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Which Medical Exams Do You Need Now?

Do you know when to start going for mammograms or how often to have a physical exam? Get these answers and more.

Can’t remember the last time you went for a cholesterol test or mammogram? Don’t panic! The recommended guidelines for many medical tests have changed in the recent years, so you may need to be screened less often for certain diseases than you think. “The annual physical exam has gone by the wayside,” says Sapna Kripalani, M.D., an internist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “But women still need to be vigilant about having cancer prevention screenings and other tests that detect serious health problems.” Here’s a guide to what you need and when.


When you need them: It depends. “There has been some controversy about when to initiate mammography,” says Dr. Kripalani. The American Cancer Society recommends annual screening for women ages 40 and up, but there’s some question as to how much benefit there is in early screening. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that women begin having mammograms at age 50 and every other year after that. If you’re under 50 with no risk factors, you may want to keep that in mind.

Talk to your doctor if: You have a family history of breast cancer, or if you notice any lumps or changes in the appearance or feel of your breasts.

Pap smears

When you need them: Starting at age 21, then every two years until age 65. “We also encourage women to have a pelvic exam annually, which can help detect signs of ovarian cancer,” says Dr. Kripalani.

Talk to your doctor if: You’re over 30, are at low risk for sexually transmitted diseases (such as the HPV virus) and your last few Pap smears have been negative. The doctor may give the okay to have the test every five years.

Blood pressure test

When you need it: Every two years throughout adulthood, so long as your blood pressure remains within normal limits. A reading of 120 to 139 systolic (the upper number) and 80 to 89 diastolic (the lower one) is considered prehypertension, which means you may need to make changes to your diet and activity level.

Talk to your doctor if: You’re younger than 45 and have one or more risk factors for high blood pressure, such as a high body mass index (BMI), smoking or a family history of hypertension.   

Cholesterol test

When you need it: Also known as a lipid profile, this blood test measures the level of total cholesterol, as well as HDL (“good”) and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides. People aged 20 and over should get tested, followed by a screening every five years as long as the levels are normal. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes or medication if a test reveals abnormal results.

Talk to your doctor if:  You have a family history of heart disease or risk factors such as obesity.


When you need it: This test for colon cancer should be performed starting at age 50, then every 10 years afterward. Your doctor may recommend more frequent screenings if you have a family history of colon cancer.

Talk to your doctor if: You want to explore colonoscopy alternatives. Dr. Kripalani says that some doctors may okay a less-invasive scan along with a stool test to detect blood or polyps in the lower intestine.

Thyroid test

When you need it: The thyroid gland, located in your neck, helps regulate a number of body functions including your metabolism, mood and weight. Although there are no standard guidelines for thyroid testing, your doctor may advise it if you have symptoms that suggest the gland is over- or underactive. “Thyroid problems become more common as we age,” explains Dr. Kripalani.

to your doctor if:

You have symptoms such as
unexplained weight gain or loss, sensitivity to cold, fatigue, hair thinning,
heavy or irregular periods

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