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Clear the Way to Better Health: Your Medical Test Guide

8 Medical Tests Every Woman Needs

Make a mental checklist of all the things you do to keep yourself healthy. It's a good bet you thought of your workouts, your good-for-you diet and maybe even a daily vitamin. Great! But if keeping up with medical tests isn't on your list of healthy behaviors, you're falling into the mistake that many fit women make: thinking regular exercise plus smart nutrition exempts you from getting routine exams. To truly keep your body healthy, here's what you need to know.

TEST: Pap Smear

WHO TO SEE: Gynecologist

WHY: Collecting cells from the cervix during a pelvic exam is the best way to tell if your cervix is healthy -- cell changes can lead to cervical cancer.

HOW OFTEN: Starting at age 21, most women need to be screened every other year or less, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Once you turn 30 -- and you've had three consecutive negative tests and no abnormal history -- you can get it done once every three years.

TEST: Clinical Breast Exam

WHO TO SEE: Gyno or general practitioner (GP)

WHY: She can feel or see abnormalities in breast tissue, skin and nipples that can indicate cancer.

HOW OFTEN: At least once every three years in your twenties and thirties. But if you want to be checked more frequently, simply ask. After age 40, go yearly.

TEST: Skin Cancer Screening

WHO TO SEE: Dermatologist

WHY: She can ID weirdly shaped moles or other growths that might be cancerous or precancerous.

HOW OFTEN: Get new or changed growths assessed ASAP. If you're a current or recovering tanning-bed or sun lover, are fair or dotted with moles or freckles or have a family history of skin cancer, see the derm twice a year. If not, go annually.

FAST FACT: Derms are better at diagnosing melanomas than primary-care docs, finds a recent study. The result of better screening? Higher survival rates.

TEST: Hearing Test

WHO TO SEE: Audiologist or certified speech-language pathologist

WHY: Peppering conversations with "Say that again?" is a real problem for the more than 12 percent of people in their twenties and thirties who already have some form of hearing loss, according to a recent study.

HOW OFTEN: Once every 10 years until age 50, then every three years.

TEST: Immunization Check


WHY: Up-to-date vaccinations protect you from all sorts of diseases, including some you thought went the way of the dinosaur, such as whooping cough.

HOW OFTEN: At your next physical, have your M.D. review your vaccination history. Some inoculations become less effective over time, so you may need a booster. For example, tetanus shots are vital every 10 years, no rusty nails required.

FAST FACT: One in eight U.S. adults surveyed say they are too busy to get a vaccination, reports the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

TEST: Blood Pressure


WHY: The higher it is, the greater your chance of having heart disease, a stroke or kidney damage.

HOW OFTEN: Once every two years if it's 120/80 or below. If you've already been diagnosed with hypertension -- or your doc says you're at risk -- measure your BP at home regularly, too. (We like digital cuffs that do all the work for you, like those from

FAST FACT: In the U.S., about one in eight women ages 20 to 44 has high blood pressure. Taking the Pill, pregnancy and being overweight can up your risk.

TEST: Cholesterol Panel


WHY: High cholesterol means higher risk for heart disease. You want total cholesterol under 200 mg/dL; LDL (bad cholesterol) under 100 mg/dL; HDL (good stuff) 60 mg/dL or more; and triglycerides under 150 mg/dL.

HOW OFTEN: At least once every five years, starting at age 20.

TEST: BMI / Weight


WHY: Pick a disease, any disease: Chances are, being overweight puts you at an elevated risk. Your M.D. should weigh you and calculate your body-mass index, the measurement of your weight relative to your height.

HOW OFTEN: Yearly. And if you're looking to shed pounds, weigh yourself once a week at home and visit your physician monthly to help track your progress.

Age-Specific Tests

In Your 20's

TEST: Eye Exam

WHO TO SEE: Ophthalmologist

WHY: Many eye problems, such as glaucoma and retinopathy, are detected only via exam. Plus, checkups can help pinpoint related health concerns, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

HOW OFTEN: At least once between the ages of 20 and 29 and twice between ages 30 and 39. Wear glasses or contacts? Take meds that affect your vision? Got diabetes? Go annually.

TEST: STD Screening

WHO TO SEE: Your gyno or GP

WHY: Chlamydia and gonorrhea, which can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, are on the rise, as is syphilis.

HOW OFTEN: Annually if you're 24 or younger, or if you've had sex with multiple or new partners in the past year, regardless of age. Pregnant? Get screened ASAP.

In Your 30's

TEST: Thyroid Check


WHY: Hypothyroidism, an underactive thyroid, affects women as much as seven times more than men. Undetected, it can lead to weight gain, joint pain, infertility and even heart disease.

HOW OFTEN: Once every five years starting at age 35.

FAST FACT: Up to 12 million people in the U.S. who have thyroid disease go undiagnosed, notes the American Thyroid Association.



WHY: Two types of HPV cause about 70 percent of all cervical cancers. After age 30, women are less likely to clear the cancer-causing infections.

HOW OFTEN: Request an HPV test with your Pap. If both results are normal, you may not need to be screened for another three years. But no matter how old you are, if your Pap comes back abnormal, ask your doc about getting tested.

In Your 40's

TEST: Mammogram

WHO TO SEE: Radiologist

WHY: This X-ray helps detect changes in breast tissue that can signal breast cancer.

HOW OFTEN: Annually. While a government task force recently changed their recommendation to yearly screenings starting at age 50, the American Cancer Society still urges women to get started at 40.

FAST FACT: Get a mammogram when your breasts are less tender, usually during the week right after your period.

TEST: Blood Sugar Check


WHY: Fasting glucose levels shouldn't exceed 100 to 125 mg/dL. Higher? Could be diabetes.

HOW OFTEN: Once every three years starting at age 45.

When You Should Get Tested More Often

If you have a family history of heart disease...

Go for regular cholesterol checks. (Your M.D. will determine the best schedule.) Also, if you're experiencing symptoms, ask if certain screening methods, such as an electrocardiogram or an exercise treadmill test, are right for you.

If you have a family history of breast, ovarian or colorectal cancer...

Find out how old each first-degree relative was when diagnosed. Some docs recommend beginning screening 10 years earlier than the age of the diagnosis of the youngest affected relative. Have multiple first-degree relatives who've had ovarian or breast cancer? Perhaps talk to a genetic counselor to assess your risk.

If you are overweight or obese...

In addition to regular blood-pressure checks, keep close tabs on your glucose levels. (Shedding 5 to 10 percent of your weight can neutralize your diabetes risk.) Thyroid problems can also cause weight gain, so ask your M.D. for a test.

Because there is no single set of universally recognized guidelines for medical screenings, FITNESS consulted numerous experts and national agencies to come up with recommendations. These include: Mary Barton, M.D., scientific director of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force; Robert Smith, Ph.D., director of cancer screening at the American Cancer Society; Emily Chew, M.D., deputy director of the Division of Epidemiology and Clinical Applications at the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health; Christine Laine, M.D., senior deputy editor of Annals of Internal Medicine; Pamela Peeke, M.D., FITNESS advisory board member and author of Body for Life for Women; the American Heart Association; Gail Royal, M.D., clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology; the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; Jeffrey Garber, M.D., president-elect of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists; the CDC; the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases; the FDA Office of Women's Health; the American Thyroid Association; Jeanine Downie, M.D., director of Image Dermatology P.C.; Archives of Internal Medicine; the American Academy of Ophthalmology

Originally published in FITNESS Magazine, June 2009.