5 Tests to Protect Your Health After Menopause
Schedule one of these essential health screenings today.
By Connie Brichford
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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Menopause can be a well-timed reminder to take action toward preventing some serious problems — including heart issues, osteoporosis, and breast and cervical cancer — that can develop as your protective supply of estrogen starts to wane.
It's essential to have an annual physical, which includes tests that can give you a heads-up about your risk for certain health conditions. You'll also want to keep up with gynecological tests that you're probably already familiar with, including pelvic exams, Pap smears, and breast exams. Discussing your family and medical history with your doctor can help ensure that you're getting the right tests after menopause.
Here are five kinds of tests your doctor may suggest after menopause:
1. Tests to Protect Your Heart Health
Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women. To help protect their hearts, adult women should have their cholesterol levels screened every five years — regardless of age. After menopause, tests for cholesterol along with routine blood pressure screenings should be more frequent. As the estrogen level decreases, the cholesterol tends to increase, and it becomes more important to get checked more often.
Your doctor may also recommend additional testing such as other blood tests (a C-reactive protein, CRP, level and a hemoglobin A1C to evaluate blood sugar control), a stress test, and an ultrasound of your heart to assess your heart's overall function and response to stressors like exercise.
Research has found a correlation between severe menopause symptoms and higher risk for heart disease, says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, a cardiologist at New York City's Heart and Vascular Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital. "The implication is the women with the worst menopause symptoms may be at higher risk, clinically, for heart disease," she says.
You should definitely talk to your doctor about assessing your risk for heart disease, especially if you are experiencing severe symptoms of menopause. Heart disease is your greatest health threat, with cardiac outcomes being worse in women. Therefore, early prevention is the best strategy.
2. Bone Mineral Density Tests
The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that women with known risks have their bone mineral density tested regularly starting in their fifties, at menopause, but a woman with low risk can usually wait until age 65. Women who have a possible fracture of the spine, or those who have lost more than one-half inch of height in a year, or a total of one and a half inches of height, also should have a bone density test.
Known osteoporosis risks include early onset of menopause, a family history of osteoporosis, tobacco use, slight frame (low body mass), treatment for some types of cancers. Additional risk factors are a history of health conditions like anorexia nervosa, rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroidism, or breaking a bone after age 50. Two commonly used bone density tests are ultrasound and DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry). Both of these are noninvasive, outpatient procedures.
3. Pap Smears and Pelvic Exams
Regular Pap smears and pelvic exams can help in the early detection of cervical cancer. How often you should have these tests after menopause depends on your risk level for cancer. Guidelines from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend an annual pelvic examination for all women over 20, but note that women and their doctors should discuss family and personal medical history to determine an appropriate schedule. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a Pap smear about every three years until age 65; after that age, Pap smears may not be necessary for women who have been appropriately screened.
4. Breast Exams
Menopause is a good time to start getting mammograms if you have not already done so. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force advises screenings every other year for women 50 to 74, while the American Cancer Society and some other organizations stand behind their recommendations that women begin annual screenings at age 40. Still, other research says the timing and frequency of mammography is a decision best customized for each woman, based on such factors as age and breast density. Talk to your doctor about what's best for you.
5. Colon Cancer Screening
Around the time of menopause, it’s also a good idea to get a colonoscopy or other screening test for colon cancer. Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, and 90 percent of new diagnoses are in people age 50 and older. The American Cancer Society recommends a flexible sigmoidoscopy, double-contrast barium enema, or CT colonography every five years, or a colonoscopy every 10 years for women beginning at age 50. While a colonoscopy can help detect this deadly cancer early, studies indicate that most women — and men — are not taking advantage of this potentially lifesaving test. Talk to your doctor about when, and how, you should begin colon cancer screening tests.
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