Your childbearing years may be behind you, but experts see great value in regular gynecology visits. Here’s why.
With your childbearing years behind you, you may think skipping your annual gynecologist appointment is no big deal. But the reality is that many conditions affecting the female reproductive system—like urinary incontinence, pelvic pain, and pain during sex—tend to surface later in life.
“I see people put up with those issues for a long time, thinking they’re just part of aging,” says LeeAnn I. Hubbard, M.D., medical director of the Regions Hospital Family Birth Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. “But they’re definitely not issues women just need to put up with. We have very good treatments for menopausal issues these days, both hormonal and nonhormonal options.”
Even if you’re not experiencing one of these symptoms, there are still many good reasons to maintain regular appointments with your gynecologist after menopause. Here are three such examples.
Reason #1: Bladder Problems Are More Common with Age
If you often feel an urgent need to pee, or you can’t sneeze, cough, or exercise without leaking a bit, rest assured you’re not alone.
“Urinary incontinence is almost universal among women over 60,” says Paula M. Hobson, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist at Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group in Sycamore, Illinois.
There are many reasons you may struggle with urinary incontinence, but it’s often due to either weakened bladder muscles (causing leakage) or bladder muscles contracting on their own (creating the urgency to pee) as you age, Dr. Hobson says.
Despite being very common, few women feel that they can ask for help. Many even apologize before mentioning a bladder problem to their doctor, Dr. Hobson says. If urinary incontinence is causing you enough grief that you think about it often, it’s time to seek help.
“Never think you shouldn’t bother somebody with these issues—they’re important,” Dr. Hobson says. “And they can usually be successfully addressed.”
Reason #2: Important Cancer Screenings Need to Happen
Older women are more likely to develop certain cancers than their younger counterparts, including ovarian, endometrial (the inner lining of the uterus), breast, and cervical cancers. Regular gynecological visits are an important screening tool for identifying cancer in the early stages.
Exactly how often you should visit your gynecologist will vary depending on your personal and family history, Dr. Hubbard says. In general, if you have no history of gynecological issues and no family history of cancer, you can probably see your doctor once every other year, she says.
However, if you experience vaginal bleeding or pelvic bloating or pain, make an appointment to see your gynecologist right away. “Those symptoms can be—though are not always—a sign of a cancerous process,” Dr. Hubbard says. “And we would want to get that figured out sooner rather than later.”
If it turns out cancer isn’t the issue, your doctor can at least help you resolve your symptoms.
One more reason not to skip those appointments: Your gynecologist can ensure you’re caught up with other cancer screenings, like mammograms and colonoscopies if you still need them, Dr. Hobson says.
“We also commonly partner with your primary care physician in order to make sure that all aspects of your health are covered,” Dr. Hubbard adds.
Reason #3: Sexual Problems Still Exist
Sex doesn’t stop after menopause. In fact, nearly one-third of women over age 70 are sexually active, according to a survey conducted by the University of Manchester.
While unintended pregnancies may no longer be a concern, there’s another set of potential problems to consider. “A lot of women past menopause experience painful intercourse, vaginal dryness, or low libido,” Dr. Hobson says.
Like urinary incontinence, these issues aren’t something you just need to put up with, and they can usually be treated successfully, she says.
What’s more, the risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) doesn’t disappear with age. In fact, reported cases of chlamydia among people ages 55 to 64 nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016, while gonorrhea and syphilis cases more than doubled, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School.
Your gynecologist can answer questions about any sexual issues, perform STI tests, and help you navigate treatment options if you do develop an STI.
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