Putting Your Health First, At Any Age

Women’s health during the different stages of life

Let’s face it: Few of us have the time or ambition to become marathon runners or triathletes. Training for a 5K race might even be a stretch. But that doesn’t mean a fitness routine has to be out of reach.

Just ask Andrea Cobb, M.D., a busy mom and Carilion Clinic OB/GYN.

“I work crazy hours and have two young children,” Dr. Cobb said. “I haven’t seen the inside of a gym in years. But I work my exercise into my daily life. Starting with little changes can make a big difference. I do squats while I brush my teeth and I have a strict rule about always taking the stairs. I’ll never be a world-class athlete, but at least I can keep up with my kids!”

“Eating healthy is not always easy, but it is doable,” Dr. Cobb said. “It’s easy to think you can ‘grab’ something quick, but that might not be the healthiest choice. Despite what you think, most people can find a healthy diet that fits their lifestyle.”

Like Dr. Cobb, many of us juggle ridiculously busy schedules and it can be hard to keep our health as a priority. With Mother’s Day coming in May, it’s a great time for women to consider their health and the health of all the significant women in their lives, no matter what their age.

“One of the most important things a woman can do to protect her health is scheduling a yearly health checkup with a primary care physician or a gynecologist,” said Manjusha Sahni, M.D., a Carilion Clinic OB/GYN.

An annual checkup usually includes age-appropriate screenings, evaluations and immunizations, and provides women with an opportunity to have an open discussion with their physician about their ever-changing body. Never be afraid to bring up a concern or question about your health to your doctor. Based on your personal risk factors, family history, or behavioral characteristics, your physician can help determine the best ways to keep you healthy.

Beyond a yearly exam, as Dr. Cobb suggested, try to be active each day. Experts say 30 minutes of daily activity can help ward off health issues later in life – and help you feel good now. All women should also eat a sensible diet, which includes the major food groups and portion control.

“Eating healthy is not always easy, but it is doable,” Dr. Cobb said. “It’s easy to think you can ‘grab’ something quick, but that might not be the healthiest choice. Despite what you think, most people can find a healthy diet that fits their lifestyle.”

For example, fast food and prepackaged foods aren’t always the healthiest choices. Try keeping an apple in your bag for when you get a snack craving during the day. Or take the time on Sundays to plan out healthy meals for the entire week.

“My husband and I plan simple meals for busy nights and save more time for eating our favorite healthy meals on days when we have more time to cook,” Dr. Cobb said.

Health in Your 20s:

When we are young we tend to worry less about serious health issues, but it’s actually the time when we should be starting to develop healthy habits. In our 20s we should consider the following:

  • Avoid high risk behavior, like smoking and drinking alcohol frequently
  • Make sure you are getting enough calcium to protect your bones
  • Practice safe sex

"Women 21 years of age and older are recommended to get a routine Pap smear screening for cervical cancer and precancerous conditions,” Dr. Sahni said. “All sexually active women, especially adolescents and those in the reproductive age group, should get periodic sexually transmitted disease (STD) testing."

Health in Your 30s:

As we move into our 30s, many women consider starting a family. Given the fact that 50 percent of pregnancies are unplanned, Dr. Sahni recommends women of reproductive age strongly consider using contraception. Beyond the common choices, such as condoms and birth-control pills, there are long-term choices women can consider that have low failure rates. Discuss with your doctor which options may be best for you.

If you’re thinking of becoming pregnant, start a healthy lifestyle now. Eating healthy and maintaining a normal weight will help ward off medical problems that can pop up during pregnancy. Prior to trying to conceive, talk with your doctor about any steps you should be taking, such as adding supplements to your diet, to improve your health.

“Also, don’t stop taking birth control until you are absolutely ready to become a parent,” Dr. Cobb said. “A waiting period isn’t necessary and you could get pregnant before you’re ready.”

Health in Your 40s:

In your 40s, the risk of cancer, such as breast, ovarian, and colorectal, increases. The same is true for heart disease, the No. 1 killer of women. It’s important for women to educate themselves about the symptoms of heart disease, which can differ from the symptoms in men.

Common symptoms of heart disease in women are indigestion, fatigue, and back pain. It’s important to listen to your body and recognize changes.

“Screenings and evaluations do help reduce the risk of serious diseases by earlier detection and treatment,” Dr. Sahni said. “Taking responsibility for our own health is the best way to prevent major health problems, like heart disease.”

Breast health exams also become more important starting at age 40. Carilion Clinic’s Breast Care Center recommends women get an annual mammogram starting at age 40. A mammogram is the best way to detect breast cancer early, when it’s most treatable. Women who are at an increased risk (family history, genetic tendency, previous breast cancer) should talk with their doctor about the benefits of earlier, more frequent diagnostic screening.

Health in Your 40s and Older:

For women in their 40s, 50s, and older, menopause becomes a normal part of aging. Natural menopause is the permanent ending of menstruation that is not brought on by any type of medical treatment. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, mood swings, hot flashes, and changes to a women’s sex life. It can be a scary time for some women. If you are approaching menopause and have concerns, once again feel confident about having an open discussion with your doctor. It’s normal to have questions and to worry about a major life change.

Mental Health

Along with physical health issues, women should also be aware of mental health issues. With so many stresses from work and family responsibilities to finances and maintaining relationships, it can be hard to find a balance. But it’s important to recognize signs of emotional unrest.

“Sadly, a great percentage of women in America are depressed and may not be getting the appropriate treatment due to inhibitions or lack of insight,” Dr. Sahni said. “There is a great resource on our website (carilionclinic.org) about when to seek treatment for mental health symptoms and as always you can ask your doctor for more information.”

Take time for yourself. No matter how busy your life is, try to carve out 30 minutes each day – read a book, work in the garden, or chat online with friends. Relieving stress can add years to your life.

“It’s never too late to change your life,” Dr. Sahni said. “And any change, however small, is likely to improve overall health and reduce the risks of preventable diseases.”

As we celebrate moms this month, lets all make sure the women in our lives are taking steps to stay healthy.

If you are looking for a primary care physician, gynecologist, or other healthcare providers, visit CarilionClinic.org or call 800-422-8482.

Laura Markowski is a writer for Carilion Clinic’s marketing communications department. She writes this monthly article to focus on health issues facing women.