Must-Have Tests For Women

African American Black woman shaking doctors handYou’re eating healthier? Great! You’re exercising more? Outstanding? In addition, you’re doing other things to stay healthy, such as sleeping more and stressing less? You GO!

But…what about your visits to the doctor? If keeping up with medical tests isn’t on your list of healthy behaviors, you’re falling into the mistake that many fit women make: thinking that a healthy lifestyle makes it unnecessary to get routine exams.

To truly be your healthiest, here are some of the exams you need to talk to your doctor about…


Pap Smear

Who to see: Gynecologist

Why: Pap smears aid in early detection of cervical cancer. African-American women’s mortality rate from it is 50% higher than all other groups of women according to the American Cancer Society. Collecting cells from the cervix during a pelvic exam is the best way to tell if your cervix is healthy — cell changes can lead to cervical cancer.

How often: Starting at age 21, most women need to be screened every other year or less, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Once you turn 30 — and you’ve had three consecutive negative tests and no abnormal history — you can get it done once every three years.





Clinical Breast Exam

Who to see: Gynecologist or general practitioner (GP)

Why: While white women are diagnosed with breast cancer more often, Black women are more likely to die from it, especially since it only tends to be discovered at more advanced stages. A doctor can feel or see abnormalities in breast tissue, skin and nipples that can indicate cancer.

How often: At least once every three years in your twenties and thirties. But if you want to be checked more frequently, simply ask. After age 35, go yearly.







Skin Cancer Screening

Who to see: Dermatologist

Why: Only about 31 percent of African-American adults engage in at least one form of sun protection behavior such as wearing a hat, while 63 percent never use sunscreen, according to a new study. The problem? Melanoma is more than 10 times higher in whites compared to blacks, but over a five-year span, blacks have a 78 percent lower survival rate compared to 92 percent of whites, according to study background material. A doctor can ID weirdly shaped moles or other growths that might be cancerous or precancerous.

How often: Get new or changed growths assessed ASAP. If you’re a current or recovering tanning-bed or sun lover, are fair or dotted with moles or freckles or have a family history of skin cancer, see the derm twice a year. If not, go annually.






Hearing Test

Who to see: Audiologist or certified speech-language pathologist

Why: Hearing loss affects nearly two-thirds of older Americans, but blacks are much less likely than whites to have hearing problems, a new study shows. That said, another recent study shows that hearing loss has become a real problem for the more than 12 percent of people in their twenties and thirties who already have some form of hearing loss.

How often: Once every 10 years until age 50, then every three years.







Who to see: Your GP

Why: According to the CDC, African American adults are less likely than non-Hispanic white adults to have received some of the most basic vaccines on a regular basis. Up-to-date vaccinations protect you from all sorts of diseases, including some you thought went the way of the dinosaur, such as whooping cough.

How often: At your next physical, have your M.D. review your vaccination history. Some inoculations become less effective over time, so you may need a booster. For example, tetanus shots are vital every 10 years, no rusty nails required.





Blood Pressure

Who to see: Your GP

Why: Black women develop hypertension earlier in life and have higher average blood pressure than white women, according to HHS. The higher it is, the greater your chance of having heart disease, a stroke or kidney damage.

How often: Once every two years if it’s 120/80 or below. If you’ve already been diagnosed with hypertension — or your doc says you’re at risk — measure your BP at home regularly, too.








Cholesterol Panel

Who to see: Your GP

Why: Nearly half of black women have a total cholesterol number that is way too high. High cholesterol means higher risk for heart disease. You want total cholesterol under 200 mg/dL; LDL (bad cholesterol) under 100 mg/dL; HDL (good stuff) 60 mg/dL or more; and triglycerides under 150 mg/dL.

How often: At least once every five years, starting at age 20.









Who to see: Your GP

Why: African-American women have the highest rates of being either overweight or obese, compared to other groups in the United States. About 4 in 5 African-American women are overweight or obese. The problem? Pick a disease, any disease: chances are, being overweight puts you at an elevated risk. Your doctor should weigh you and calculate your body-mass index, the measurement of your weight relative to your height.

How often: Yearly. And if you’re looking to shed pounds, weigh yourself once a week at home and visit your physician monthly to help track your progress.







Age-Specific Tests That Women Need

In Your 20’s…

Eye Exam

Who to see: Ophthalmologist

Why: Studies have show that Black women’s vision tends to be more at risk than that of Black men or other groups. Also, two thirds of blindness and visual impairment cases occur in women. Many eye problems, such as glaucoma and retinopathy, are detected only via exam. Plus, checkups can help pinpoint related health concerns, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

How often: At least once between the ages of 20 and 29 and twice between ages 30 and 39. Wear glasses or contacts? Take meds that affect your vision? Got diabetes? Go annually.

STD Screening

Who to see: Your gynecologist or GP

Why: Some of the highest rates of STD contraction occur in Black women, including for HIV. More bad news: chlamydia and gonorrhea, which can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, are on the rise, as is syphilis.

How often: Annually if you’re 24 or younger, or if you’ve had sex with multiple or new partners in the past year, regardless of age. Pregnant? Get screened ASAP.


Age-Specific Tests That Women Need

In Your 30’s…

Thyroid Check

Who to see: Your GP

Why: Hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid, affects women as much as seven times more than men. Undetected, it can lead to weight gain, joint pain, infertility and even heart disease.

How often: Once every five years starting at age 35.

HPV Test

Who to see: Gynecologist

Why: Two types of HPV cause about 70 percent of all cervical cancers. After age 30, women are less likely to clear the cancer-causing infections.

How often: Request an HPV test with your Pap. If both results are normal, you may not need to be screened for another three years. But no matter how old you are, if your Pap comes back abnormal, ask your doc about getting tested.


Who to see: Radiologist

Why: Black women have higher death rates from breast cancer. This X-ray helps detect changes in breast tissue that can signal breast cancer.

How often: Annually. While a government task force recently changed their recommendation to yearly screenings starting at age 50, the American Cancer Society still urges Black women to start their screenings earlier, and to get a baseline mammogram around 35 (earlier if there is a family history of breast cancer). If may help to get a mammogram when your breasts are less tender, usually during the week right after your period.

Age-Specific Tests That Women Need

In Your 40’s…

Test: Blood Sugar Check

Who to see: Your GP

Why: It’s no surprise that Type 2 diabetes — the most common type of diabetes — is one of the biggest health challenges facing African Americans, and especially African-American women. African Americans also have high rates of at least two of diabetes’ most serious complications: amputation and kidney failure. Fasting glucose levels shouldn’t exceed 100 to 125 mg/dL. Higher? Could be diabetes.

How often: Once every three years starting at age 45.






Do I Need To Get Tested More Often?

For different reasons, certain women should be tested for particular illnesses and conditions more often, or earlier, than what is routinely recommended for the general public.

Here are some of the health exceptions that you should be aware of:

If you have a family history of heart disease…

Go for regular cholesterol checks. (Your doctor will determine the best schedule). Also, if you’re experiencing symptoms, ask if certain screening methods, such as an electrocardiogram or an exercise treadmill test, are right for you.

If you have a family history of breast, ovarian or colorectal cancer…

Find out how old each first-degree relative was when diagnosed. Some docs recommend beginning screening 10 years earlier than the age of the diagnosis of the youngest affected relative. Have multiple first-degree relatives who’ve had ovarian or breast cancer? Perhaps talk to a genetic counselor to assess your risk.

If you are overweight or obese…

In addition to regular blood-pressure checks, keep close tabs on your glucose levels. Also, it’s important to note that shedding just 5 to 10 percent of your weight can neutralize your diabetes risk. Thyroid problems can also cause weight gain, so ask your doctor for a test.

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