As a woman, getting the proper screenings every year is essential for staying healthy, energetic and vigorous. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to make sure you’re up-to-date on all of the recommended health tests and exams for your age.
“Regular screening tests are a necessary step toward staying optimally healthy,” says Davis Liu, MD, a practicing board-certified family physician with the Permanente Medical Group and author of “The Thrifty Patient: Vital Insider Tips to Staying Healthy and Saving Money.”
Regular Tests and Exams for Women
It can be confusing to know what tests are important and how often you need them, but below are some basic recommendations. Keep in mind that if you have a family history or other risk factors to consider, your doctor may advise that you should be screened more frequently or at different intervals than the general population. Senior women might also be advised to follow a different schedule for certain screenings based on their personal health history.
- Pap smear: This test screens for cervical cancer and should be done every three years starting at age 21.
- Human papilloma virus (HPV) screening: Performed in conjunction with your annual Pap smear starting at age 30, if both Pap and HPV results are negative (which means they're normal), they can be repeated every five years.
- Mammogram: For women with healthy breasts and no breast cancer risk indicators like smoking or family history, doctors recommend starting regular mammograms at age 50. Earlier screenings may be appropriate in some patients, so discuss your family history with a health care practitioner.
- Bone density: If osteoporosis or brittle bone disease runs in your family, start bone density testing before age 40. Otherwise, if you don’t have a family history of it, have one at age 65 to evaluate your risk of osteoporosis. Discuss with your doctor whether you need more frequent or repeat testing.
- Blood cholesterol: For healthy adults, screening every five years starting at age 20 is recommended. You’ll fast the night before (no food or liquids), and your doctor will draw blood to test your “good” and “bad” cholesterol levels the following day.
- Blood pressure: You probably get this checked several times per year anyway, but even if your blood pressure is normal, you should have a blood pressure screening at your annual visit starting at age 20 — or at least once every two years — according to the American Heart Association.
- Fasting blood sugar: Starting at least age 40 (and preferably earlier), have this test every three to five years to screen for diabetes, especially if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Diabetes screening is also recommended if you are overweight and/or have other risk factors.
- Colon cancer: Starting at age 50, you should have either a colonoscopy every 10 years or an annual stool test and flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years. (A doctor can help determine which is most appropriate for you).
- Immunizations and booster shots: Discuss preventive shots for shingles, influenza, meningitis and the human papilloma virus. During this checkup, discuss concerns about your diet and stress level, as well as tobacco, drug or alcohol use.
- Skin cancer: Get a full-body skin check every year from a dermatologist to screen for skin cancers and precancerous changes to moles and skin tone.
- Eye exams: Adults who wear contact lenses should visit the eye doctor annually. For everyone else, the following schedule is recommended:
- From age 20 to 39, check every five years;
- From age 40 to 54, check every two to four years;
- From age 55 to 64, check every one to three years;
- After age 65, it’s a good idea to get your vision checked annually.
- Dental exams: Healthy adults should have a dental exame at least twice a year, along with deep cleanings.
Be sure to talk to your doctor about other tests you should specifically be screened for. An open dialogue with your physician is key. A primary care practitioner can help determine your schedule of screenings and whether your risk factors require more frequent or more extensive testing.
- Remember, these recommendations are for healthy women who have no other risk considerations. Schedule a well-woman visit with your gynecologist or primary care physician and discuss your personal health concerns.
- Keep in mind that it’s not enough to just schedule an annual checkup. During your annual physical exam, be sure to ask questions, and then ask more follow-up questions. Be an active listener, and don’t hesitate to take detailed notes in your phone or notebook during your appointment.
- Stay on top of any tests or screenings you’re due to have, and talk to your doctor to ensure that you have them done in a timely manner. It’s never a good idea to prolong any overdue exams. And don’t forget to call or visit the doctor’s office to make sure your health care practitioner discusses the results directly with you.
- Be sure to encourage all of the other women in your life — mother, sisters, friends — to be diligent about getting their annual exams in a timely manner.