I’d like to speak to just my female readers here. If you’re like many of my over-40 female patients, you likely spend more time caring and doing for other people more than you do for yourself. While this is a good trait – it shows you’re a kind and caring soul – it can also cause you to overlook certain important health tests for yourself that can tell you how your own health is doing. While you don’t have to run to the doctor for every little ache or pain you may have, there are 6 important screening tests that I recommend my female patients to get regularly. Let me tell you about them. . .
The Top 6 Health Concerns for Women Over 40
Many diseases can creep up on you with little-to-no symptoms. They may not really let you know they’re around until they become more advanced. At that point, they become harder to treat and your chance of overcoming them decreases. That’s why it’s so important to have regular screening tests to let you know what might be going on inside your body even though you may not have any symptoms. These tests are especially important if there is a history of certain conditions in your family. Your genes may predispose you to the same conditions.
Here are the top 6 screening tests I recommend to my female patients:
1. Mammogram – Breast Cancer. Although there has been a lot of controversy about mammograms in the last few years – how often should you have one and do they contribute to getting breast cancer – it’s still important to screen for breast cancer. How often can be determined by your age, your particular medical history and your risk factors (smoking, drinking too much, exposure to toxins). In general, a screening mammogram should be done by age 40, and at least every 2 years, for routine follow-up screening. Women over 50, with no history of breast cancer in themselves or family members, and no breast conditions to watch, can extend screening out to every 2 years. After age 74, you may be able to forego regular mammogram screening entirely. Routine self-breast exams, though, should still be done every month. This is your best chance of finding an abnormality early.
2. PAP Smear – Cervical Cancer. Cervical cancer can occur at any time in a woman’s life but most typically can occur between ages 30-50. It is most always associated with certain strains of the human papillomavirus which are sexually transmitted. If found early, though, precancerous cells can be removed before they become cancer. Early treatment of cervical cancer also has high cure rates. The cervical cancer vaccine, however, is only effective in women under age 26 with little-to-no sexual activity.
3. DEXA Scan – Osteoporosis. Bone density issues can become a problem for women after menopause. The decrease of estrogen can lead to bones becoming brittle and prone to fracture. The condition is often not found until a bad fracture occurs. Having a DEXA (dual energy x-ray absorptometry) scan measures how thick a woman’s bones are throughout her body, especially in problem areas like the hips, femur, and knees. Though DEXA scans are routinely done for women 50 and over, they most certainly should be done in women 65 and over.
4. Skin Exam – Skin Cancer. As you get older, your skin can undergo many coloration changes from repeated sun exposure, or perhaps from not enough antioxidants in your diet. Brown spots and uneven color tones can occur and can be common signs of aging. Yet, color changes in moles, or new growths appearing on your skin, warrant a full skin exam by either your dermatologist or your internist. A skin exam should be part of your yearly physical exam as well to catch any skin changes at an early stage.
5. Colonoscopy – Colon Cancer. Colon cancer is a leading cause of death in the United States. Yet if precancerous polyps are found on colonoscopy, they can be removed and never progress to full blown cancer. Everyone dreads the idea of this test, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as its reputation. It’s generally the harsh preparations that cause discomfort like dehydration, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, skin irritation, and intense stomach cramping. Most people who’ve done this test will tell you that they fell asleep during the actual colonoscopy itself though. The good news is that an easier, less distressing, prep can be used successfully without all the side effects. Adhere to a liquid diet (no milk, milk products or red or purple juices) for 1 day before your test. Buy these over-the-counter mild laxatives – Dulcolax tablets (need 4) and bottle of Miralax (238 grams). Also, get a 64 ounce bottle of Gatorade (whatever flavor you choose). The day before, take 2 Dulcolax 5 mg tablets at 3 pm. At 5 pm mix the entire Miralax bottle into the 64 ounce Gatorade, or half bottle Miralax into two, 32 ounce Gatorades. Shake solution thoroughly. Drink 8 ounces every half hour until the full 64 ounce Gatorade solution is gone. 7 pm take the last 2 Dulcolax tablets. Drink/eat nothing after midnight that day. Using moist baby wipes with lanolin can help ease any skin irritation from frequent going.
6. Heart Disease – Blood Pressure, Cholesterol Tests, Inflammatory Markers. Heart disease can go hidden in women without any symptoms. High cholesterol levels and inflammation can cause plaque buildup in coronary arteries which could lead to a sudden heart attack. High blood pressure often results from constricted, plaque-blocked arteries. Having both your blood pressure tested frequently and a full panel of cholesterol studies done can help you and your doctor monitor how healthy your coronary arteries are. Another study, the MPO – myeloperoxidase study – can tell your doctor how much inflammation might be involved in your coronary arteries. Inflammation is now thought to be the major risk factor in heart disease.
While screening for diseases won’t prevent you from getting them, it can alert you to early changes that can give you enough time to change its course. Finding a disease process in its early stages, perhaps before it’s even become full-blown disease, can offer time to treat it, prevent it from becoming worse, and, in many cases, get rid of it altogether. Do something nice for yourself and regularly get these important health screening tests.
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.