May is a special month for women. It is the month when we honor our mothers with Mother’s Day — those exceptional women who watch over, nourish and protect us. It is also the month of National Women’s Health Week, promoting regular checkups and encouraging women to visit their health care professionals. Such a celebration — and an annual reminder — is vital to the early detection of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, mental health illnesses, sexually transmitted infections, and other conditions.
Living longer, healthier and happier lives are three major reasons women should connect with themselves and their physicians in this way each year. As we all know, women are the perpetual caregivers for their spouses, children and parents, yet in many cases, they forget about themselves. Women’s role in family health care should not be taken lightly. In fact, recent studies have shown that if the family’s maternal influence is healthy and she takes care of herself, the health of the entire family is also markedly enhanced.
Some basic health screenings that women should receive on an annual basis and discuss with their physician are an annual pelvic exam and pap smear, human papillomavirus (HPV) test, mammogram, depending on your age and family history; blood pressure; cholesterol; and colonoscopy to name just a few. These screening tests can not only detect possible problems before they present themselves in a more serious fashion, but can also facilitate the treatment and cure of high-risk or genetic conditions that may appear later in life because of family history.
The HPV titer test is crucial to detect high-risk strains of HPV virus, a sexually transmitted viral disease that can lead to cervical cancer. The ominous aspect about HPV virus is that, while some people may have symptoms, including vaginal warts, many others can carry the infection without any symptoms whatsoever and may be transporting — and transmitting — the infection to others without being aware of it. Recently the FDA approved a vaccination called Gardasil that can protect against some of the high-risk strains of the virus. Young women between the ages of 11 and 26 were studied in this clinical trial and were shown to have the greatest benefit from the vaccine.
The annual pelvic exam and PAP smear are also “must-have” diagnostic evaluations that assess for cervical abnormalities, including amongst other things, HPV. If a woman’s routine PAP smear returns abnormal, this is a warning signal for her OB/Gyn to perform further evaluation and treat accordingly.
Mammograms are another increasingly important exam for women and are administered depending on age and risk factors. The American Cancer Society recommends that every woman have a digital screening mammogram every one to two years starting at the age of 40. If risk factors come into play, you may be prescribed this test even earlier in life, at least for a baseline mammogram, with additional, more advanced testing done if the baseline results reveal any significant clinical findings. Further evaluation with breast ultrasound and breast MRIs may be performed for those patients who present with a higher risk for breast cancer.
Heart health is essential! Blood pressure and cholesterol screenings should be done for baseline evaluation between the ages of 35 and 40, unless there is a strong family history of cardiovascular disease, which then may indicate testing earlier. Maintaining a healthy blood pressure reading, combined with a healthy diet and exercise will help to keep hypertension at bay. Normal blood pressure is typically measured at 120/80 or less. Many times certain lifestyle changes prove to be the best ways to stave off heart disease and stroke. If yours is elevated, implement the following daily changes including eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and drinking plenty of water. In addition, routine cardiovascular exercise for 30 to 45 minutes three times a week is recommended to markedly decrease your risk of atherosclerosis and diabetes. Typically, regular blood pressure screenings should begin in your 30s.
Cholesterol screenings, or looking at the makeup of your blood for the “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, will help determine whether you have build up of dangerous plaque in the walls of your arteries. This is commonly known as “atherosclerosis” and is the leading cause of heart attack and/or stroke. It is advisable to start checking your cholesterol levels in your early 40s — if you have a documented family history of above average cholesterol levels, you may be genetically predisposed and at a higher risk of obesity and heart disease.
Undergoing a baseline colonoscopy to evaluate your “digestive pipes” is typically recommended at age 50. If you have a family member who has been diagnosed with colon cancer early in life, discuss this with your physician to determine the appropriate timing for your baseline evaluation. The colonoscopy is the “gold standard” screening for colon cancer, precancerous growths or polyps or abnormal changes in the lining of the colon.
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