We as women go through the hustle and bustle of our lives, working a lot and looking after our loved ones without much thought of ourselves as long as we feel and look alright. This is fantastic, however we must sometimes stop and ensure that we aren’t missing vital health checks at various stages in our lives.
In this question and answer session, I would like to discuss and empower you on checks and therapies that are important throughout a female’s life, ranging from adolescence to postmenopausal.
I have daughters age 12 to 18. Are there health checks that are recommended?
By age 12, one would expect most girls to show signs of puberty and start their periods by age 13, however this can vary from 11 to 15 years old. If your daughter has no pubertal changes (for example no breast buds by age 13 and no periods by age 15), it is recommended that you seek medical advice as this means puberty is delayed and needs investigating.
Regular eye and dental checks are also important and should be lifelong. Start early!
In addition to the usual immunisation schedules, based on available evidence and because cervical cancer is the second most common cancer in women under 35 years old, it is recommended girls from age 12, get vaccinated against HPV (human papilloma virus) before they are sexually active. This prevents against cervical cancer and possibly genital warts. There are two types of vaccines and they protect against the two high risk types of HPV that cause 70 per cent of all cervical cancers. One of the vaccines, gardasil, is also effective at preventing genital warts.
I am between age 18 and 24, do I need any checks?
Young women are usually fit and well, however, if you are sexually active or are about to become active, it is important that both you and your partner have a screen done for sexually transmitted infections. Chlamydia for instance is an important one to check for as it is common amongst people aged 18 to 24, easily detected and readily treated with antibiotics.
One might be pleased to know that other than a sample of blood for hepatitis, syphilis and HIV, other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea can be tested from a self-taken vaginal swab. These can be carried out by visiting a sexual health clinic or your GP. Some are also available at local or online chemists. Treatment varies depending on your results.
Aged between 25 and 39, What do I need to know?
Healthy lifestyle changes regarding diet and exercise must be part of our daily routine. The health changes we make now will sustain us for many years to come as long as we make it a lifestyle choice.
It is also important to start being aware of your body and know what various parts feel like. In particular, breast awareness is very important and knowing how to check for any abnormalities is vital. Breast cancer affects one in eight women and is the most common cancer in the UK and among women age under 40. Being breast aware – how they look, feel, nipple changes and any lumps or bumps- is vital to pick any early signs. Do seek medical attention should you notice changes.
As well as continuing the checks above, it is important to have cervical smears every 3 years until the age of 49. Following this, every 5 years should be sufficient unless otherwise indicated by your doctor. This involves taking a small sample from the cervix (the neck of the womb) to check for any abnormal cells that might lead to cervical cancer.
If you are on contraception, having regular discussions and checks of your blood pressure and weight are also recommended as hormones can affect these.
This is the age range in which longstanding heavy periods can begin to show their effects and you may experience symptoms of tiredness and low energy. Should this be the case, it is advisable to have a blood test to check for your iron levels. This is easily corrected with supplements and dietary changes as well as considering medication to make the periods lighter.
This is the time in our lives when we consider having children. It is therefore important to see a health care professional for preconception advise and checks (these include use of supplements and weight, blood pressure checks respectively) should that be the case. This is especially important if you have a pre-diagnosed medical condition such as thyroid problems or diabetes or are on regular prescribed medications.
Age 40 to 60, am I healthy?
Compared to our ancestors in the 18th century- who had a life expectancy of 40 years – thanks to modernisation, we still feel young and healthy well beyond this age.
However, we might begin to question how healthy we are. This is the time to have regular health screenings such as your blood pressure, blood sugars, bone health and cholesterol (fat in the blood). Attending the NHS health check programme (offered to those between age 40 to 74) is advisable as it aims to help prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease and certain types of dementia. It is offered once every 5 years. Also known as a ‘midlife MOT’, it checks that the body’s most important systems are running well. Your healthcare professional takes a comprehensive assessment and does tests including your cholesterol, blood sugar and weight. These result are then discussed with you during the appointment.
From the age of 50 onwards, it is even more important to be breast aware as the risk of breast cancer goes up with age. Attending regular mammograms every 3 years is vital. This is a breast x-ray to look for any changes that might suggest cancer. Breast cancer affects 1 in 9 women and checking for changes helps greatly in decreasing its impact.
Age 60 plus- Am I healthy enough to look after my grandchildren or travel the world?
Having maintained a healthy lifestyle throughout the years, we should be able to take this through into our 80s and 90s and remain fit and active. Unfortunately, certain conditions are more common at older ages and it is vital to have more checks.
Important ones not to be missed are regular eye tests, to check for eye pressures, cataracts and degeneration. Seeing an optician yearly should pick up on any problems.
It is essential to regularly monitor our gut health and have regular screens for bowel cancer. A simple stool test is usually all that is needed on the NHS, everyone age between 60 to 74 years old are sent a home test kit every two years.
The health of our bones becomes even more important especially as we are now post menopausal. We must keep moving and / or exercise regularly and get adequate doses of calcium and vitamin D. A screening test for osteoporosis may be indicated, depending on your medical history. The test is usually a dexa scan- a bone density xray using very low doses of radiation- which takes about 10 to 15 minutes, causes no discomfort and involves lying down whilst a scanning arm passes over you to take pictures of your spine and hip. Please discuss with your doctor wether you will benefit from this.