Women require regular checkups in order to make sure that certain curable diseases which more often than not, develop into incurable ones that are responsible for a great percentage of the yearly death toll of women are detected beforehand. Some minor diseases when not detected early can translate into deadly diseases, which are said to be responsible for the unnecessary deaths of thousands of women every year.
According to studies, regular medical tests and screenings can help keep you out of the doctor’s office the rest of the year. Annual medical consultations and examinations are valuable opportunities during which the patient can be evaluated for unknown diseases. It is suggested that women should have a good number of medical check-ups which are based on the patient’s age, lifestyle and risk levels at regular intervals. Here, we lay out the necessary medical tests all the women in their 20s and above need, according to top women’s health experts.
Pap Smear and Pelvic Exam
The Pap smear is a screening test done to detect cancer of the cervix and for changes of the cells of the cervix that could progress to cancer. It is recommended that women should pay a visit to the gynaecologist at least once a year for a pap smear. Therefore pelvic examination should also be tucked into every woman’s calendar. WHO cites cervical cancer as the second most common type of cancer in women worldwide, with many cases linked to a sexually transmitted genital infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). A pelvic exam is also performed annually when you have your pap smear. This is where your doctor examines the uterus as well as the Fallopian tubes and ovaries for tenderness or masses.
According to Dr Rains, “A pap smear should be performed from 21 years of age or three years from when one starts being sexually active (whichever is soonest). If you are over the age of 21, you should still have a pap smear, even if you are not sexually active.
There are HPV vaccinations available in SA for girls from ages 9-26 years of age. Females between the ages of 27 and 45 should also discuss this option with their doctor,” he adds
Eye Health Checks
It is suggested that every woman aged 40 and above should have thorough eye examinations in order to detect any signs of eye problems ranging from vision changes and sties to cataracts and glaucoma. An optometrist can test for glaucoma, a severe eye condition characterised by high fluid pressure within the eyeball. Women who are at higher risk of any of these eye diseases especially glaucoma will need to be tested at an earlier age. Risk factors include family history, diabetes, prior eye injury, high blood pressure or use of steroids. Women aged between 50 and 65 should have a general eye examination every two years. Women aged 65 and above should have an eye examination once a year.
Women who are sexually active are required to go for HIV test annually. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death worldwide for women aged 15 – 44 years. Tests for the other STIs such as syphilis, herpes simplex, hepatitis B, gonorrhoea or chlamydia will be advised if there is concern of exposure or if there are any suggestive symptoms.
Bowel Cancer Health Checks for Women
Bowel cancer is also another common cancer with a great recovery rate if detected early. The faecal occult blood test (FOBT) is used to check a stool (poo) sample for blood. A woman who is over 50, is required to have this test at least once every two years. A bowel cancer test is also suggested every two years between 50-80 years of age. Women can do the test in their homes using a bowel testing kit.
Bone Mineral Density Screening
This screening is done to know the bone strength and as such recommended. Women can be advised to manage their risk of, or be treated for osteoporosis, a medical condition in which the bones become brittle and fragile from loss of tissue, typically as a result of hormonal changes and deficiency of calcium or vitamin D. These tests are done from age 50 and subsequent tests are done based on the risk and the baseline result.
The method involves the scrutinization of a woman’s breast for possible lumps, distortions or swelling in order to detect early breast cancer. Based on World Health Organisation (WHO), breast cancer is the principal cancer killer among women aged 20 – 59 years worldwide. Early detection remains the focus of breast cancer control.
According to Dr Nicolas Rains, a general practitioner at NHC Health Centres, South Africa, “patients should be examining their breasts at least monthly from the age of breast development. A palpable mass should immediately be brought to the attention of your doctor for possible referral for an ultrasound or sonar. The doctor will routinely examine your breasts annually. Mammograms should be performed annually, starting from 35 – 40 years of age. Family history will further determine the age at which to have your first screening mammogram.”
Weight, BMI and Waist Circumference
These tests are useful ways of finding out whether the patient is at increased risk of diseases such as hypertension and diabetes and to take the necessary precautions.
Women within the age 18 and above need to get tested at least every two years when they have normal blood pressure (lower than 120/80). Women should be tested once a year if they have blood pressure between 120/80 and 139/89. But consult their doctor when their blood pressure is above 140/90 for possible diagnosis of hypertension. Women who have been diagnosed with or have been treated for hypertension are advised to test their blood pressure monthly.
It is a good practice to know your cholesterol from as young as 20 years old, so you can manage risk from a young age. Women with a family history of cardiovascular disease, who smoke or have hypertension, should have regular cholesterol check-up at least once every year. However, females with normal cholesterol, no family history of disease, do not smoke and are not hypertensive, should have these tests reviewed after 50 years of age or sooner if either their lifestyle or weight changes.
Women who do not show any symptoms of diabetes may have a screening test to exclude type 2 diabetes by means of a fasting glucose level test every year starting from age 18.
Vitamin D Test
Vitamin D is an important nutrient which helps protect the bones. It may also defend against diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, and hike your body’s ability to fight off infections. The blood test checks the level of this nutrient. You typically get the nutrient from sun exposure and fortified dairy products. But if you are cautious about the suns harmful rays (rightly so), you may not be getting enough D. Supplementation can help and also you get it from foods like salmon, egg yolks, and fortified milk, or from a calcium-and–vitamin D supplement.
In all, it is wise to have regular check-ups. Dr Rains pointed out that, “with demanding careers, raising kids and dealing with a changing world, it’s easy for women to put themselves and their health at the bottom of their priority list. It’s important to take some time out, take a couple of hours out of a year to visit the doctor and get the check-ups. One test could be the life-changing one that will not only affect you, but your role as a wife, mother, sister or daughter. Use this Women’s Month to celebrate your health and take better care of your womanhood. Fighting these diseases begins with educating yourself about your body and the health risks that face women. You can empower yourself by getting the recommended annual medical check-ups.”