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10 screening tests women need

Illness isn't the only reason to see a doctor. In fact, preventive care while you're healthy can help reduce your risk of getting sick to begin with.

Regular screenings can help you avoid some of the biggest threats to women's health—including heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes. Screenings can also catch diseases in early stages, when treatment is often most effective.

The general guidelines that follow apply to most healthy women. All women should talk to a doctor about a personal schedule for regular health screenings. Depending on your age, overall health and risk factors, your doctor may also recommend tests for additional health problems, such as vision and hearing loss.

Blood pressure

Blood pressure is the force exerted on your blood vessel walls during and between heartbeats. It can be measured in a few seconds with an inflatable arm cuff.

If your blood pressure is high, you may be at risk for stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Because high blood pressure usually has no symptoms, you probably won't know you have it unless you're getting screened.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), everyone should have his or her blood pressure checked by a health professional at least every two years. If it's high it should be checked more often.

Lifestyle changes, medications or both can help lower blood pressure.

Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a soft, waxy substance in the blood. To check cholesterol levels, a small sample of blood is taken and sent to a lab. A high level of cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for heart disease and heart attack.

According to the AHA, everyone age 20 and older should have a cholesterol test every four to six years. The test should measure total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol; high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol; and triglycerides (blood fats).

If all of these numbers aren't available, total cholesterol and HDL should at least be checked. Lifestyle changes, medication or both can help lower cholesterol and the risks of heart disease and stroke.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer starts in the cervix, the lower opening of the uterus. This cancer can be found early using a Pap test and, in some cases, a test for human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is the most important risk factor for cervical cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

For the Pap test, your doctor brushes some cells off of your cervix and vagina to check for signs of early cancer or precancer. Before this test was introduced, cancer of the cervix was one of the most common causes of cancer death in women.

The ACS recommends regular Pap tests for all women starting at age 21.

For women who fall into the average-risk category, the test can be done every three years until age 29. Starting at age 30, the ACS recommends a Pap test and an HPV test (called co-testing) every five years. Also acceptable is continued testing with the Pap test alone every three years, according to the ACS.

Some women older than 65 may safely stop testing if they meet certain criteria.

Breast cancer

Mammograms, a specialized x-ray of the breast, help detect breast cancer at an early stage, when tumors are too small to feel and treatment is most effective.

The ACS recommends yearly mammograms for women ages 45 to 54 and every other year for women age 55 and older.

Colorectal cancer

Colorectal cancer is the 3rd most common cancer in American women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Screening can catch this cancer early or help prevent it by finding growths that would have become cancer.

Colorectal cancer screening should start at age 50, according to the ACS. Your doctor may recommend a fecal occult blood test, sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, barium enema, virtual colonoscopy or some combination of these tests.

You may need to start screening earlier if you have colorectal cancer risk factors.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis, which thins and weakens the bones, affects millions of women and eventually leads to a broken bone for half of women over age 50, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA). Some of these fractures lead to permanent disability or death.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that women ages 65 and older have routine screenings for osteoporosis. Screening is also recommended for younger women at high risk for fractures, according to the USPSTF. Risk factors include smoking, alcohol use, low body mass index and a parental history of fracture.

According to the NIA, the best test of bone density is DXA (dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry) scanning. This specialized x-ray shows how dense your bones are.

If your bones are becoming weak, lifestyle changes, medications or both can help prevent, slow or reverse bone loss.

Diabetes

A blood sugar test can detect the earliest stages of diabetes, a chronic disease that can have life-threatening consequences without proper treatment. Diabetes affects 29.1 million Americans, according to CDC.

The American Diabetes Association recommends that women age 45 and older should ask their doctors at their next routine office visit if they should be screened.

Women younger than 45 may need to be tested if they're overweight or have other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol, high triglycerides (a type of fat in the bloodstream), a history of diabetes during pregnancy or a family history of diabetes.

Lifestyle changes, medications or both can help hold off diabetes or its complications.

Depression

Depression affects one in eight U.S. women at some point in life. Screening for this serious, treatable disease should be a part of everyone's regular healthcare, according to Mental Health America (MHA).

The screening includes education about depression and a few simple questions about symptoms.

If you've been feeling sad or hopeless and have lost interest or pleasure in doing things for more than 2 weeks straight, talk to your doctor. In more than 80 percent of cases, treatment helps, reports MHA.

Skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, according to the ACS. Regular screening can catch it early, when it can almost always be cured.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the best way to catch these cancers early is with monthly skin self-exams and yearly skin exams done by a doctor.

These exams seek out moles or growths that are larger around than a pencil eraser, have irregular borders, are asymmetrical or have color variations.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

STIs are among the most common infectious diseases in the United States. They affect people of all backgrounds and incomes. Especially in women, STIs aren't likely to have any symptoms.

Some of these diseases can lead to infertility, cancer or death. STI tests often require a blood sample, urine sample or vaginal swab. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out if you should be tested.

For your health

No two women or their healthcare needs are exactly the same. Ask your doctor about the screening schedule that's best for you.

reviewed 4/20/2016

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