if you become pregnant. If you’re of reproductive age, the USPSTF recommends that you take a daily supplement containing 400 to 800 micrograms of folic acid in case you become pregnant —about half of the pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. And in women of any age, folic acid deficiency can lead to folate deficiency anemia.
- When: Your doctor will likely screen you if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant or if you show signs of folic acid deficiency.
- How: By screening your blood.
3. HIV screening
- Why: HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, weakens your immune system. It can’t be cured, but it can be controlled with medication. You’re at higher risk of HIV if you use injected drugs, have anal intercourse without a condom, or have vaginal intercourse without a condom and with multiple sex partners whose HIV status is unknown, according to the USPSTF. Pregnant women should also be screened.
- When: Age 15 to 65. Younger and older women should be tested if they are at higher risk of infection.
- How: By screening your blood, urine or oral fluid.
4. Well-woman visit
- Why: In these visits or annual physical exams, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends you have every year, you and your doctor or nurse can focus on preventive care, provide or schedule your vaccines and screenings, and discuss any health concerns you have.
- When: All ages. Women over age 65 may wish to see a geriatrician, a doctor specializing in caring for older adults.
- How: Schedule an appointment with your doctor. Most insurance companies cover these visits.
5. Chlamydia and gonorrhea screenings
- Why: Chlamydia and gonorrhea are among the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Women often don’t have symptoms, but these infections can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease and complications such as infertility. You’re at higher risk if you have a new sex partner, more than one sex partner, a sex partner who has sex with others, or a sex partner with an STD.
- When: Age 24 and younger for all sexually active women, and women aged 25 and older who are at higher risk of infection.
- How: With nucleic acid amplification tests (NAATs), which can test urine or samples collected from areas of your body by a clinician.
6. Cervical cancer screening
- Why: Cancer of the cervix almost always develops slowly, and screening for it has decreased cases of and deaths from cervical cancer since 1950, according to the National Cancer Institute.
- When: Age 21 through 64 for women at average risk.
- How: Pap test, either alone or in combination with high-risk HPV (human papillomavirus) testing. The testing frequency varies from every three to five years, depending on your age and the type of test.
7. Breast cancer screening
- Why: Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in U.S. women, according to the USPSTF. Screening can help reduce the risk of death from breast cancer. Your doctor may recommend a different screening schedule based on your personal or family history of breast cancer or other risk factors.
- When: Age 40 to 74 for women at average risk.
- How: Mammogram.
8. Colorectal cancer screening
- Why: Colorectal cancer is the third most common cause of death from cancer in women and men in the U.S., according to the USPSTF. With screening, your doctor can find and remove polyps before they become cancerous.
- When: Age 45 to 75 for women at average risk.
- How: Sensitive stool-based tests, colonoscopy, CT colonography, or flexible sigmoidoscopy. Testing intervals vary based on the type of test and your risk.
9. Bone density screening
- Why: Osteoporosis, a condition where your bones become thin and weak, often develops in older women. With osteoporosis, you’re more likely to fracture a bone, typically a hip, and struggle to walk a year or more later. You’re at higher risk of osteoporosis at a younger age if you have an estrogen deficiency, have a parent who fractured a hip, smoke, drink excessive amounts of alcohol or have a low body weight.
- When: Age 65 and older for women at average risk.
- How: A DEXA bone density scan, which is a low-dose x-ray of your spine, thigh bone and/or forearm.
Of course, your doctor may have different preventive care recommendations based on your overall health, family history and risk factors. At your annual exam, you can discuss what you need and make sure you get everything scheduled. Dr. Koike recommends talking to your immediate family members about their health and sharing what you learn with your doctor, since that information may change when and how often you should undergo certain screenings. You can also learn more about your risks for some conditions with the Banner Health Risk Assessments for joint pain, heart health, peripheral artery disease, stroke and diabetes.
The bottom line
It’s essential for women to get the screening tests and take the prevention steps they need to identify potential health problems early when they can be treated more easily and most likely with better results. If you would like to find a health care provider who can help you stay on track with your screenings, connect with Banner Health. You can also reach out to Banner to learn more about our comprehensive women’s health services.