Women’s health needs are always changing. From those tumultuous teen years to the night sweats of menopause, the female body is always in transition. As a family medicine physician, I often help women navigate these challenges through education and awareness.
The most important advice for women of all ages is to get established with a primary care provider and an OB-GYN, and to remember your annual checkups. That’s because screening recommendations and medical advancements change yearly, as do women’s health needs. Today, doctors and patients alike are grasping the true value of preventative care, meaning a person who only goes to the doctor when sick (reactively) often misses out on potentially life-saving screenings.
Women’s Health Through the Years:
Healthy women in their 20s are often tempted to forgo checkups. However, this is the ideal time to establish a relationship with a primary care physician as well as an OB-GYN. Pap smears and self-breast exams are especially important at this age, as are screenings for sexually transmitted diseases. For example, recent guidelines call for regular Chlamydia screenings in women under 25, since the disease has been linked to infertility.
Women in their 30s are typically dealing with pregnancy and birth control. Pap smears are required every three years for those who haven’t undergone testing for human papillomavirus (HPV), and every five years for those who do get tested. Women in their 30s seem to struggle more to find a healthy life balance. Stress management is a chronic problem for this demographic, and a woman needs to be comfortable talking to her doctor about any physical or emotional challenges. This is why establishing a relationship with a doctor early on is critical.
Turning 40 means the beginning of yearly mammograms (those with a personal or family history of the disease often start earlier.) Many patients are surprised to learn of advances in mammography including 3D scans and curved paddles, which help remove the discomfort (and stigma) from mammography techniques of years gone by. Your doctor can help you set up a screening mammogram and a breast MRI, which is becoming standard protocol for early detection of breast cancer. Pap smears also continue into a woman’s 40s, and The American Cancer Society recommends beginning regular colon cancer screenings at 45. Mental and social issues affecting patients this age might include divorce as well as the need to do it all, which can launch a vicious cycle of self-doubt and blame. Anxiety and depression aren’t uncommon, and should be discussed with your provider. As parents age, women in their 40s often start reporting changes in family history as well. Some also experience peri-menopausal symptoms and unexplained weight gain. Talk openly to your doctor about these or any concerns.
Women between 50 and 65 still receive regular pap smears, yearly colonoscopies and mammograms. The shingles vaccine should begin at age 60 as well. The pertussis booster vaccine is also important for grandparents who plan to be around newborns, as it prevents getting and spreading pertussis (whooping cough). Across the board, this demographic is dealing with peri- and post-menopausal symptoms and should turn to their physicians to work through changes. Social issues might include divorce or loss of parents, while kids leaving for college and the arrival of grandchildren can cause a tremendous shift in routine and family dynamics.
While pap smears are no longer on the radar for healthy women over 65, the pneumonia vaccine is recommended for this population. Prior to a woman turning 65 and switching to Medicare, I encourage her to get a physical to diagnose or treat any underlying medical problems. Women should continue colonoscopies and mammograms until age 75, or when life expectancy is less than 10 years. I also encourage older women to be proactive in finding health problems before they become symptomatic. For example, coronary calcium tests are a quick and affordable way to detect heart disease before a heart attack.
As women, we tend to put everyone else first and put our own health on the back burner. I often remind patients that they can’t take care of anyone else if they’re not well, so it’s up to you to make yourself a priority. Schedule your yearly prevention screenings, and talk to your doctor about physical or emotional changes in your health. You owe it to yourself.
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