Factors like genetics or one’s environment make it difficult to avoid the onset of chronic conditions as one ages and, when it comes to chronic conditions, women are particularly susceptible. According to the CDC, women over 55 are more likely than men to have one or more chronic illnesses. Thankfully, patients have access to a variety of preventive screenings that help detect chronic disease in their early stages. But, while some screenings are familiar and commonplace, there are some screenings that are less well-known but just as important.
“If questioned, most women would be knowledgeable concerning breast cancer screenings through a mammogram or cervical cancer screenings through a pap smear,” explains Lauren Petry, a Nurse Practitioner with EmpowerMe Wellness. “However, there are certain screenings that many women over 65 may not know or think to ask about.”
In addition to familiar screenings such as mammograms, Petry recommended women consult their primary care provider about these five lesser known preventive health screenings.
5 Lesser-Known Preventive Health Screenings for Women
- Thyroid Disease
Women over 40 are more prone to thyroid atrophy than men. The symptoms of a low-functioning thyroid are often missed because women consider the symptoms a natural part of aging—thinning hair, dry skin, unintentional weight loss or gain, racing heart rate, constipation, or fatigue. To test thyroid function, a medical provider will order laboratory blood work. If thyroid test results come back as abnormal, there are specific medications available to correct the dysfunction.
- Cognitive Decline
It is a myth that memory loss is a natural part of aging. While our brain will naturally “slow down” in processing information, dementia is not inevitable. It is “normal” for someone to walk into a room and forget why they entered it or to forget a person’s name. What becomes concerning for medical providers is when a patient gets lost while driving to a familiar place or forgets to take her medication for two weeks. Medical providers can perform a baseline cognitive test during an office visit. Most screenings take about 5-10 minutes and are non-invasive. A person’s first screening is considered her baseline cognitive function. One year later, her medical provider may perform this memory test and compare it to her previous results.
- Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 plays a vital part in the production of red blood cells, the formation of new cells, and the protection of nerves. For our bodies to absorb Vitamin B12, the stomach naturally produces an enzyme called intrinsic factor. As women age, their bodies will produce less intrinsic factor, which leads to an increased risk of malabsorption of Vitamin B12. This deficiency can cause fatigue, muscle weakness, nerve pain, and mood irregularities. Low Vitamin B12 can be detected with a laboratory blood test and treated with supplements.
- Fall Risk
Every two years, Medicare will cover a bone density scan to detect or to stage osteoporosis in women over 65. This scan is non-invasive and causes no pain. The purpose of this screening is to prevent osteoporotic fractures caused by falls. While most women stay up to date on bone density testing, women should be encouraged to discuss their overall fall risk with a medical provider.
- Depression or Anxiety
Like memory loss, women may believe that depression or anxiety is a natural part of aging. While depression and aging do not go hand in hand, certain elements of the aging process—poor sleep, loneliness, loss of a partner, other chronic health issues, or physical decline—are considered risk factors for mood disorders. In general, women are more likely to develop mood disorders than men. During an office visit, your medical provider might use a depression screening tool, such as the Geriatric Depression scale, to help guide the conversation. A prudent medical provider will consider other aspects that might be contributing factors, such as your personal faith background, laboratory tests that assess vitamin levels or thyroid function, possible side effects of your medications, or family history.
Ultimately, maintaining an open and proactive line of communication with a care provider is an important first step. Petry encourages all women to be honest with their medical providers, often reminding her patients, “If I don’t hear from you, I assume you’re doing okay.”
It’s important to note that screening recommendations should be tailored to each individual woman – certain screenings are actually discouraged based on life expectancy. Seniors and their caregivers can use ePrognosis.org to help them make the right choice for their situation.
How to Get Started with Preventive Care: It’s never too late to be proactive about health. Preventive medicine promotes physical and mental health, optimizes medical care for chronic illnesses, and assesses common health problems unique to the senior population. Persons over 65 qualify for a yearly Medicare Annual Wellness Visit, which focuses on developing a person-centered preventive care plan. Most medical providers follow the recommendations of the US Preventive Service Task Force (USPSTF), a group of medical experts in prevention and evidence-based medicine.
Interested in learning more? Read how to easily find a Primary Care Provider here.