An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Has this formerly grandmas-only, repeatable refrain recently felt oh-so-relevant to you? When you're nearing the 40-times-around-the-Earth mark, you've learned a few things about life. Get sleep, exercise, and eat vegetables, and you'll be less likely to get sick, even when your kid's entire school is green around the gills.
You've learned to store emergency snacks and a portable stain-remover pen in your purse. It pays to be prepared! This kind of smart thinking and planning ahead is part of why you kick-ass at life. So it makes perfect sense to apply this attitude to your future health, and pay attention to expert recommendations about what health checks all women should get around the time they hit 40.
In addition to finding out what the official health department and CDC recommendations are, I was in contact with Dr. Sherry Ross, an expert in women's health, and a veteran OB/GYN in Santa Monica, who was named by The Hollywood Reporter as "one of the best doctors in Los Angeles." She weighed in with some valuable answers on my question: what health checks are important for women around 40?
Breast cancer screening
You've heard the phrase, "we caught it early," right? Anyone who has ever received really scary health news knows that these words offer hope and a saving grace. As Dr. Ross told me, "breast cancer affects one in eight women, so early detection is key."
As reported by WebMD, the American Cancer Society updated their recommendations regarding breast cancer screening in 2015. Where yearly mammograms were once recommended for women over 40, the new guidelines consider the potential risks of the screening, and weigh them against the benefits. According to cancer.org, new guidelines say "Women ages 40 to 44 should have the choice to start annual breast cancer screening with mammograms if they wish to do so," while "starting at age 45, women should get mammograms every year."
Dr. Ross said that mammogram testing should start at age 40, and "continue every one to two years depending on your history and risk factors." But that's not the beginning or end of breast cancer prevention and/or detection. Frequent self-checks (the government recommendation is once monthly), manual checks by your doctor whenever you get a pap smear, and even maintaining a healthy lifestyle are all important parts of disease prevention, Ross explained.
Heart health screening
Pay attention, ladies. Dr. Ross told me "heart disease is the leading cause of death in women. One in three women dies from this common disease." So even if you don't currently struggle with heart disease, you probably know someone who is or has, and there's a frighteningly high risk that you might in the future.
According to MedlinePlus, a public information site from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, women between ages 40 and 49 should have a physical exam every year. Their recommendations say part of this physical exam should include checking your "height, weight, and body mass index (BMI)," as well as a cholesterol check, if you have specific "risk factors for coronary heart disease."
Blood pressure screening
For a 40 year old woman, the official government recommendation (coming from the NIH) regarding blood pressure is to "have your blood pressure checked once a year. If the top number (systolic number) is between 120 and 139 or the bottom number (diastolic number) is between 80 and 89 mm Hg or higher, have it checked every year."
However, the same recommendations state, "if the top number is greater than 140, or the bottom number is greater than 90, schedule an appointment with your provider," as these numbers might suggest reason for concern.
"Checking blood pressure, fasting glucose levels and checking body weight is also vital to avoid being at risk for hypertension, diabetes and heart disease," Dr. Ross added. And since getting your blood pressure checked is easy, why not check frequently? Pretty much any big name brand drug store or pharmacy has self-service machines on hand for public use, so why not check next time you pass one? Information is power, after all.
The NIH advises that women "begin cholesterol screening between the ages of 40 to 45." If your levels are normal, and your doctor sees no cause for concern, then you can repeat the test just once every five years. However, those same recommendations also say, "if you have high cholesterol levels, diabetes, heart disease, kidney problems, or certain other conditions, you may need to be checked more often."
For instance, Dr. Ross said she actually tells her patients "a cholesterol screening/lipid profile . . . should be done yearly." So it may be wise to ask your doctor what she recommends for you specifically, given your health history.