Women’s bodies are constantly changing. Every decade brings different health needs and considerations. And to complicate matters, many women are busy taking care of their parents, spouses and children, sometimes neglecting their own well-being.
“It’s fascinating what we go through as women,” says Catharine Marshall, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. “Our immune system has to continuously change and adapt based on our biological clock. But because we are such multi-taskers in our day-to-day lives, we often overlook our own health.”
The 30s are typically a great decade for women in terms of health, but the habits developed during this decade can set the tone for the rest of their lives.
“Most women are basically healthy in their 30s,” says Dr. Marshall. “They have the best bone density then, and are not yet dealing with some of the health complications associated with perimenopause and menopause. This is the time to set the pace for health later on."
Dr. Marshall suggests women protect their health by staying active, developing healthy eating habits and getting plenty of rest, which includes enough restful, restorative sleep. Staying on top of regular exams, including pelvic exams and breast screenings, can also help a woman’s physician identify early signs of disease.
“A lot of women in their 40s will start dealing with abnormally heavy bleeding with their cycle,” says Dr. Marshall. “Most of these bleeding issues are triggered by the roller-coaster of hormone changes that take place in the last 15 years before menopause.”
Women experiencing heavy bleeding may have such conditions as uterine fibroids, which are noncancerous growths in and around the walls of the uterus. For many women, uterine fibroids have no symptoms. For others, they can cause pelvic plain, excessive bleeding and even infertility.
“Fibroids can have a huge impact on a woman’s life,” notes Dr. Marshall. “Not only can they mean taking time off of work, but severe pelvic pain and bleeding can lower the overall quality of life.”
In the past, fibroids could have meant invasive surgery and infertility for many women, but the newest advances in medical care are less invasive and many can spare fertility. Some of these advances include newer medications and minimally invasive surgery performed with a surgical robot. The surgeons can manipulate the robotic arms to remove the fibroid with minimal damage to the surrounding tissue.
“It’s really wonderful in that it helps women have a faster recovery from surgery since the incisions are much smaller,” says Dr. Marshall, a gynecologic surgeon who specializes in minimally invasive laparoscopic procedures.
Heart disease is the number one cause of death among American women, and your risk for heart disease dramatically increases after age 55, according to the American Heart Association, particularly after menopause. Women can also have different symptoms of heart disease than men, making it harder for them to identify in time to get emergency care.
Protecting your heart doesn’t start when your risk increases. It begins in your 20s and 30s, with developing healthy living habits like diet, exercise and not smoking. Continuing to practice these healthy habits throughout life can help reduce some of the risk factors for developing cardiovascular disease.
It’s also important for women in their 50s to have regular health exams and monitor some of the key health indicators such as cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose and body mass index. Regular heart exams that check heart rate, pulse, breath, heart sounds, skin color and swelling in the arms or legs can help doctors rule out early signs of heart failure.