Here’s an ounce of prevention for every age and stage of life.
It’s easy to skip your regular visit to a gynecologist or an internal medicine physician. But doctors who specialize in women’s health say preventive measures are key to early detection and treatment of issues that could turn serious. These are the recommended screenings and immunizations that women—and their daughters—need as they mature.
Preteen and Teen Years
A lot changes during adolescence, requiring a comprehensive approach to whole-body health.
Immunizations. Most teenagers should see a doctor once a year for an annual exam and any needed shots. “The main ones are the boosters for MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) and meningitis,” says Dialyn Soto, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Mount Vernon Internal Medicine. “When I see patients who are going into college, I give the tetanus booster. For young teens, it’s usually recommended to discuss the HPV vaccine,” which can help stop certain cancers from developing.
Well-woman care and sexual education. As girls transition through puberty and begin to menstruate, their doctors have new information and concerns related to their reproductive health. Also, it’s never too early to talk about controllable risk factors for disease. Dr. Soto emphasizes diet and exercise as keys to keeping weight in a healthy range, and not smoking.
Stress-related illness and sleep. The teenage years can be stressful, especially for modern kids who feel pulled in a million directions. The ubiquity of cellphones, with their constant buzz of notifications, doesn’t help them get a good night’s sleep, which is a critical component of mental health.
The 20s and 30s
At this age, many women are going off to college, starting careers and families, and traveling, exposing themselves to new experiences as well as new health risks.
Cervical cancer. Ideally, women should have had the HPV vaccine as girls, but young women who are not yet sexually active may want to get the vaccine now to help prevent HPV infection and cervical cancer. An annual Pap test used to be recommended, but that’s no longer the case: The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force now says women at normal risk should have a Pap test at age 21 with a repeat test every three years, or beginning at age 30, women can have a Pap test along with an HPV test every five years.
Infectious diseases. Women should have a tetanus booster every 10 years. College-age women, especially those living in dorms, should have the meningitis vaccine. “If you are traveling a lot or working in healthcare-related fields [where you’re exposed to blood or bodily fluids], you should have hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccines,” Dr. Soto says. And everyone should get a flu shot every year.
Sexually transmitted diseases. Women should be screened for gonorrhea, chlamydia and HIV regularly once they are sexually active, depending on their risk factors.
Skin cancer. Although there are no specific screening recommendations, Dr. Soto reviews skin cancer with every patient at every visit. “Especially with people of fair skin, but it doesn’t matter,” she says. “People with darker skin also are exposed to skin cancer.”
By now, many aspects of life are settling down. But physically, things are continuing to change—reproductive hormones are waning, metabolism is slowing and the risk of certain diseases is growing.
Diabetes. “In the 40s, I like to do a diabetes screening, especially if there are risk factors of obesity and overweight,” Dr. Soto says. Women should have their blood glucose levels checked every three years.
Breast cancer. “We start talking about having mammograms, including frequency,” she says. “If you have risk factors or a family history of breast cancer, or if there’s something you’re concerned about, then we do it earlier.” Ask your doctor about the best time to start and how often to repeat the test.
Heart disease. There’s no recommended age for screening women’s cholesterol levels for those at normal risk, though Dr. Soto prefers to check it for all new patients at this age and then again every two to three years. Women should also have their blood pressure checked every two to three years after 40.
The 50s, 60s and Beyond
With age comes hard-earned wisdom and more freedom to love life. In these years, it’s as important as ever to focus on health so you can enjoy many years to come.
Colorectal cancer. Starting at age 50, women at normal risk should have a colonoscopy. If nothing is found, tests repeat every 10 years through age 75. “Colonoscopy is the gold standard,” Dr. Soto says.
Osteoporosis. Women should have their bone density measured between ages 55 and 65, depending on risk factors such as family history and smoking. Dr. Soto also checks for vitamin D levels, which affect bone health. “Mobility, mobility, mobility,” she says. “We talk about exercising—low-impact and low-resistance exercises to prevent falls, so you don’t develop a fracture.”
Infectious diseases. People older than 60 should have the shingles vaccine, and those older than 65 should get the pneumococcal vaccine.
Dr. Dialyn Soto is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and geriatric medicine with Mount Vernon Internal Medicine, a Northside Network Provider. For more information visit mvimatl.com.