If you’re like most women, you make health decisions for your family, including your parents or relatives as they get older and need more medical care. If your child, spouse or other family member has a chronic illness, getting them care can take a lot of your time. Finding time to tend to your own health may not be high on your list of things to do.
But taking care of your health isn’t as hard as it may seem. Practicing healthy behaviors, getting screening tests and taking medicines if you need them can go a long way toward keeping you in good health and lowering your risk of getting some diseases.
With so much health information available, it can be confusing to know what you should pay attention to. That’s why my agency developed a checklist for women to stay healthy at any age.
The checklist is based on advice from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. This panel of experts in primary care and prevention reviews medical evidence to find out which tests and medicines have been proven to work. It is an independent group, and its advice is considered the gold standard in health care. Its findings are not influenced by insurers, drug makers, the government or other groups.
Women of all ages can greatly improve their health and reduce their chance of disease by daily following these five steps in the checklist:
1. Don’t smoke.
3. Eat a healthy diet.
4. Stay at a healthy weight.
5. Drink alcohol only in moderation.
I won’t call these steps simple, because for some people quitting smoking or getting daily exercise is not easy. But these steps have been proven to improve health and lower your risk of disease. If you have to change your behavior to follow these steps, it will be worth it in the long run.
Another way that you can stay healthy is to get the screening tests that are recommended for your age and medical condition. Screening tests can find diseases at an early stage, when they are easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which ones you need and how often you should be tested.
Here are some conditions that affect women and for which good screening tests are available. The task force’s advice on how often you should get them is included.
• Breast cancer: Have a mammogram every one to two years, starting at age 40.
• Cervical cancer: Have a Pap smear every one to three years if you have ever been sexually active and are between the ages of 21 and 65.
• High blood pressure: Have your blood pressure checked at least every two years.
• High cholesterol: Have your cholesterol checked regularly, starting at age 45. If you are under 45 and have diabetes or high blood pressure, or if heart disease runs in your family, talk to your doctor about whether to have your cholesterol checked.
• Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones): Have a bone density test beginning at age 65 to screen for osteoporosis. If you are between the ages of 60 and 64 and weigh less than 154 pounds, talk to your doctor about being tested.
• Chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases: Have a test for chlamydia if you are 25 or younger and are sexually active. If you are older, ask your doctor. Also ask if you should be tested for other sexually transmitted diseases.
Some women take medicines to prevent disease without first talking to their doctor. I advise against that: All drugs, even over-the-counter medications, have side effects and can hurt you if they are not used properly.
Keep in mind this advice from the task force about taking medicine to prevent disease.
• Hormones: Do not take hormones to prevent disease. Talk to your doctor if you need relief from menopause symptoms.
• Breast cancer drugs: If your mother, sister or daughter has breast cancer, talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of taking medicines to prevent it.
• Aspirin: Ask your doctor about taking aspirin to prevent heart disease if you are older than 45. If you are under 45, ask about taking aspirin if you have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes or if you smoke.
And stay up-to-date on your immunizations. Have a flu shot each year, starting at age 50. Have a pneumonia shot once you turn 65.
As the caregiver for your family, you as a woman take on a lot of responsibility for your health. Our checklist can help you give your health equal priority.
I’m Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that’s my advice on how to navigate the health care system.
Carolyn Clancy, a general internist and researcher, is an expert in engaging consumers in their health care. She is the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.