Don’t wait until you feel unwell to visit the doctor. Start the new year by taking charge of your health. Emirates Woman has spoken to the UAE’s top medical experts about the must-have health checks for women – at every age.

TWENTIES

Look after your smile. “At this age, you’re more at risk of cavities – usually due to lifestyle, carb and sugar intake and not cleaning properly,” says Dr Anton de Waal, co-founder and aesthetic dentist at Confident Dental and Skin Care Clinic in Jumeirah 1.

Take care of your oral health, with good cleaning habits, and make sure you visit the dentist regularly – every six months – to address minor problems before they escalate.

“If you leave it until you need major restorations, such as root canal treatment or implants, then you’re likely to need even more extensive work 15 to 20 years later due to wear and tear,” says Dr Anton.

Do a breast self-exam. Try to get in the habit of doing a breast self-examination once a month to familiarise yourself with how your breasts normally look and feel. If you notice anything abnormal, such as nipple discharge, changes in size or colour and any lumps then make sure you bring it to the attention of your doctor, but try not to panic. Most women have some lumps or lumpy areas in their breasts all the time, and only 20 per cent of women who have a suspicious lump biopsied turn out to have breast cancer, according to Breastcancer.org. Visit Breast Cancer Arabia (www.breastcancerarabia.com) for tips on doing a self-exam.

 

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health handbook

Start your Pap smears. When you hit 21 – or have been sexually active for three years – an annual Pap test along with a pelvic examination is an important tool in the prevention of cervical cancer.

“A Pap test can save your life by spotting the earliest signs of cervical pre-cancer,” says Dr Sakina Yamini, a specialist in family medicine at Mediclinic. “If diagnosed early, the chance of preventing cervical cancer is very high, as treatment can prevent most cases of cervical cancer from developing.”

You should have one every three years unless you are advised otherwise.

Check your moles. We all know to stay safe in the sun but it’s just as crucial to keep an eye on your moles.

“If you have developed new moles, or a close relative has a history of melanoma, you should examine your body once a month,” says Dr Nagwa Mahmoud Mossalem, Consultant in Internal Medicine at Burjeel Hospital Abu Dhabi. “Most moles are benign but you need to pay attention to those that look different to existing moles or any new ones that appear as this can be an early sign of skin cancer. If you notice changes to a mole’s colour or appearance, or a mole starts to bleed, ooze, itch, appear scaly or become tender or painful, then ask a dermatologist to check it.”

THIRTIES

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Get an eye exam. You should have a complete eye exam every five to 10 years as soon as you hit your 30s.

“This includes tests that check for glaucoma – a condition that causes damage to your eye’s optic nerve and gets worse over time,” says Dr Nagwa. “Glaucoma is often associated with a build-up of pressure inside the eye so it’s important it is diagnosed and treated early on to guard against loss of vision in the longer term.”

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Care for your heart. It may sound surprising but women are three times more likely to die of heart disease than breast cancer, so it’s never too early to start caring for your heart.

“Cholesterol screening, body mass index, blood pressure and other evaluations are especially designed to help assess your heart health,” says Dr Sakina. “It’s a great way to help lower your risk of heart attack or stroke, giving you peace of mind at the same time.”

Plus:

– Once a month: do a breast self-exam and examine your moles.
– Every six months: visit the dentist.
– Every three years: have a pap smear
– Every five years: get your heart checked.
– Every five to 10 years: get an eye exam

FORTIES

Free Breast Cancer Screening Centres

Monitor vitamin D levels. “As you approach menopause, it is important to maintain bone density,” says Dr Nagwa. “With this in mind, it’s helpful to check you aren’t deficient in vitamin D, which is more common than you may think among women in this region who actually aren’t exposed to the sun very much. If you are lacking, you can be prescribed a supplement to stay topped up.”

Keep a check on diabetes. Type 2 diabetes usually appears in people over the age of 40, according to Diabetes UK. The signs can be difficult to spot, but it’s something your dentist will be looking out for.

“One of the often undetected symptoms of diabetes is a dry mouth, which can cause soreness, ulcers, infections and tooth decay. Smoking exacerbates all of this,” says Dr Anton de Waal. “Diabetics also have delayed healing after oral surgeries and infections.”

Other symptoms include going to the toilet a lot, especially at night; being really thirsty; feeling more tired than usual; losing weight without trying to; genital itching or thrush; cuts and wounds that take longer to heal and blurred vision. If you’re concerned, ask your doctor to do a simple blood glucose level test.

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Have your first mammogram: “This X-ray test can spot cancers when they are too small to see or feel,” says Dr Sakina. “It’s important to have one every year once you turn 40, unless you have a family history of the disease in which case you may need to be seen earlier. Breast cancer advances rapidly so if you notice a lump or area of thickened tissue in a breast, don’t wait to be offered screening – see your doctor.”

Plus:

– Once a month: do a breast self-exam and examine your moles.
– Every six months: visit the dentist.
– Every three years: have a pap smear

FIFTIES

teeth generic woman

Take a thyroid test. “The frequency of thyroid problems can increase at this stage of life and, as the symptoms can often be confused with the normal signs of ageing, it can be useful to have a thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) blood test to check for any problems with the thyroid gland,” says Dr Nagwa.

An underactive thyroid gland – hypothyroidism – can cause symptoms such as weight gain, tiredness, dry skin, constipation, a feeling of being too cold, or frequent menstrual periods. On the other hand, an overactive thyroid – hyperthyroidism – can cause symptoms such as weight loss, rapid heart rate, nervousness, diarrhoea, a feeling of being too hot, or irregular menstrual periods.

“Depending on the result, your doctor will be able to advise on ways to restore healthy thyroid function,” says Dr Nagwa.

Get a bone scan. Growing older and going through menopause puts us at a higher risk of osteoporosis and, as loss of bone density speeds up, it means we can be more vulnerable to fractures.

“Osteoporosis doesn’t cause any symptoms. In fact, a fracture is often the first sign,” says Dr Sakina. “Before this happens, a DEXA X-ray can be used to check your bone density isn’t lower than it should be. This can then be used to diagnose or assess your risk of osteoporosis.”

If the risk is high, your doctor may advise eating a balanced diet, getting enough vitamin D and starting Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), which can all help maintain bone density.

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Guard against gum disease. Gum disease affects 80-90 per cent of people at some point in life, but it’s most commonly found in those in their 50s.

“Hormonal changes and menopause are linked to gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and periodontitis (inflammation of the tissue around the teeth),” explains Dr Anton de Waal. “There’s also a decrease in bone metabolism at this time that, combined with gum disease, can lead to rapid loss of the bone support around a tooth and, ultimately, to the loss of the tooth if left untreated.”

Frequent visits to the dental hygienist can help keep problems at bay while keeping a check on more serious health issues such as heart disease and stroke – both of which have been linked to periodontitis.

Check for colon cancer. “When you reach your 50s the risk of colon cancer is increased so it’s recommended to have a colonoscopy once every five years to screen for signs of it,” says
Dr Nagwa. Studies suggest that colonoscopy reduces deaths from colorectal cancer by about 60 to 70 per cent according to the National Cancer Institute.

 
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Plus

– Once a month: do a breast self-exam and examine your moles.
– Every six months: visit the dentist.
– Once a year: have a mammogram.
– Every three years: have a pap smear
– Every five years: get your heart checked.
– Every five to 10 years: get an eye exam
– Also consider: taking a vitamin D test.
– Keep an eye out for: signs of diabetes.

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Image: Getty
Words: Faye Rowe