The start of a new year is the perfect time to focus on your health and wellness. Motivation for change is always strong at the beginning of a year. Jean Hailes Women’s Health GP, Dr Dominique Baume, says a general health check should be high on the list of new year’s resolutions for all women. Here she discusses the checks we need and why.
It’s recommended that all women, especially those aged 40+, have their breasts checked by a health professional once a year. It’s also recommended that women become ‘breast aware’, so they know what is normal for their own breasts, and learn how to do self-examinations.
Mammograms are recommended from the age of 50 and are provided free every two years through BreastScreen. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, more than 75% of breast cancers occur in women aged over 50. Although 90% of those women have no family history of the disease, Dr Baume says it’s still important to consider family history with breast cancer and need for earlier screening.
This is an important, potentially lifesaving test for the early detection of the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a common sexually transmissible infection, and the cause of almost all cervical cancer. The cervical screening test needs to be done every five years from the ages of 25-74. Even though cervical cancer is one of the most preventable cancers, there was a dramatic fall in testing during the pandemic, which has health professionals concerned.
The chair of Pathology Awareness Australia (PAA), John Crothers, says more needs to be done to educate and raise awareness of cervical screening. A recent survey by PAA of 600 women from across the country revealed that 15% of them were overdue for screening or had never had a test.
The test is on the Medicare Benefits Schedule, which means it comes at no additional cost to your doctor consultation.
Bowel cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in Australia, but if detected early can have a 90% cure rate. Bowel cancer screening tests (known as faecal occult blood tests) are recommended between the ages of 50-74 every two years and are a simple and effective way of screening for early signs of bowel cancer. The Australian Government sends free testing kits out to people in Australia every two years from the time they turn 50 years of age. Dr Baume says that the new year can be a reminder to make sure you’re up to date with your tests. Call the Bowel Screening Test Kit Helpline on 1800 930 998 if you are aged 50+ and haven’t received a test kit in the past two years.
Dr Baume says the pandemic contributed to a “massive drop” in the number of women under the age of 30 being tested for STIs. She recommends screening at least once a year and each time you have a new sexual partner. The test is as simple as a urine test or swab, and can detect STIs such as chlamydia (which can affect a woman’s fertility yet often show no symptoms), gonorrhoea and trichomoniasis. Further blood tests are available for wider screening.
An annual contraception review is advisable to ensure a woman’s current contraception method is still the best choice for her, or to explore other options to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
This is an increasingly important health check for young women. Dr Baume says women can benefit from learning about their natural cycle and fertility window, which differs from woman to woman. “If women have menstrual irregularities, they can learn how it may affect fertility in the future,” she says. The checks may involve testing of iron and blood sugar levels, as well as ensuring important vaccinations are up to date. Health professionals would also review the woman’s weight, height, BMI (body mass index) and blood pressure.
Any discussion around pre-conception health would also involve nutrition, smoking habits, alcohol intake and physical activity.
Skin cancer is a major cause of illness in Australia. Melanoma, caused when parts of the body have been overexposed to the sun, is predicted to be the third most common cancer diagnosed this year according to Cancer Council Australia. Dr Baume recommends that woman consider a full body skin check by a suitably qualified health professional every 12 to 18 months, but to not wait if she notices any changes to a mole, for example.
Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australia. The key factors that contribute to heart conditions are largely preventable, and include high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Two in three adults in Australia are overweight or obese, which is another leading risk factor for heart disease.
A doctor will discuss lifestyle factors, such as not smoking, limiting alcohol intake to two standard drinks a night with two days alcohol-free, and doing 150 minutes of physical activity a week.
“Menopause and perimenopause is a time when we see women coming in with a variety of concerns,” says Dr Baume. “This is a valuable opportunity to address weight, smoking, alcohol and to make changes that will impact future health.”
There is also a calculation a doctor can do that can assess a woman’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease over the following five years, says Dr Baume. “Based on this risk profile we may recommend more regular blood tests, or medication.”
Dr Baume says a comprehensive cardiovascular review helps women to take ownership of their own health.
The impact of COVID-19 led to a huge demand in mental health services last year. It’s important to know that if you feel like you need more support with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, your doctor can provide you with a mental healthcare plan. It helps you to access eligible allied health professionals like a psychologist, social worker or occupational therapist who can help you to feel better.
You are entitled to a Medicare rebate to cover part of the cost of up to 20 individual sessions or group appointments with a psychologist, social worker or occupational therapist in a calendar year.
Dr Baume believes a lot of women are feeling anxious, but says they can feel comfortable discussing the issue with their GP. “It’s important to stay socially engaged too – face to face or over the phone – and it’s also important for women to get regular exercise as well as a good night’s sleep.”
She says a mental healthcare plan is also available for women suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. The plan includes up to 40 sessions with a psychologist and 20 sessions with a dietitian.
Discussing bone health allows your doctor to review your calcium intake, your vitamin D levels, and your exercise habits. If appropriate, your doctor may recommend a bone density test. This is a simple scan that measures the density of your bones. It will show if you have normal density, low bone density (osteopenia), or osteoporosis (loss of bone strength).
Dr Baume says that bone mineral density starts to decline after menopause due to the fall in levels of the hormone oestrogen, so women over 50 may benefit from the test. Women aged 70 and over are eligible for a Medicare rebate on the cost of the test, and earlier testing may be subsidised for women with some medical risk factors.
For more information on health checks, and which ones you need at what age, head to the 'Health checks' section under 'Health topics'.