Unless you have a pre-existing condition or a family history of disease, all women over the age of twenty should undertake a general check-up with their GP. Part of this process will involve talking to your doctor about your medical history and your lifestyle choices, including your diet, exercise habits and whether you smoke or drink alcohol. This will help you stay healthy and potentially pick up any warning signs of illness or disease. For example, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers can be detected in their early stages when treatment is often more effective. Important women’s health checks include:
Cervical and STI screening and pregnancy checks
Cervical Screening Test
In terms of women’s health screening, the Cervical Screen Test is recommended if you are over 25. It is an important test that can pick up signs of irregularities that could lead to cervical cancer if not treated. Prior to 2017, this test was known as a Papanicolaou (Pap Smear) test. It looked at the cells on the neck of the womb (the cervix), however, the new Cervical Screen Test picks up the papillomavirus that can be involved in the evolution of cervical cancer.
Because it is a considerably more accurate test, it only needs to be done every five years (rather than every two) until you reach the age of 74. Your first Cervical Screening Test should be done two years after your last Pap Smear test, and a reminder will be sent to you when you sign up to the National Cancer Screening Register.
Young women are advised to have the vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV) at school to avoid cervical cancer. Even if you have had the HPV vaccine, it is important to continue to have regular Cervical Screening Tests.
If you are under 30 years of age and sexually active, it is recommended you have a urine test for chlamydia every year as chlamydia has no symptoms and can affect your fertility in the future. If you have had sex with one or more new partners without a condom, you should talk to your doctor about tests for other sexually transmissible infections.
If you are planning to have a baby, it is important you have a pre-conception check-up with your doctor to discuss your lifestyle, exercise and diet habits and any health risks to ensure you are optimising your chance of conceiving. Once you are pregnant, regular antenatal checks will assess your health, help monitor your baby’s development and pick up any abnormalities. These tests include ultrasound scans and urine and blood tests.
Heart health checks
In terms of women’s health checks for heart health, these include:
- Blood pressure – After you turn 20, you should have your blood pressure checked at your regular GP check-up. If you have a family history of stroke, heart attack or high blood pressure, it should be checked more frequently.
- Blood tests – These will check your triglycerides and cholesterol levels. High levels may indicate an increased risk of heart disease. If you’re over 45, it is recommended you have these at least once every five years. If you’re at high risk of cardiovascular disease, you should be tested every year.
- Weight check – Being overweight is a significant risk factor for many health conditions, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. You can determine if you are over your healthy weight range by measuring your body mass index (BMI) and waist measurement.
Diabetes health checks
A standard test for diabetes is the fasting blood sugar level test. Depending on your risk level, you should be tested every one to three years. People are at a higher risk of type 2 diabetes if they:
- have a family history of diabetes
- are over 45 and obese (with a BMI over 30)
- had gestational diabetes during a pregnancy
- have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)
- are of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent and aged over 35
- belong to certain ethnic groups – including Sri Lankan and Pacific Islander.
Breast cancer health checks
Guidelines recommend that women aged between 50 and 74 years who have no personal or family history of breast cancer to have a screening mammogram every two years. However, if you notice any changes in your breasts, you should visit your doctor as soon as possible. If you have a family history of breast cancer, your doctor can advise how often you need to be screened.
Eye health checks
Eyesight tends to deteriorate with age, but glaucoma is a serious eye condition characterised by high fluid pressure within the eyeball. Women aged between 50 and 65 should have a general eye examination every two years, and women over 65, every year. For women with a strong family history of glaucoma, they should have their first eye health check five to ten years earlier than the age their relative developed glaucoma.
Women at higher risk of glaucoma include those aged 50 and over with:
- prior eye injury
- high blood pressure
- long-term steroid use
- migraine and peripheral vasospasm.
Bowel cancer health checks
Bowel cancer is a common cancer, and if detected early, has a good recovery rate. A faecal occult blood test (FOBT) is used to screen for bowel cancer. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program recommends that women between 50 and 74 have an FOBT once every two years. From 2020, the program started sending via mail a free kit to individuals every two years from when they turn 50. If you need a kit sent to you at other times, you should talk to your GP or pharmacist or contact the Cancer Council.
If a positive result is returned, a follow-up test such as a colonoscopy will be recommended. Women with a family history of bowel cancer or who are otherwise at high risk may need a colonoscopy every two to five years.
Bone density health checks
Osteoporosis is a disease that causes bones to become less dense, brittle, lose strength and/or break more easily. It occurs when bones lose minerals like calcium more quickly than the body can replace them. A bone density test (DEXA) can help to determine the health of an individual’s bones. It is recommended when women:
- have osteoporosis or a family history of osteoporosis
- are over 70 years of age
- had extended times with no periods when they were younger
- experienced early menopause
- have a thin build
- have used cortisone medication long-term
- have a spinal deformity with stooped posture
- have a previous fracture caused by a minor trauma such as a fall from a standing height.
Your GP should check that your childhood immunisations are up to date and advise whether you need any boosters, including for tetanus. Other vaccination recommendations include:
These are recommended for women who are:
- Over 65 years of age
- Pregnant women at any stage of pregnancy
- People who have medical conditions that mean they have a higher risk of getting a serious disease or those that have a chronic condition like severe diabetes or asthma.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people agedsix months and over.
These are being administered in Australia via a number of rollout phases, including to “priority” groups. The Australian Government will provide further information about how vaccines will be rolled out over the coming months.
Self-checking for health
Self-checking should become part of your regular routine to optimise your health and fitness. Things you can check at home include:
- Skin – monitor moles, freckles and skin blemishes for changes in shape, size or colour or anything unusual such as itching or pain, and see your doctor if you notice anything unusual. Women at high risk of skin cancer should have a regular examination by their doctor or dermatologist.
- Dental care – you can reduce your risk of gum disease, tooth decay and tooth loss if you drink fluoridated water, eat a low-sugar diet, clean your teeth regularly, and visit the dentist at least once a year.
- Diet – you can improve your general health by eating a variety of nutritious, healthy foods regularly.
- Weight – maintaining a healthy weight can prevent chronic diseases such as arthritis and diabetes. You can determine if you are over your healthy weight range by measuring your body mass index (BMI) and waist measurement.
- Alcohol – ‘low risk’ drinking is defined as no more than two standard drinks on any day and at least two alcohol-free days per week.
- Smoking – there is no safe smoking level, and smoking increases your risk of many diseases, including stroke, heart disease, lung disease and osteoporosis. If you smoke, try to quit.
- Exercise – regular exercise can prevent diseases from developing, as well as being good for your emotional health. At least 2.5 hours of exercise per week is recommended.
Mental and emotional health – if you are experiencing symptoms such as irritability, intense sadness, anxiety, fatigue or have had changes to your eating or sleeping habits, see your doctor to discuss your symptoms.
My team and I would be delighted to assist you on your regular health checks. Call (07) 3353 3100 to book an appointment today.