Many women take on a lot of responsibilities and in doing so, may neglect their own health. Health screenings are generally done when you’re healthy. The aim is to detect disease at an early stage before symptoms become noticeable. In most cases, treating a disease early on provides a better prognosis. Regular health checks can also help to reduce risk factors and/or treat abnormalities that could lead to more serious diseases later on.
The screenings you’ll need typically change as you age, but here’s a list of the ten essential health checks women should prioritise:
1. Blood pressure screening
It’s a myth that high blood pressure mainly affects men or the aged and research conducted in South Africa shows that high blood pressure rates among women have climbed in the last two decades. High blood pressure is called the silent killer since it typically doesn’t cause any symptoms, but has a devastating effect on your health. Almost all diseases, disabilities, and deaths caused by high blood pressure are preventable. So, roll up your sleeve and get your blood pressure checked. This can be done at most pharmacy clinics or at your GP. A blood pressure screening should be done annually from the age of 18. A normal reading is below 120/80 mm Hg.
2. Cholesterol check
This check assesses your risk for developing heart disease or stroke, which you should have done at least every five years from the age of 20. However, if you have a history of cardiovascular disease in your family or suffer from it, you should have it done more regularly. Normal cholesterol levels should be less than 5 mmol/l. If it’s higher, make a plan to see your doctor.
3. Blood glucose
Women aged 45 and older should get their blood glucose checked every three years to detect their risk for diabetes. A fasting plasma glucose reading of 6.1 – 6.9 mmol/l and higher may indicate that you’re prediabetic, while anything over ≥ 7 mmol/l indicates diabetes.
Given the high rate of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, it’s recommended that women get tested once a year. This involves a simple prick test or swab of the cheek that can be done at a GP or clinic.
5. Pap smear
A pap smear is recommended every three years, starting from the age of 25 to 65,” says. Your doctor will take cells from your cervix with a small brush, which then get sent to a lab for analysis. There they will look for changes or abnormalities that may lead to cervical cancer.
This is a screening tool for breast cancer, which involves compressing the breast between plates so that X-ray images can be taken. As you age, your risk for breast cancer increases. Women should start annual screenings at age 40 and can then switch to biannual screenings at age 55. However, if you have a family history of breast cancer, then talk to your doctor about starting screenings earlier. It’s also advised to do monthly self-examinations at home where you can check for lumps, bumps, or any changes.
7. Bone density
To screen for osteoporosis (a disease that weakens the bones), a bone density test is recommended for women from age 65 and men over the age of 70, but those with risk factors, like fractures or low body weight, should be screened earlier. The frequency of the test varies depending on bone density, but your doctor will be able to advise you on how often you should have it done. The test requires you to lie flat on a table with your legs positioned over a padded box, while a low-dose X-ray machine captures images of your bones.
8. Colon screening
The colon should be scanned for cancer from 50 years of age, and repeated every 10 years after that depending on an individual’s risk factors. It can be done at the doctor’s office or in the hospital by way of a sigmoidoscopy where a lighted tube and camera are inserted in the anus to examine the lower colon. A colonoscopy involves a longer tube that examines the entire colon. Your doctor will advise on how often it should be done.
9. Skin checks
In SA, about 20 000 cases of skin cancer are reported annually, which makes it the most common cancer in the country. Therefore, self-examinations should be done monthly at home to check for any new moles or changes to existing moles. If you find anything out of the ordinary, rather have it checked out by a GP or dermatologist.
10. Dental checks
Regular dental check-ups can prevent plaque build-up, cavities, and gum disease, which makes seeing the dentist at least once a year a must.
Don’t put off making a doctor’s appointment for yourself because you’re too busy taking care of everyone else. Taking care of yourself should be at the top of your list, not last. If you’re not taking care of your own health, how are you supposed to take care of others? Putting your health first isn’t selfish, it’s essential!