By Lucy Maher
You go to the dentist each year and swing by the pharmacy for your flu shot each fall, but if your healthcare stops there, you’re not alone—especially if you’re looking after the needs of others such as your spouse, kids, or parents.
Caregivers—two-thirds of whom are women—who regularly care for a family member of friend were found in a recent study to be less likely to see a doctor or look after their own health than other Americans.
No one understands being busy more than you, but if you neglect your own care, it’s harder to be healthy for those who need you. The good news? By focusing on the medical tests women especially need, you can schedule them in advance and make sure you’re covered.
With breast cancer affecting one in eight women, regular screening is vital to combat the disease. The American Cancer Society recommends women of average breast cancer risk should begin having yearly mammograms by age 45, but may begin them at age 40 if they wish. By the age of 55, they can graduate to every-other-year mammograms.
The recommendations change for those who are high-risk or women who have one or more factors that up her chances of getting the disease. These include but are not limited to one who has a family history of the disease, BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, or radiation treatment to the chest between the ages of 10 and 30. These women might begin screenings starting at ages 25 to 30 and should talk to their doctor about assessing their risk and a screening plan.
If you think of heart disease as something that affects the elderly and obese, the statistics may surprise you.
In fact, heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States; it kills just under 300,000 women each year. That’s one in five female deaths. One in 16 women aged 20 and older have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease. This rate increases after menopause, says Purvi Parwani, MD, the director of the Women's Heart Health Clinic at Loma Linda University International Heart Institute.
A host of factors go into gauging one’s need for testing to detect heart disease.
“Everyone is different, based on risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, diabetes, and especially family history,” says Jeffrey Wuhl, MD, a cardiologist at Bryn Mawr Medical Specialists Association. “Every woman over 40 should have basic lab work at least annually, including fasting lipids, and have her blood pressure checked regularly. Women at higher risk can undergo coronary calcium scoring. Stress testing is usually reserved for women with symptoms such as chest pain or shortness of breath or less common symptoms such as fatigue.”
Preventive measures are key in reducing one’s risk.
“Do not smoke or vape,” says Cynthia Thurlow, NP. “Maintain a healthy weight, and eat less processed foods. Don't drink your calories, and avoid sugary drinks. Get plenty of physical activity, reduce stress, and get high-quality sleep.”
You may think that worrying about bone density is something better left to your mother. Not so if you have risk factors for osteoporosis, a condition that affects women four times as much as men. It results in less dense and more porous bones, which increases the chances of fractures.
While women should start getting screened for osteoporosis with a bone density test at age 65, those who are post-menopausal with certain risk factors may get one earlier. These factors include having a parent who has broken a hip, having a low body weight, smoking or drinking excessively, taking certain medications and not getting enough calcium and vitamin D. The test is similar to an X-ray and looks at the hip and spine.
Body Mass Index
Keeping a healthy Body Mass Index (BMI), which is the measure of your body fat to your height and weight, is important for numerous health reasons.
“Research has found significant associations between BMI and Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, abnormal lipids such as cholesterol and triglycerides, sleep apnea, heart disease risk and heart failure, and increased risk of early or premature death,” says Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, RD, the author of the “Eat Clean, Stay Lean” series. “This association is even greater if a person has a high BMI plus another risk factor for disease.”
Women in particular can be gaining weight without even realizing it.
“Metabolism starts to shift downward around age 30,” says Bazilian. “It’s only about an average decline of around seven to 10 calories per day per year, but from age 30 to 40, that’s about 70-100 calories lower per day. Then add the perimenopausal period, which for some women starts in the early 40s and can impact appetite and metabolism.”
To calculate your BMI, use this Centers for Disease control calculator. Below 18.5 is underweight, 18.5 to 24.9 is normal, 25 to 29.9 is overweight and 30 and above is obese. Once you’ve calculated your number, talk to your doctor about additional tests needed to access your health risk.
Seeing a dermatologist once a year is about more than preventing wrinkles.
“Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer,” says San Francisco-based, board-certified dermatologist Caren Campbell, MD. “One in five people will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Women are more likely to develop both squamous cell and basal cell skin cancer. Basal cell results from frequent sunburns, while squamous cells develop from chronic sun exposure. Both are more common in those with lighter skin types, but can appear in all skin types.”
For some, melanoma is a concern. “You are at a greater risk for melanoma if a first-degree relative has had melanoma,” she says. “If you burn easily, have a history of skin cancer, have blond or red hair, have a history of excessive sun exposure, including sunburns, used tanning beds or have a weakened immune system, you are at an increased risk. Having more moles—approximately 50 or more—also increases your risk of melanoma.”
During an annual skin check, a dermatologist will check you from head to toe for any suspicious spots that need further examination or monitoring, often with a dermascope, which is a cross between a microscope and a flashlight.
“It is a good idea to get a baseline skin check and evaluation and get a recommendation from a board-certified dermatologist on the frequency of skin checks,” she says. “Of course if you have any of the above risk factors, an annual check is best.”
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