Essential Health Screenings for Women

By: Dr. Christine Horner

As we age, the incidence of chronic diseases begins to rise. The good news is-you can reduce your risk of developing most of these diseases through simple diet and lifestyle measures. Even if certain diseases run in your family, you can still reduce your risk to a minimum with healthier choices.

Screening tests for common diseases are important because they can help to identify these conditions at their earliest stages-before you have symptoms-and when they are most easily treatable. Which screening tests you need depends on your age, family history, your own health history, and other risk factors.

Excellent screening tests are available for some of the most common illnesses affecting women including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancers of the skin, breast, cervix and colon.

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that there are about 20 million new sexually transmitted infections in the United States each year with a total of more than 110 million men and women currently infected.

STIs are caused by a variety of bacteria and viruses. The most common are bacterial infections caused by chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis ; and viral infections caused by human papillomavirus (HPV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), herpes simplex virus type 2 (HSV-2), and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The bacterial infections can be easily treated and cured if diagnosed early.

Many of these infections go undetected because they often have no symptoms. But even STIs that don?t have symptoms can cause serious health consequences. Undiagnosed and untreated chlamydia or gonorrhea, for example, can put a woman at increased risk of chronic pelvic pain, life-threatening ectopic pregnancies, and infertility.

HPV accounts for the majority of newly acquired STDs. The vast majority (90-98 percent) of HPV infections will go away on their own and cause no harm. Less than 2% of these infections will take hold and potentially lead to serious disease, including cervical cancer. HPV vaccines are available, but due to their severe side effects including 171 deaths and hundreds of permanent disabilities, I do not recommend them. Instead, I recommend the use of condoms and that teenagers keep their immune systems strong with a good diet and lifestyle.

In a study conducted at MD Anderson in Houston, TX, a mushroom formula called ?Active Hexose Correlated Compound? (AHCC) was found to kill the HPV virus, prevent infections, and enhance the effectiveness of the immune system without dangerous side effects. Teenagers who are sexually active may also benefit from taking this formula.

Suggested screening: See your physician annually to be tested for STIs if you are sexually active with multiple partners.

Diabetes

According to the 2009-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination, 29.1 million people in the U.S. or 9.3% of the population have diabetes. Diabetes was the seventh leading cause of death in the United States in 2010. In the last 10 years, diabetes has increased by 90%.

A diet high in calories, sugar and carbohydrates; obesity, lack of exercise, and excess stress are the major contributing factors. Type 2 diabetes is most common and can be easily prevented or improved with a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Suggested screening: A blood glucose test is recommended every three years starting at age 45. Before age 45, you may need to have your blood glucose levels tested if you have symptoms of diabetes or several risk factors. The range of normal test results can vary, but generally a test result of 100 mg/dL or higher indicates pre-diabetes or diabetes.

Cardiovascular Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. About 600,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year-that?s 1 in every 4 deaths.

Coronary heart disease is the most common type of heart disease, killing nearly 380,000 people annually. High blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and smoking are key risk factors for heart disease. About half of Americans (49%) have at least one of these three risk factors. Several other medical conditions and lifestyle choices can also put people at a higher risk for heart disease, including diabetes, obesity, poor diet, inactivity, and excessive alcohol use.

Suggested screening: Starting at age 18, you should have your blood pressure checked at least every two years. Ideal blood pressure for women is less than 120/80 mmHg. Depending on your risk factors, blood lipid profiles are recommended every year or two.

Skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. In fact, 75% of all diagnosed cancers are types of skin cancer. Each year, nearly 5 million people are treated for skin cancer. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime.

There are three different types of skin cancer: basal-cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous-cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma. The first two types are, by far, the most common forms of skin cancer and do not typically spread. The third form, melanoma, can be deadly because it has a tendency to spread throughout other areas of the body. Melanoma accounts for less than two percent of skin cancer cases, but the vast majority of skin cancer deaths. An estimated 9,710 people will die of melanoma in 2014. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25-29 years old and the second most common form of cancer for young people 15-29 years old.

Excessive exposure to the sun is the most common cause of skin cancer.

Suggested screening: You should examine your skin for changes, especially in moles, every month starting at age 18. At age 20, you should see your doctor or dermatologist for an examination. Depending on your individual situation, your doctor will tell you when he/she would like to see you again.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common and feared cancer among women and the second leading cause of cancer deaths. Every year, over 200,000 women are diagnosed in the US and approximately 40,000 women die. Research shows that breast cancer is a highly preventable disease. Over 95% of cases are thought to be preventable through diet and lifestyle changes. Finding cancers at their earliest stages significantly improves prognosis.

Suggested screening: Screening tests include breast self-exams, thermography, ultrasounds (3-D and elastography), MRI, and mammograms. Because breast cancer is on the rise in women under 40, it is recommended that you begin annual screenings in your 20s using self-exam, thermography, and ultrasounds. Mammography is of no value for women under 40. Recent research now calls into question the value of mammography at any age, because the harm it may cause appears to outweigh its benefits. Therefore, I do not recommend this test.

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer used to be the leading cause of cancer death for women in the United States. However, in the past 40 years, the number of cases of cervical cancer and the number of deaths from cervical cancer have decreased significantly. This decline largely is the result of many women getting regular Pap tests, which can find abnormal cells before it turns into cancer. The most recent statistics found that 12,109 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer>each year and 4,092 women die from the disease.

Most cases of cervical cancer are associated with the HPV virus.

Suggested screening: Beginning at age 21, or earlier if you are sexually active, you should have a pelvic exam and Pap smear every two years to check for any abnormalities. Guidelines for cervical cancer screening recently changed from once a year; to every three years for women over age 30 if they have had three normal tests in a row.

Colon Cancer

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States and the third most common cancer in men and in women. In 2011, approximately 135,260 people (70,099 men and 65,161 women) in the United States were diagnosed with colorectal cancer and 51,783 people (26,804 men and 24,979 women) died from the disease.

Your risk of getting colorectal cancer increases as you get older. More than 90% of cases occur in people who are 50 years old or older. Other risk factors include having inflammatory bowel disease and a family history; and lifestyle factors including a lack of physical activity, low fruit and vegetable intake, a low-fiber and high-fat diet, being overweight or obese, excess alcohol consumption, and tobacco use.

Suggested screening: Colonoscopy is recommended beginning at age 50. If there are no problems, another colonoscopy is recommended in 10 years.

It makes good health sense to talk with your doctor about screening tests. Some tests, such as a Pap test or breast exam, should be a routine part of every woman?s health care. Other tests might be necessary based on your risk factors. Proper screening won?t always prevent a disease, but it can often find a disease early enough to give you the best chance of overcoming it.

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