Screening tests—tests that look for conditions or diseases before any symptoms are evident—are important tools for you to maintain your health at any age. Diseases like cancer and diabetes can be treated successfully when found early, and screenings are the best way to an early diagnosis.
It's important to get the right screening test at the right time. The test that you get depends on your age and your risk factors.
For example, women generally start mammography to detect breast cancer at age 40. But if you have a family history of the disease, talk to your doctor about whether you should begin having mammograms earlier and how often.
In addition to screening for breast cancer, here are 7 other screening tests your doctor may recommend for you:
- Cervical cancer. The Pap test is an easy way to find cervical cancer early when it's highly curable. It can also detect precancerous cells, which your doctor can remove before they turn cancerous. Pap tests are recommended every three years if your previous tests have been normal, and you should start getting them within three years of when you begin sexual activity or by age 21, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
- Bone density. Osteoporosis causes bones to become fragile because of bone loss, making you likely to break a bone. This condition most often occurs in women after menopause. A DEXA scan is a simple test to check bone density, and it's recommended for women age 65 and older. If you're younger and have risk factors for osteoporosis, you should discuss the test with your doctor. Osteoporosis can be treated with medication and lifestyle changes.
- Skin cancer. Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer, while basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are less dangerous—and much more common. The American Cancer Society advises regular self-checks to look for any changes in marks on your skin. Skin cancer is on the rise in the United States, largely due to sun exposure. So regardless of your age, you should get regular checkups by a dermatologist if you're at risk.
- High blood pressure. High blood pressure can strike at any age. Although your risk increases with age, other factors, such as being overweight, can put you at risk. If your blood pressure is normal (120/80), the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force recommends you get it checked every two years. High blood pressure is at or above 140/90. A reading between high and normal is considered prehypertension. Work with your doctor to decide how best to lower your blood pressure if it's above normal.
- Cholesterol levels. High cholesterol levels, particularly high LDL cholesterol, are a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. High cholesterol can progress for years without symptoms, so it's important to have your cholesterol checked. Starting at age 20, regular cholesterol screening is a good idea. Your doctor can advise you on how often you should be checked, depending on your risk factors, family history, and lifestyle.
- Breast and pelvic exams. Your obstetrician-gynecologist will examine your breasts and pelvic area every year during your annual well-woman examination. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends annual breast exams start at age 19 and routine pelvic exams at age 21. And just because Pap tests are no longer recommended annually, that doesn't mean you can skip your annual ob-gyn visit. Not only will your physician examine you, but you'll have the opportunity to develop prevention strategies for any conditions for which you may be at risk.
- HIV testing. The CDC recommends that HIV testing be a routine part of medical care for everyone ages 13 to 64, and more often for those at greater risk. Ask your family doctor, primary care provider, or OB/GYN about getting an HIV test, or visit LG Health Physicians Comprehensive Care for a walk-in test that is fast, free and confidential.
Your doctor may recommend other tests depending on your personal situation. Some of these might be screening for type 2 diabetes, thyroid function, colon cancer, and glaucoma. Some tests, such as mammograms, are part of every woman's routine care. Other tests may not be as important for you as they are to other women.
The key is to take advantage of the screenings that make sense for you because there's no substitute for taking a proactive approach to your health.
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