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5 Must-Do Health Screenings For Women Over 40

Consider it a form of #selfcare.

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Shana Novak
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As you get older, keeping up with all your medical appointments (physical, mammogram, eye check, Pap smear, blood work, teeth cleanings — and that’s just if you’re healthy) can make even the most organized scheduler cry “uncle.” But just because you’re booking more frequent dates with your doc doesn’t mean you can ignore those other necessary do-it-yourself checks. Fortunately, these self-exams can be performed in the comfort of your own home — and in your own spare time. And by spotting early warning signs of potentially serious problems, you could save yourself lots of time (not to mention worry) in the waiting room later on.

Skin. Sun’s out, guns out, and that means more opportunity for UV damage. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends performing an exhaustive check of your skin once a month — combing every inch from head to toe in front of a full-length mirror, breaking out a hand mirror for those hard-to-see places, and even examining under your fingernails, along your scalp, and in between your toes.

What exactly should you look for? Anything that falls under the ABCDEs of “suspicious” moles: Spots that are Asymmetrical, have jagged or irregular Borders, contain varying shades of Color, are greater than a pencil eraser in Diameter, and seem to Evolve or change in appearance from month to month.

Breasts. Most medical organizations no longer recommend regular breast self-exams as a part of their cancer-screening guidelines, as studies have not shown that self-checks do much to improve cancer detection or survival rates. But that doesn’t mean you should adopt a hands-off policy, since many women with breast cancer report that the first sign of the disease was a lump that they detected on their own.

In addition to keeping up with clinical breast exams and mammograms, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with your breasts and report any changes. No two sets may be exactly the same, but doctors say you should know what “normal” feels like for you, especially as you age. That’s because your risk of breast cancer goes up as you get older, while at the same time your boobs start changing in shape, feel and appearance. (Thanks, menopause!)

Along with lumps, you’re generally looking for puckering, dimpling, redness, swelling or tenderness. But the best way to start is probably by having a conversation with your internist or ob-gyn, who can demonstrate how to perform an exam and talk you through what’s normal and what’s not.

Resting heart rate. Your pulse can be a surprisingly solid indicator of how healthy your heart is. Ten years ago, researchers published a study that examined nearly 130,000 postmenopausal women, and found that those with the highest resting heart rate (more than 76 beats per minute) were more likely to have a heart attack, even independent of other risk factors like smoking or diabetes.

The easiest time to take your resting pulse is first thing in the morning before you get up (keep in mind that medications, stress, hormones, caffeine and exercise can skew your results). Place your index and middle finger on your wrist or your neck so you can feel your heartbeat. Count the number of beats for 30 seconds and double it. Try to do this a few times a month, and talk to your doctor if the number starts to tick upward.

Mental health. Major changes to your body plus hormone swings can sometimes lead to mental health struggles. And while you may have heard of postpartum depression or PMDD (otherwise known as premenstrual dysphoric disorder), perimenopausal depression is real, too.

Some of the symptoms of depression or anxiety (sleeplessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating) can also symptoms of perimenopause. Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s normal to feel depressed at this stage of life. If you’re really struggling to manage the menopause transition — or if you’re feeling also hopeless, helpless or unable to enjoy life — talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

Height. How tall are you? Are you sure? In one 2010 study, researchers asked more than 8,000 women over age 60 to give their height — and then measured them. They found that the women overestimated their height, on average, by an inch. And while experts say that getting a little bit shorter over the decades can be a normal part of aging, dropping multiple inches in quick succession is not.

Shrinking can mean that you’re losing bone density and muscle mass, an early sign of osteoporosis; sometimes it’s also one of the few obvious symptoms of a spinal compression fracture. Your doctor should check your height at your annual physical, but you can also see how you’re measuring up once or twice a year.