Read more from our #MEDICALTESTS primer here.
These days you’re juggling more and more responsibility at work, or maybe even launching a new business, new marriage or a young family. Chances are, in the midst of all these forces in motion, your self-care has gotten sidelined. Maybe you’re not sleeping well, working out enough, or food shopping for that fiber-rich Huevos Ranchos bowl because, let’s face it, you’re stretched pretty thin.
But this is the decade when health issues you may have back-burnered can rear their heads. Not only that, but “a large proportion of illnesses we develop are not necessarily caused by stress, but they are impacted by it,” said Stephan C. Schimpff, MD, clinical professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and author of Fixing the Primary Care Crisis. If you think you’re good just seeing your OB/GYN once a year, you’re not. Too many women forget about their overall health and focus solely on their lady-parts—or the health of the rest of their family.
Though heart attacks and strokes are statistically not common during the 30s, they are, unfortunately, a growing problem for younger women. “Women between the ages of 35 and 45 are dying of heart attacks more than ever,” said Tracy Stevens, MD, a board certified cardiologist and a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association. “There’s a misconception that heart attacks are for old people,” Stevens told womenshealthmagazine.com. “Heart disease isn’t on young women’s radar. Many don’t know their blood pressure or cholesterol.” And they should. Here’s what else you should be signing up for.
Cholesterol Check/Routine Physical
Maybe you missed the memo about the benefits of a baseline physical during your 20s? No problem, just book one now. During this exam, expect your doctor to note your height, weight and possibly calculate your BMI (body mass index, which figures out if you’re a healthy weight for your height). He or she will examine your lymph nodes and abdomen for any unusual swelling, listen to your heart and lungs, and take your blood pressure.
Now is also the time to get a complete blood workup, including cholesterol and blood glucose levels, to make sure your numbers are where they should be. Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like substance found in the blood. If it builds up in your arteries, it narrows the arterial walls and reduces blood flow, which can lead to heart attacks, blood clots or strokes. Your doctor will check for good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol, as well as triglycerides, with a fasting lipoprotein blood test. According to goredforwomen.org, an LDL level of less than 100 mg/dl is optimal; with HDL cholesterol, 60mg/dl and above is considered protective against heart disease. Your total cholesterol should be 200 mg/dl or lower.
Samyra Sealy, MD, primary care physician and a member of Downtown Personal Physicians at Mercy in Baltimore, Maryland, suggests using this visit to talk openly with your doctor about any symptoms or concerns—be it anxiety, depression, sleep issues, even a pesky, itchy unexplained rash—without embarrassment or feeling ashamed. There’s nothing your doctor hasn’t seen or heard before. The goal is to help you get whatever treatment you need.
Thyroid issues, which can wreak havoc on your energy levels, usually crop up later in life, but sometimes they can be triggered by having a baby. Get checked if you have unexplained changes in mood, weight, sleep habits or cholesterol. The gold-standard thyroid test is a blood screen for TSH, or thyroid stimulating hormone, which can unearth whether you have hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid, causing insomnia and weight loss), or hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid, causing sluggishness and weight gain). Thyroid tests can also reveal autoimmune conditions such as Graves’ disease.
Pelvic Exam & PAP Smear
Current recommendations suggest that healthy women between the ages of 21 and 65 may only need a pelvic exam and/or PAP smear once every three years, assuming their previous test results were normal. That said, there are good reasons to keep regular annual appointments with your gynecologist, particularly if you’re planning a family or are at risk for breast, cervical or ovarian cancer. “Women should know they may need more than a Pap test,” said Cherrell Triplett, OB/GYN and clinical assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “Current guidelines recommend women 30 to 65 should be screened with PAP+HPV together. I encourage women to see their doctor every year and have an open dialogue to ensure they are up-to-date on all screenings.”
Even if you’re religious about sunscreen and haven’t noticed any suspicious moles, an annual full-body skin exam by a dermatologist is still a really good idea. The reason being that an early skin cancer diagnosis can be the difference between life and death. Current stats say one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends monthly self-checks and offers photos of melanoma on their website. You should also learn your ABCDEs—A for asymmetrical; B for bleeding; C for (changing) color; D for diameter (greater than 6mm); and E for evolving—and keep an eye out for moles showing any of these signs as it can indicate a malignancy.
Dental & Vision Exams
Studies have shown that diseases like diabetes, stroke, heart disease and even breast cancer have been linked to poor oral health. “Preventative and routine dental care is the best way to monitor conditions like gum disease” and help keep your mouth healthy, said Renee Townsend, DDS, Regional Dental Director for Jefferson Dental. Plan to see your dentist twice a year for cleanings and annually for a comprehensive exam.
Your eyes are not only a window into your soul, they can also reveal a lot about your health. Did you know that an optometrist or ophthalmologist can tell if you have hypertension (high blood pressure) simply by examining the blood vessels at the back of your eye in your retina? Schedule a complete eye exam — one that also checks for glaucoma — every two years, every year if you wear contacts, have diabetes or a family history of eye disease.