Getting Back on Track: Women’s Health Checks at Ages 30, 40, and 50

When the world was changed forever by the Covid-19 pandemic, regular health screening dropped at alarming rates. Studies show that those rates are still lagging, leaving millions at risk of having serious diseases go undetected. On International Women’s Day, give yourself the gift of good health! A checkup with recommended testing can uncover conditions before they become life-threatening, protecting your health at every age.

Key takeaways:

How to address health screening gaps

The start of the COVID-19 pandemic also marked the beginning of a more insidious health crisis. Breast and cervical cancer screenings plummeted by 94%, leaving millions behind on annual health prevention. A study by the American Medical Association estimates that Americans missed 9.4 million screening tests in 2020.

By the end of 2021, breast cancer screening rates were still 46.7% lower than before the pandemic, leaving a significant gap. This gap is especially alarming because breast cancer is so common. One in eight women will get breast cancer in their lifetimes. It remains one of the most treatable cancers because of early detection, making screening tests crucial to the survival of women facing this diagnosis.

International Women’s Day is a great time to check in with your health and contact your doctor for any screenings that may have been skipped.

Health screenings when you're 30

You should see your doctor for a health checkup every year. Only some tests are necessary yearly; recommendations depend on your risk factors and overall health. Here are a few to be aware of at age 30:

  • Pap smear. Your doctor will collect a sample of the cells of your cervix with a brush during a pelvic exam. A pathologist checks the cells of your cervix for abnormalities. When cells change, it could be an early sign of cervical cancer. You should get a Pap smear every three years.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) testing. HPV causes more than 90% of cervical cancer. Doctors can test you for HPV as part of a Pap smear. It is a prevalent virus, but you can help prevent it with vaccination. If your doctor tests you for HPV along with your Pap smear, you can get screening every five years.
  • Clinical breast exam. Though mammograms are not recommended for people in their 30s with an average risk of breast cancer, your doctor can check manually for lumps and changes. You should also perform regular self-breast exams and be aware of your body.
  • Breast cancer risk assessment. Some women are at higher risk of developing breast cancer and must start screening earlier. Some factors that affect breast cancer risk include your family history, the age at which you had your first period, if you have given birth, have taken hormones, your weight, and if you have had any breast lesions.
  • Blood tests. Depending on your risks, your doctor may recommend annual blood tests for diabetes, high cholesterol, and anemia.
  • Blood pressure measurement. Regularly checking your blood pressure can help prevent heart disease, strokes, and kidney disease.
  • Sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing. If you are at risk of contracting an STD, your doctor should test you regularly.
  • Pelvic exam. Although new guidelines call into question if pelvic exams are necessary if you are not due for a Pap smear and have no concerning symptoms, your doctor will likely recommend one yearly. Pelvic exams can help doctors uncover signs of STDs, pelvic inflammatory disease, masses, and endometriosis.
  • Visual skin cancer screening. There may be limited effectiveness of visual skin cancer screening. However, an estimated 76,400 people in the US develop melanoma each year, and about 10,100 die from the disease. Pay attention to any abnormal areas on your skin, and talk to your dermatologist about the correct screening and skin cancer prevention for you.

Health screenings at age 40

Health screening recommendations at age 30 continue through age 40 and, generally, to age 65, when cervical cancer screening guidelines change. More screenings are necessary as you reach age 40 and your risks for certain health conditions increase. In addition to the screenings you have already been getting, the American Cancer Society recommends adding yearly mammography.

Breast cancer accounts for 1 in 3 of all new female cancers annually. Survival rates are up to 95% if doctors catch breast cancer early. However, if gone undetected to stage 4, survival rates drop to as low as 25%. A mammogram can help detect breast cancer in its most treatable stages.

Health screenings at age 50 and beyond

When you reach age 50, continue the annual health screenings from your 30s and 40s, and add:

  • Colon cancer screening. You should be screened for colorectal cancer when you reach age 50 with a colonoscopy. Your first colonoscopy is a baseline measurement to give a good point of comparison later in life. You should have a colonoscopy every ten years. Some experts recommend starting colonoscopies at age 45.
  • Bone density scan. Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) scans can help detect osteoporosis. You should get this screening if you have gone through menopause and are at increased risk of osteoporosis. The average age of menopause is 52. If you are not at increased risk, start this screening at 65.
  • Lung cancer screening. Low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) can detect lung cancer. An LDCT scan is essential if you are a smoker and have smoked for 20 years or were a smoker and quit less than 15 years ago.

Health screening recommendations vary greatly depending on your family history and risk factors. At every age, keep checkups current and talk to your doctor about the best screening plan. As we celebrate women everywhere, don’t be afraid to be a leader and tell your friends to get their checkups too! You could save a life.

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