Family caregivers tend to look after everyone else’s needs at the expense of their own—including their health. Most are incredibly busy, leaving little time and energy for their own doctor’s appointments, exercise and nutritious meals. Without proper self-care and respite, the effects of caregiving can be dire. Not only are family caregivers neglecting their minds and bodies but they are also skipping important checkups and medical screenings, allowing potentially serious health issues to go undetected and untreated.
“Routine tests are our best defense for early diagnosis of disease and, in turn, higher successful treatment rates if something is detected,” explains Agim Beshiri, M.D., senior medical director of global medical and scientific affairs at Abbott Laboratories. “Women need to make their health a priority. Testing is an important piece of the health care puzzle, especially since diagnostic test results influence as much as 70 percent of healthcare decision-making.”
But how do you know what tests you really need, and which you can skip? Angela DeRosa, D.O., MBA, CPE, founder and chief medical officer of DRM Integrative Health, admits that preventative health screenings are crucial but often confusing for her female patients.
Each woman is different, but Beshiri and DeRosa generally recommend the following tests. If you have additional questions about which of these screenings (or additional ones) are right for you based on family history, lifestyle and other factors, consult your doctor.
Recommended Health Screenings for Female Caregivers
Cancer ScreeningsRegular, age-appropriate cancer screenings are crucial for both men and women, but there is some extra legwork involved for the ladies. “Breast cancer and cervical cancer are all too common in women, and the likelihood of a positive diagnosis increases with age,” Beshiri notes. According to the National Cancer Institute, the median age for cervical cancer diagnosis is 50 and the median age for female breast cancer diagnosis is 63. The U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends that women ages 30 to 65 either get a Pap smear every three years, get an HPV test every five years, or get both Pap and HPV tests every five years (unless there is reason for more frequent screening). Women older than 65 who have had normal Pap smears and women who have had a total hysterectomy for a reason other than cancer don’t need a Pap smear.
The USPSTF recommends mammograms every two years for women aged 50 to 74 years, although women aged 40 to 49 years may choose to begin screening earlier, especially if they are at above average risk for breast cancer. (Note that these recommendations are currently under review and updates are pending.)
Additionally, USPSTF recommends starting colon cancer screening at age 45 and through age 75. There are several screening options available, most of which are recommended every five to 10 years after an initial baseline is established. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the U.S. “Regular screening can often detect abnormal growths and colorectal cancer early, so treatment can begin sooner,” Beshiri says.
Last but not least, although the USPSTF does not recommend for or against routine clinical skin cancer screening, DeRosa advises annual skin checks regardless of age. This is especially important for individuals with fair skin, a history of sunburns and/or skin cancer, or suspicious moles.
Osteoporosis ScreeningBeshiri says women have less bone tissue and lose bone density during menopause, therefore they have a much greater risk of developing osteoporosis than men. The CDC estimates that osteoporosis affects nearly one in five women aged 50 and older, and most people don’t know they have it until they suffer a fracture.
Postmenopausal women younger than 65 who are at increased risk of osteoporosis and women 65 and older should have a DEXA (DXA) scan to ensure their bones are strong. Frequency of this test may vary depending on one’s unique risk factors, but Medicare Part B covers bone mass measurements once every 24 months (or more frequently when medically necessary) if certain conditions are met.
General Wellness TestingAnnual checkups are an important part of preventive care—even if you are not experiencing any signs or symptoms of disease. Your primary care physician will ask about changes in your health and lifestyle, monitor and record your vital signs, and discuss any questions and concerns you may have about your care.
Blood work, such as a basic metabolic panel and complete blood count, is typically recommended once a year for healthy people of any age. This provides baseline information that can be easily compared with past and future lab results. Talk with your doctor during these appointments about additional screening for concerns like diabetes, high cholesterol or thyroid function. Detecting these and other health issues early on increases the likelihood that they can be effectively managed or treated.
Heart Disease ScreeningCDC research shows that heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. Several health factors contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight or obese. Individually, it’s important for these health issues to be monitored and addressed (often during annual wellness visits), but when combined, they seriously increase a person’s risk of heart attack, heart failure, arrhythmia, stroke and other cardiovascular conditions.
Electrocardiograms (ECGs or EKGs) are commonly used to detect many different heart problems, but the USPSTF does not recommend EKGs for asymptomatic individuals who are at low risk for cardiovascular disease. However, those who are at intermediate or high risk for cardiovascular events should discuss the risks and benefits of having an EKG with their doctors. DeRosa advises women who have certain risk factors and are over the age of 50 to have an annual EKG.
Sexually Transmitted Disease TestingSexually transmitted infections can continue to be a concern for sexually active women of all ages. In fact, sexually transmitted infections are on the rise among older adults. Screening for HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis is recommended by the USPSTF for individuals who are at high risk of infection. Annual well-woman visits are very important regardless of whether you’re due for a Pap smear and/or HPV test, especially since many STDs do not cause noticable signs or symptoms. These appointments are the perfect opportunity to speak with your physician about any concerns you may have, assess your risk of STD exposure and determine if STD testing is in your best interests.
Determining your risk factors for disease and which tests you should receive is often complicated. Beshiri advises all patients to talk to their doctors candidly about changes that have occurred with their health, and ask questions about tests they should receive, how frequently and why. “You know your body better than anyone else,” he urges. “This information helps guide your doctor on what to look for and what testing is needed.”