Health musts for every decade

Find out the most important tests, tips and more for women of all ages
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It’s never too soon—or too late—to take steps to protect your health. But, of course, the sooner you start, the healthier you’ll be. Here are the essentials to keep you on track in each decade of your life.

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In Your 20s: 1. Schedule annual physicals

You’re a grownup and no one is making you go for checkups regularly—so you need to take charge yourself. This is the time to find a primary care doc you like and trust, establish a relationship, and get checked out (ideally once a year), says Shantanu Nundy, MD, an internist at the University of Chicago Medical Center and author of the forthcoming book Stay Healthy at Every Age. Annual physicals are the best way to see where you stand and catch any emerging problems before they get out of hand. Your doctor should check your body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure as well as take blood to check your thyroid health and cholesterol levels.

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2. Ditch unhealthy habits

OK, so maybe you did some stupid things in high school and college, like smoke, drink too much and subsist on junk food. This is when you clean up your act. “You form a lot of habits in your 20s that will last a lifetime,” says Dr. Nundy. If you’ve already developed some bad ones, this is the perfect time to break them and start on a new path. Learning to eat healthy is especially important; even if you’re thin in your 20s, things could change in the next decade or two—but it’s much easier to keep weight off than to lose it later.

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3. Get screened for STDs

Hopefully you’ve already been tested for STDs, but if not, do it now—ideally before you enter a long-term monogamous relationship and have kids. Remember, HPV (the virus that causes cervical cancer) is also an STD. If you’re under age 26 and haven’t yet had the HPV vaccine, ask your doctor if it’s worth considering now. And definitely start (or keep) getting yearly Pap smears, which will pick up abnormal changes caused by HPV.

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4. Consume enough calcium and vitamin D

Many women don’t think about osteoporosis until they’re much older, but that’s a mistake: 90 percent of our bone mass is achieved by age 20, says Barb Dehn, RN, NP, an advisor to the “Life…supplemented” consumer wellness campaign. Aim for at least 1,200 mg of calcium and 1,000 IU of vitamin D (which helps your bones and many other bodily systems) each day.

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In Your 30s: 1. Watch the scale

The pounds can creep on at any age, but many women in their 30s struggle with weight for the first time. Metabolism starts to slow around age 35, and if you’ve had kids you may find it difficult to shed those post-pregnancy pounds. Since you’re also juggling work and family, time is tight. That’s why Dehn suggests sneaking exercise into your schedule. “Women in their 30s have infinite to-do lists and they never have time for themselves,” says Dehn. “I often recommend a pedometer. Wearing one helps you set goals and see how those extra steps add up just from parking farther away from the grocery store and picking up after the kids.” She also suggests getting off the subway or bus 1 or 2 stops farther away and walking at least 1 or 2 flights of stairs each day if you work in an office.

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2. Make sleep a priority

Busy moms may find themselves hard-pressed to get to bed early enough, but it really is essential to good health. If you’re currently pregnant, you may have sleep problems as well: According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the physical, emotional and hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy—especially during the third trimester, when you’re physically your largest—can all interfere with sleep. Make sure your room is as comfy as possible and allow yourself ample time to wind down in the evening. Talk to your doctor if you’re still having trouble.

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3. Pay attention to period problems

Regardless of whether or not you’ve had kids, let your doctor know if you’re suddenly having periods that are heavier or more painful. This could signal PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome, a metabolic disorder), a thyroid problem or fibroids.

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4. Check your blood pressure

If you’re getting annual physicals, your doctor should be checking this each time, but if not, make sure to get it tested at least once. A lot of women start to develop hypertension in their 30s—often tied to weight gain—but they don’t even realize it, says Dr. Nundy. Protect your heart now by staying informed.

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In Your 40s: 1. Opt in for mammograms

Yes, the conflicting guidelines are confusing, but most experts are still encouraging women to start yearly mammograms at age 40, rather than wait until 50. Your doctor can help you evaluate your personal and family medical history to figure out when you should start and how often you should get them (annually or biannually).

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