Any woman can attest to the dramatic changes in their body when they reach their 40s. This is when women really start to feel the age in their bodies, being unable to just bounce back like they used to. Changes in hormone levels and metabolism, along with the normal decrease in functionality of the body with age, can lead to many disease processes. However, there are some steps that can be taken to help improve your overall health. You can reduce the risk of most serious health issues by eating a well-balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding tobacco products, limiting alcohol use, staying active and remaining current with preventative screenings and check-ups. Smoking and obesity are the two largest preventable risk factors for almost every disease process. I will discuss the top 10 health risks for women and what can be done to help prevent them.
The leading cause of death in women in their 40s is cancer. The most common cancer in women is breast cancer. I am only in my mid 30s and have already lost two close friends to this devastating disease and know several more my own age who have suffered from breast cancer, but luckily are in remission. While breast cancer cannot necessarily be prevented, it is much more curable if detected early. It is very important to do regular self-exams to check for any abnormal lumps and go to your regular annual check-up as well. The American Cancer Society suggests that women begin having annual mammograms at the age of 40. While there are many risk factors that you cannot do anything about such as genetics and family history, there are some risk factors that are preventable. Those on hormone replacement therapy or oral contraceptives have a greater risk for breast cancer. Excessive alcohol and obesity can increase your risk; while exercise, breastfeeding and multiple pregnancies seem to reduce your risk.
The number two cause of death for women in their 40’s is heart disease. The lower levels of estrogen after a woman reaches menopause increases their risk for cardiovascular disease. The main reason this is so deadly for women is that the symptoms are much different than in men, and most women do not recognize the warning signs early enough. While chest pain is usually a symptom of heart attacks in women, it is not always the most dominant one. Some common symptoms include: neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdominal discomfort; shortness of breath; nausea or vomiting (very common); right arm pain; sweating; lightheaded or dizziness. These symptoms are not always as severe as the crushing chest pain that many expect with a heart attack, and may be mistaken for something else.
There are, however, lots of steps that you can take to reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors; diet and exercise also play a huge role. Eating a diet that is low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium drastically reduces your risk. Omega 3 Fatty Acids, found in fish, have also been proven to be excellent for heart health. It is important for you to stay active because it can help not only control your weight, but can also reduce stress; both being risk factors for a heart attack.
Osteoporosis increases with age and is much more prevalent in women. As women reach menopause and their estrogen levels decrease, it puts them at a far greater risk. Osteoporosis increases a woman’s threat for bone fractures, and is the reason for their decreasing height with age. You can lower your risk greatly by getting the appropriate amount of Vitamin D and Calcium, and by making sure that you incorporate regular weight bearing exercises, such as walking, into your day. Hormone Replacement Therapy has also proven beneficial, but has other risk factors that go along with it. The pros and cons of this therapy should be discussed with your healthcare professional.
Hormone levels play a large part in your mood and many women feel a change in the way they feel long before they see any of the physical effects of menopause. Reaching that 40 marker can also cause a lot of women additional stress. This is the time in life where many take on the additional stress of being the caregiver for aging parents who may no longer be in good health. Diet and exercise go a long way in reducing depression and anxiety, but sometimes are not enough. Everyone is occasionally depressed or stressed, but if it continues then you may want to talk to your primary care physician about options for prescription medications or a referral to a licensed therapist.
Type II Diabetes has become a growing concern with our country’s unhealthy diet and lifestyle. Eating oversized portions, eating out frequently and overindulging in sweets, and lack of activity is the reason that Type II Diabetes is on the rise. Unlike Type I Diabetes, you are not born with Type II, it is developed later in life typically due to unhealthy life choices. Your risk increases with age, so the American Diabetes Association suggests getting screened every three years at the age of 45. The most common warning signs include urinating more frequently (due to your body trying to get rid of the excess sugar in your blood), excessive thirst and hunger. Other symptoms include blurred vision, excessive yeast infections and significant weight loss for no apparent reason. The best way to reduce your risk of developing Diabetes is through diet and exercise; according to research from the Diabetes Prevention Program, losing just 5%-7% of your body weight can drastically decrease your risk of Diabetes.
Cervical Cancer is believed to be caused by the Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which frequently has no noticeable symptoms. Certain immunizations have been suggested to reduce the risk, but have come into much scrutiny lately for causing additional problems without any real evidence of its effectiveness in preventing Cervical Cancer. The most important preventative measure you can take is getting your annual pap smear screening from your gynecologist.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the increase in unplanned pregnancies of women in their 40’s. Most women seem to falsely believe that their chances of pregnancy diminishes with age. While this is not necessarily true, increased age does pose a risk for a more difficult pregnancy and delivery, with higher chances of genetic disorders in the fetus. We should all know by this age what decreases the risk for unplanned pregnancies.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that makes it increasingly more difficult for sufferers to receive proper oxygenation. It is now the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States. It used to be a disease that affected mainly men, but is becoming increasingly more common in women. In 2009, nearly 70,000 women died the very slow death that is attributed to this disease process and the number is on the rise. Unfortunately, there is no known cure for COPD. The only remedy is prevention, and the number one way to prevent respiratory disease is by not smoking or being subjected to secondhand-smoke.
High Blood Pressure
Even though it is a little known fact, women are at just as much risk for high blood pressure as men. Women actually have a greater risk than men after they have gone through menopause. Due to lack of information, women are less likely to worry about their blood pressure and have it checked. Hypertension frequently has no symptoms, but can include headaches, dizziness or fainting spells. Hypertensive crisis is a very serious condition where blood pressure sky rockets and usually causes severe headaches, severe anxiety, shortness of breath and nosebleeds. This is an emergency situation and requires immediate emergency assistance.
If high blood pressure is left unchecked it could become life threatening. It is important to have your blood pressure checked frequently. It is also important to eat a diet low in fat and sodium and get regular exercise. If lifestyle changes are not enough, your physician may prescribe a medication to help lower your blood pressure.
One of the possible effects of high blood pressure could be a stroke or heart attack. Approximately 55,000 more women than men have a stroke each year. The risk factors and preventative measures are the same as for heart disease and high blood pressure. Common symptoms include: sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg (especially on one side); sudden confusion or difficulty speaking; sudden trouble with vision; sudden problem with coordination and severe headache. Women may also report unique symptoms such as: sudden face and limb pain; hiccups; nausea; sudden general weakness; chest pain and shortness of breath. Any of these signs should be taken seriously, as time is a major factor in recovery.
If you think someone you know is having a stroke perform this test, FAST:
F-FACE: Ask the person to smile. Does one side of the face droop?
A-ARMS: Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
S-SPEECH: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase. Is their speech slurred or strange?
T-TIME: If you observe any of these signs, call 9-1-1 immediately.
CDC, “Leading Causes of Death by Age Group, All Females-United States, 2010”, http://www.cdc.gov/women/lcod/2010/WomenAll_2010.pdf
American Cancer Society, “What are the Risk Factors for Breast Cancer”, http://www.cancer.org/cancer/breastcancer/detailedguide/breast-cancer-risk-factors
Mayo Clinic, “Heart Disease in Women”, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/in-depth/heart-disease/art-20046167
Barbara Brody, “7 Signs of Type II Diabetes”, http://www.womansday.com/health-fitness/conditions-diseases/7-signs-of-type-2-diabetes-125067
American Lung Association, “Taking her Breath Away”, http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/publications/lung-disease-data/rise-of-copd-in-women-full.pdf
American Heart Association, “High Blood Pressure”, https://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/SymptomsDiagnosisMonitoringofHighBloodPressure/What-are-the-Symptoms-of-High-Blood-Pressure_UCM_301871_Article.jsp
National Stroke Association, “Women and Stroke”, http://www.stroke.org/site/PageServer?pagename=WOMSYMP