National Women's Checkup Day: Three Essential Tests for Early Detection

National Women’s Checkup Day, which falls on May 13 this year, should serve as a reminder for all women to take steps to protect their health — and experts recommend prioritizing mammograms, blood pressure tests, and Pap tests.

Staying healthy as a woman requires prioritizing regular health checks to catch any issues before they develop into something serious, though staying on top of all these checkups can be daunting.

That’s why National Women’s Checkup Day, the annual reminder for women to schedule those pesky but important appointments, is just the opportunity to do it.

Created by the United States Department of Health and Human Services as a way to remind women to take care of their health, National Women’s Checkup Day falls on the second Monday of May each year — taking place on May 13 2024. The day is intended to encourage women to schedule preventative tests with their health care providers.

“Preventative screening is tremendously important,” Mary Minkin, M.D., an OB-GYN and clinical professor in Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine, tells Healthnews.

While there are a variety of screening tests women can schedule based on their own individual concerns, experts agree that the most important exams for the average woman are a mammogram, blood pressure test, and Pap smear.

Mammogram

A mammogram is an X-ray photo of the breast that allows physicians to look for signs of breast cancer by checking the image for masses. It takes just a few minutes and can help find breast cancer early, up to three years before it can be felt.

While guidance in the U.S. has advised that regular mammograms begin at age 50 for the last 15 years, the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recently issued an official recommendation that routine screening instead begin at age 40. The decision was based on data that shows decreasing deaths from breast cancer for women who screen regularly, as well as rising breast cancer rates among women in their 40s.

Rates of breast cancer in this group rose by 2% a year between 2015 and 2019.

And since women have a one-in-eight chance of developing breast cancer at some point in their lifetime — it’s the most common cancer in women — the recommendation is certainly worth heeding.

“The good news is breast cancer is very treatable, as long as you catch it early,” Mindy Pelz, DC, bestselling author and women’s health expert, tells Healthnews. “That’s why it’s so important to get regular mammograms.”

The rule of thumb, she says, is to get a mammogram every two years starting at age 40, though this can be increased to once per year if you have a history of breast cancer in your family.

“Mammograms are so important,” Minkin says. “We encourage women to start screening mammograms at age 40, unless they have a history of very early breast cancers in their families, in which case we would encourage earlier screening.”

Blood pressure test

A blood pressure test consists of a doctor putting a cuff on your arm and squeezing it tight, gradually releasing the pressure, and measuring how hard your heart is pumping. The test is painless and only takes a couple of minutes.

“Blood pressure is a good indicator of your heart health,” Pelz says. “When your blood pressure is normal, it means your heart is circulating blood throughout your body in a gentle, healthy way.”

High blood pressure (also called hypertension), on the other hand, can damage your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease.

This test is particularly important for women because heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over 60 million women in the U.S. — or 44% — are living with some form of heart disease, and it can affect women at any age. In 2021, it was responsible for the deaths of 310,661 women, or about one in every five deaths among females.

“High blood pressure actually can even be seen in teens these days, particularly because of increasing weight issues,” Minkin tells Healthnews. “Most pediatricians recommend blood pressure screening in the teens.”

When detected early and treated properly with lifestyle changes and anti-hypertensive medications, Minkin and Pelz say subsequent heart failure can be prevented.

“It’s a good idea to get a blood pressure test every year,” Pelz says. “You’ve probably had one done before.”

Pap tests

Pap tests screen for cervical cancer, which is the fourth most common cancer in women. The process involves a doctor inserting a speculum into your vagina, swabbing some cells from your cervix, and looking at the cells under a microscope for any abnormalities.

Minkin says Pap tests are an excellent screening tool to detect early forms of precancerous changes in the cervix. And while she recommends the Gardasil vaccine for all young people, the vaccine is not 100% effective in preventing cervical cancers — though it will help prevent 90% — so she says a regular Pap smear can help detect precancerous cells that can be treated before they progress to cancer.

“Unlike a lot of cancers, there’s a reasonable chance cervical cancer can happen when you’re younger, so it’s a good idea to get a Pap test every three years after age 21,” Pelz says.

Anyone who has been diagnosed with human papillomavirus (HPV) should be especially diligent about getting regular Pap tests. HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection that affects between 75-90% of women, and it increases the risk of cervical cancer.

In fact, the CDC says HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get the virus at some point in their lives, and HPV causes about 37,000 cancer cases each year.

Pap tests can both find abnormal cells in the cervix that may turn into cancer and find cervical cancer early when the chance of being cured is much higher.

“I encourage women to feel comfortable with their practitioner — to see someone with whom she can communicate and discuss her anxieties about testing, and the benefits that she can accrue,” Minkin says. “Most of the testing isn't terribly uncomfortable, and it can give you lots of information.”


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