From smear tests and mental health checks, to the common things you should ask your doctor, there are certain steps all women can take to stay healthy.
Examine your breasts
Breast cancer is the most common cancer affecting women, with one in eight women in the UK likely to be diagnosed at some point in their life. By catching it early, however, before the cancer has a chance to grow and spread, there’s a far greater chance that treatment will be successful. This is why it’s essential to perform a breast self-exam about once a month – usually a couple of days after the end of your period is best, after any tenderness has gone . Check for lumps, puckers, changes of texture, or any other unusual alterations in your breasts and point them out to your GP, who will advise if further tests are needed. In addition, women over the age of 50 – or anyone with a family history of breast cancer, or other high risk factors – should have a breast screening at least every three years to pick up any issues while they’re still in their earliest stages.
Get a smear test
All women over the age of 25 are recommended to get a smear test every three years. This simple test, in which a small sample of cells is taken from the walls of the cervix, helps identify any changes in those cells which could indicate a heightened risk of cervical cancer. If caught early, cervical cancer can usually be treated successfully – but as it doesn’t usually present symptoms until it’s further advanced, it’s vital to go for your smear. Most cases of cervical cancer are due to infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus that is spread through sexual intercourse. While most varieties of HPV are harmless, some can disrupt normal cell function, which contributes to the onset of cancer. For this reason, an HPV vaccine is now available for girls between the ages of 12 and 13, before they have a chance to be exposed to the virus.
Boost your bones
Osteoporosis is a disease in which bones weaken and lose density, making them more prone to fractures and breaks. Women are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis than men, with one in three women (as opposed to one in 12 men) over the age of 50 likely to experience a fracture as a result of the disease. You can help lower your risk of osteoporosis by taking steps to bulk up your bone density throughout your life. Make sure you get plenty of calcium (if you’re avoiding dairy, be sure to get enough from alternate sources) and engage in weight-bearing exercises such as walking and running to help strengthen your bones. If your doctor thinks you may have a higher risk of osteoporosis, whether due to family history or other factors, you may also be offered bone scans to monitor the condition of your bones and determine if treatment is necessary.
Get your blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels checked
Heart disease is more commonly associated with men, which sometimes makes us forget that it is also the leading cause of death for women in the UK. High blood pressure (or hypertension) and elevated levels of LDL cholesterol (the so-called “bad” cholesterol) in the blood are both significant risk factors that increase your chances of suffering a heart attack or stroke. For this reason, it’s a good idea to have both checked regularly, whether in your doctor’s surgery or as part of your Vitality Healthcheck. This way you’ll be able to spot potential issues before they have a chance to get more serious, and make any necessary lifestyle tweaks – such as losing weight, quitting smoking, or reducing your intake of saturated fat or sodium – which could be required to bring your levels back in line.
Don’t dismiss symptoms of depression
Most experts agree that women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men, with around one in five women being diagnosed with the illness in their lifetime. Potential reasons for this include the hormonal fluctuations experienced over the course of a woman’s lifetime due to menstruation, pregnancy and menopause, and also possibly due to the stress of balancing careers, motherhood and other responsibilities in life. The good news, however, is that women are more likely to speak to their doctors about their symptoms – although sometimes it can take time to recognise that they are in fact suffering from depression, and not simply hormonal-related moodiness. If you do find yourself suffering from feelings of sadness, despair or listlessness, or you struggle to concentrate or take an interest in activities you previously enjoyed, it’s important to seek professional help as many treatment options are available which can make an enormous difference to your quality of life.
Did you know that you could earn 150 Vitality points for completing your smear test? Check out the Member Zone for more information.