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SMG News

Calling All Women: Get Smart About Your Health

Last updated: May 16, 2019

Women have unique health care needs. While the diseases that affect women are different than men, prevention is key for everyone.

In fact, more than 100,000 lives could be saved each year in the U.S. if everyone received the recommended clinical preventative care. Roohi Khanna, DO, a family medicine provider, discusses the most important ways women can take control of their health from annual screenings to vaccines. 

Why do women experience disease differently than men?

First and foremost, the answer is in our biology—females simply have organs that males do not have. Unlike men, women also have age-related changes that occur related to estrogen. During menopause there is a decline in the production of certain hormones, which can trigger conditions like osteopenia or osteoporosis and certain conditions such as heart disease.

I am a healthy 35-year-old woman. Will having a checkup every year really help me?

The old school of thought was you only go to the doctor when you are sick, but medicine has changed to a more preventative model. Regular check-up can identify risk factors as well as early conditions that do not cause symptoms.  For example, your doctor may pick up on changes in your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels that can be improved through lifestyle changes. High blood pressure is a silent disease, meaning in its initial status it may not cause any symptoms. Many women who think they are healthy may be walking around with higher than normal blood pressure. In addition, your doctor can recommend preventive services like immunization and prenatal vitamin supplements that should be started If you are considering getting pregnant.

What types of screenings do women really need?

Today, we have many screening measures in place that can help prevent and treat disease early. Women should follow these guidelines:

  • Cervical cancer – Begin screening at age 21 with a Pap smear. If your Pap smear is normal, your provider may suggest regular screening in three to five years. Between the ages of 30-65, a Pap test along with the human papillomavirus (HPV) test is recommended every five years. In certain patients, the HPV test alone can be considered.
  • Breast cancer – Ideally, screening mammography begins in average risk patients between ages 50 and 75.  For ages 40 to 49, patients can discuss the risks and benefits of screening and individualize their decision to screen. Women with a family history of breast cancer should discuss an individualized screening plan with their doctor based on their overall risk profile. 
  • Ovarian cancer – Routine screening in average risk patients is not recommended since the harms can outweigh the benefits.  Women with a family history of ovarian cancer should discuss the benefits of screening with their provider.

​Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women. How do I know if my heart is healthy?

High blood pressure or cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease. Recently, the American Heart Association changed their guidelines. Any blood pressure that is above 120/80 is considered abnormal. If your reading is only elevated slightly your doctor will recommend careful monitoring as well as lifestyle changes, including a low sodium diet and regular exercise.

How does diabetes affect women?

Elevated blood sugar may cause symptoms including excessive thirst, frequent urination, weight loss or gain, and fatigue. However, you can develop diabetes without any symptoms at all. Diabetes is a disease that affects the small blood vessels in our body. Uncontrolled blood sugars can in turn affect the health of your heart, eyes, and nerves. For women, it is important to have a healthy blood sugar level before you become pregnant. When women are pregnant they can develop what is known as gestational diabetes. Even after they give birth, these women are at a much higher risk of developing diabetes.

There are many gynecologic cancers that affect women. Do they typically cause symptoms?

There are many cancers that specifically impact women including breast, ovarian, uterine, cervical, and vaginal. Symptoms can be vague. Talk to your doctor if you have pelvic pain, heavier than normal bleeding, or post-menopausal bleeding. Changes in bowel habits, including urinating more or less frequently, and unintentional weight loss can also be a warning sign.  

They extended the age to receive the HPV vaccine, Gardasil. If I am in my thirties or forties, are there benefits?

Gardasil can protect against HPV infections. Some 90 percent of all cervical cancers including some vaginal, anal, vulvar, and penile cancers are caused by the human papillomavirus. The HPV vaccine has been proven to be effective in reducing the risk of cancer and can also prevent infection with HPV types that cause most genital warts. The vaccine used to be approved only in women up to the age of 26. However, new studies have shown that the vaccine provides protection until age 45.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women. Is there a way to be screened?

The best way to reduce your chances of lung cancer is to quit smoking. If you are a smoker or former smoker your doctor may want you to have an annual low-density CT scan. Women between ages 55 and 80 who smoke more than 30 packs a year should be screened for any abnormal masses or lesions. If you have quit smoking in the past 15 years you are still eligible for the yearly scan. While there is not a lot of research on the new trend of vaping physicians advise this is not a good alternative to cigarettes. 

Why are women affected by osteoporosis more than men?

Women are at an increased risk for osteoporosis after menopause. When the level of estrogen and progesterone hormones in the body decreases, less bone remodeling occurs. Women with no prior medical history can begin having a bone density screening at age 65. Women who have had prior fractures or a family history of osteoporosis may need to be screened as early as age 50. If you have low bone density you can take preventative measures such as taking calcium and vitamin D supplements and incorporating low weight bearing exercises into your workout.

What is the number one women’s health issue we overlook?

A lot of people still do not see mental health as something they need to address. This is particularly challenging for women who tend to juggle multiple responsibilities at work and home. Mental health affects physical health. Being mentally healthy means your body will function to the best of its ability. If you have extended periods of sadness or anxiety speak to your primary care provider and they can help.