By Anna Jones
Regular doctor visits and medical screenings are critical to maintaining women’s health, but it can sometimes be difficult to keep up with which screenings and wellness practices are necessary. Family medicine physicians in the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Family and Community Medicine share their answers to some of the most common questions about women’s health.
What are the most important screenings female patients should discuss with their provider?
There are many screenings and exams that can help spot signs of serious diseases and conditions early, according to Dr. Erin Delaney, assistant professor and vice chair of Clinical Affairs and Quality and medical director of UAB Family and Community Medicine Clinic at UAB Hospital-Highlands, and Dr. Sumayah Abed, assistant professor and clinician at UAB Medicine Hoover Primary and Specialty Clinic.
While some screenings are specific to women based on their age, there are a few screenings that Delaney and Abed recommend for everyone. At the top of the list are skin cancer, hypertension and depression screenings.
Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the United States. By maintaining regular skin cancer screenings, doctors can often find cancer in its early stages, making it easier to treat.
Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can slowly damage the body for years before symptoms develop. It is a major contributing risk factor for heart failure, heart attack, stroke and kidney disease. Blood pressure screenings are the only way to determine whether someone has hypertension.
“If we can detect hypertension sooner rather than later, then it may help us treat it earlier and prevent cardiovascular disease later on down the road,” Delaney said.
When it comes to a patient’s mental health, primary care providers can sometimes be the first health care professionals to suggest mental health diagnosis. A patient with depression often has psychological and/or physical symptoms. With certain depressive symptoms, it can be difficult to determine whether they are pointing to a physical illness or a mental illness. In these cases, depression screenings are helpful in forming a diagnosis and finding the best treatment for each patient.
“Depression is a silent illness, and many people experience depressive symptoms without realizing that depression is the culprit,” Abed said. “Your mental health matters just as much as your physical health, and depression screenings play a major role in getting the treatment you may need and taking that first step toward living a healthier life.”
Abed and Delaney also recommend specific screenings for women based on their age, such as cervical cancer screenings, mammograms and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases.
“Beginning at age 21, women should go in for cervical cancer screening. This can be done with Pap smears and HPV testing every three to five years, depending on your age,” Delaney said. “Screenings help health care providers find abnormal cervical cell changes early, so they can be treated before they have a chance to turn into cervical cancer.”
Delaney says mammograms starting at age 40 are important for some women, especially those at increased risk for breast cancer. Early detection of breast cancer with a mammogram means treatment can be started earlier in the course of the disease, possibly before it has spread.
In addition to cervical cancer and breast cancer screenings, Abed says, women who are sexually active should get screened for sexually transmitted diseases.
“Many times, someone can have an STD without showing any signs or symptoms,” Abed said. “If left untreated, STDs may lead to serious problems. Screenings can detect infection early and allow you to get treatment and prevent spreading the infection to others.”
What topics should I discuss with my primary care provider?
When talking to a primary care provider, Delaney recommends asking about topics such as nutrition, exercise habits, sleep habits, questions about supplements or vitamins, cancer screenings and preventive immunizations. For women who are interested in having children, Delaney also recommends preconception counseling, which will help them take steps to protect themselves and the baby they hope to have in the future.
Besides screening and preconception counseling, Abed wants to remind patients that family medicine physicians manage many other women’s health-related illnesses, such as polycystic ovary syndrome, infertility, vaginitis, STIs, pelvic inflammatory disease, menstrual and abnormal bleeding disorders, postmenopausal symptoms, preconception health, management of chronic medical diseases during pregnancy and screenings for domestic violence.
“Family medicine physicians manage many women’s health-related illnesses,” Abed said. “Patients can bring up concerns about any of these conditions or topics to their family medicine provider, and they can help you determine the best next steps for you.”
Which wellness practices are recommended for women?
“Women of child-bearing age should make sure they are getting enough folic acid and vitamin D to help support a healthy pregnancy,” Delaney said. “For women who are approaching menopause, it is important that they are getting plenty of calcium and vitamin D to support bone health.”
Delaney said women should limit their red meat intake, eat plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains, avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and choose low-fat or skim dairy products. Abed says that, in addition to having a healthy diet, simply taking time for oneself can play a huge role in maintaining one’s health.
“Women often take care of their whole family but sometimes forget themselves,” Abed said. “I encourage my female patients to take some free time for themselves, often by doing exercise for 30 minutes per day, five times weekly. This helps you stay fit and relaxed and enjoy a good night’s sleep.”
UAB Department of Family and Community Medicine providers take pride in addressing these needs with personalized care for female patients, including everything from important preventive screenings to advice for conception, pregnancy or infertility. The department is expanding and formalizing its women’s health program, making it easier than ever for female patients to access care. Find a primary care provider at uabmedicine.org.
This story originally appeared on the UAB News website.
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UAB answers common questions about women's health – Alabama NewsCenter
By Anna Jones