10 medical tests women need

From mammograms to eye exams, we break down the tests you need, and when you need them.
Health.com // Health.com

What health tests and checkups do you really need this year? We know it's confusing, so that's why we've assembled a team of top doctors and experts to help us figure out what medical exams women really need.

--By Lindsey Holland, Health magazine

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Mammogram

New rules: A government advisory panel recently gave annual mammos a thumbs-down for women ages 40 to 49 who don't have an elevated risk of breast cancer. (Scientists are worried about overdiagnosis, false positives, and unnecessary biopsies and radiation exposure.) Now, only low-risk women ages 50 and older are supposed to get a mammo every two years.

But many doctors and cancer organizations disagree. If your breast cancer risk is elevated because of a personal or family history, yearly mammos starting at age 40 (or younger) are still advised. Talk to your doc during your annual physical about your cancer risks, and call her right away if you have any breast problems.

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Skin check

More than 1 million Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year. The best way to catch it early -- when it's highly curable -- is by checking yourself once a month for new or suspicious moles and by getting a total-body exam once a year from your doctor or a dermatologist.

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Eye exam

If you wear glasses or contacts, visit your eye doctor for a vision screening every year -- every other year if you don't. Women are more likely to experience eyesight problems partly because they have higher risks for dry-eye syndrome and auto­immune diseases that affect eye health.

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Hearing test

The standard for getting an audiogram, which checks your hearing at a variety of pitches and intensity levels, is once a year starting at age 50, when hearing typically begins to decline. But if you blast your iPod at full volume, you may want one sooner.

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Periodontal exam

Once a year (at one of your twice-annual cleanings) your dentist should perform a periodontal exam, probing the health of your gums and taking X-rays. She'll check for gum inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease and diabetes.

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TSH screening

Cold, tired, achy, constipated, gaining weight -- all of these are symptoms of hypothyroidism, a deficiency of the thyroid gland that strikes about 10% of women. It's diagnosed with a thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) blood test, given during your annual physical starting at age 50 (earlier if you experience symptoms).

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Blood tests

After a baseline screening for cholesterol levels in your 20s, get one at least every five years. From age 40 up, get your cholesterol and blood sugar (to check for diabetes) tested every year because heart attack and diabetes risks rise as you age.

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Pap smear

Starting at age 21, regardless of sexual history, women should have a Pap once every three years to look for signs of cervical cancer. As with mammograms, however, these guidelines apply only to women in good health who do not have an elevated risk for cancer. Talk with your doctor about your risk factors and the screening schedule that's appropriate for you.

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Colonoscopy

This test, during which a camera scans your colon for cancerous polyps while you're sedated, is recommended for people 50 and older and should be repeated every 10 years (more often if polyps are found). Get a colonoscopy earlier if you have a family history of colon cancer, or if you have unexplained bleeding or other changes in bowel habits.

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