Here in the High Country, we recently celebrated National Women's Health week by embracing both recent and enduring recommendations to facilitate good health for women at every life stage. As a nurse practitioner, one of the most common questions I am asked regarding preventive care is: "What tests do I really need, and when do I need them?"
Perhaps the most important answer is that your health care and associated medical tests should be part of a customized plan with your health care provider that addresses individual health status over time. Still, an overview of tests and health tips specific to women serves to remind us how to plan for good health at every decade.
In your 20s
It may feel as though you are at the peak of great health, but having left your pediatrician a few years ago, it's time to begin getting annual well-woman check-ups. The lifestyle decisions you make now (such as proper nutrition, plenty of exercise and good sleep patterns) will have long-lasting effects.
Pap screening begins at age 21. If you haven't considered Gardasil to prevent Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), you are eligible for this series of three vaccinations up to age 26. A breast exam will be completed to check for lumps or abnormalities. Your blood pressure should be checked annually with a blood test for cholesterol levels every three years to look for signs of heart disease and to assess your risks for stroke (especially if you are on hormonal contraception). Most Summit County residents spend a lot of time in the sun: a complete skin exam should be done every three years. Have your eyes checked every two years, and visit the dentist twice annually. Other immunizations to consider include a tetanus booster every 10 years. Pay attention to flu shot recommendations each fall. Because so many of us work in hospitality, we encounter a lot of different people (and their germs) daily.
In your 30s
During your 30s, much of your annual health screening remains the same as when you were in your 20s. Are you feeling blue sometimes? Women ages 18 to 45 account for the largest segment of people with depression, while 20-40 percent of women experience premenstrual mood changes. Simple mental health screenings can make a huge difference in your quality of life.
Becoming "heart health" aware is also critical during these years, as heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. Exercise and diet play an increasingly important role during this decade as your metabolism slows. Starting around age 35, thyroid screening may detect signs of disease.
In your 40s
During your 40s, you will continue to need the tests you've taken in your 20s and 30s, though some will become more frequent. Skin exams to screen for cancer are needed annually along with blood pressure and cholesterol monitoring. Age 40 marks the time for your very first mammogram. If you've never been screened for diabetes, this is a good time to have your blood sugar measured. Heart health is even more important now: learn the signs of heart attack for women (they can vary from men significantly).
In your 50s
Because the risk of colon cancer increases with age, a colonoscopy helps celebrate your 50th birthday. If your results are normal, you can wait another decade for the next one. Otherwise, you will still need all the testing listed for the decades above. At this point, an annual flu shot is imperative. Are you feeling foggy? Tests for cognitive function may be important.
In your 60s
Added to the tests for earlier decades, it's time to have a bone density screening for osteoporosis (DEXA) On the vaccine front, both pneumonia and shingles prevention are recommended. A regular review of any medications you take to ensure all of them work together efficiently and without hazard is more important than ever.
In your 70s and beyond
Congratulations! If you have maintained good health so far, you may be able to stop some of the screening tests listed above (pap smears, colonoscopy and more). But most of the above tests still apply in your 70s and they are essential for maintaining good health.
Jessica Johnston, RN, MSN, FNP-BC is a nurse practitioner at High Country Healthcare OB/GYN Specialists in Frisco. In addition to women's health, High Country Healthcare also has family practice locations in Breckenridge, Frisco and Silverthorne and has been caring for Summit County since 1993.