Chronic diseases among women are on the rise, have you done these screenings?

These startling statistics were revealed this week by Dr Noluthando Nematswerani, clinical director of Discovery Health, who stresses that attention to women’s health should include a focus on screening, as well as treatment and prevention of chronic disease.

The top five chronic diseases among women from 2018 to 2022 were:

  • Essential hypertension (persistently elevated blood pressure);
  • Hypercholesterolemia (persistently high cholesterol);
  • Asthma;
  • Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid); AND
  • Type 2 diabetes mellitus.

The top five most common cancers among women were breast, colon and rectal cancer, skin cancer (melanoma), and thyroid cancer. Cancer strikes in all age groups, from those under 30 to those over 60, where cancer is the leading cause of female death.

Discovery Life statistics reveal that women under 30 are 1.6 times more likely to get cancer than men in that age group, and 42% of critical illness claims for women aged between between 31 and 40 years were about cancer.

Screening and prevention are vital

The good news is that women are more proactive when it comes to regular health checkups. A study by the National Library of Medicine indicated that women make more use of health care services. In addition, about 80% of women tend to take care of the general health needs of their families.

Most medical aids offer a variety of screening and prevention benefits that are covered by risk coverage programs and not by members’ daily benefits (medical savings account). This means that there are very few reasons to skip a screening test. If these screening tests were exploited by those enrolled in the medical program, late diagnoses of chronic diseases would be avoided.

To encourage members to undergo preventive screenings, the Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) introduced the Wellth Fund earlier this year. This one-off benefit on top of the regular screening benefits offers R2,500 (per member) up to R10,000 (for a family of four) extra for important screening checks and doctor visits.

Here are six of the top preventative health checks girls and women should have:

1. Development assessments

Children two and older can begin undergoing developmental assessments that measure height, weight, and general well-being. Parents should also complete an age-related lifestyle questionnaire for their children.

2. Blood glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol screenings detect silent killers

Testing your glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol, and body mass index (BMI) will help determine your risk of chronic disease. These include the so-called “silent killers” such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and obesity, which are usually only detected in the case of a heart attack or stroke.

3. The Pap smear detects pre-cancerous cells

According to the HPV Information Center, cervical cancer is the second most common cancer among women in South Africa overall, and the most common cancer in women aged 15 to 44. Cervical cancer screening checkups include human papillomavirus (HPV) testing and Pap smear. .

A woman can start going to her GP or gynecologist for a Pap test in her 20s, once every three years. The Pap smear looks for precancerous cells that could become cervical cancer if left untreated. Similarly, HPV tests look for the virus that is the underlying cause of most cases of cervical cancer. This test should be done every five years in lieu of a Pap smear, advises Nematswerani.

Data from DHMS shows that medical program members as young as 25 are diagnosed with cervical cancer. DHMS members who are at high risk for cervical cancer, such as people living with HIV, are covered for an annual Pap smear and HPV screening every three years.

4. Mammograms

Regularly examining your breasts can be an important way to identify breast cancer early. Starting at age 40, women are encouraged to have a mammogram (x-ray of the breast) once every two years. High-risk women are advised to have annual screenings. You are considered to be at high risk if you have a strong family history of breast cancer, which includes a genetic predisposition to breast cancer (BRCA-positive) and a personal history of breast cancer.

5. Colonoscopy

According to the 2019 National Cancer Register, colorectal or colon cancer is the third most common cancer in women in South Africa, with one in 132 women developing this form of cancer, says Nematswerani.

Women should begin colon cancer screening from the age of 45 and should prioritize a discussion with their GP about the appropriate screening test which includes a stool-based test. For people at high risk, a colonoscopy may be recommended.

6. Bone density screening

Specialist doctors recommend that women start bone density testing from the age of 65. However, your doctor may refer you to a bone density test if you are a postmenopausal woman or a transitioning menopausal woman aged 50 to 69 with clinical risk factors for fracture. A bone density scan is performed by a radiologist.

Farzana Botha, segment manager at Sanlam Risk and Savings, says women should try to prioritize present and future health needs, which is difficult to do when budgets are tight.

Consider boosting your retirement savings to boost your retirement income for future healthcare needs. That comes with the added benefit of a tax deduction, making it a smart way to maximize your budget while also providing for the care you might need later, he says. DM


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