Aging and Women’s Health: Steps to a Long Life
On average, women in the U.S. live 81 years, more than five years longer than men. However, men have been narrowing this gap, while career and caregiving demands have slowed positive health gains among women.
“We’ve seen more heart disease and more cancer among women,” said Dr. Lisa McAdams, senior medical director at Zing Health. “Starting at age 45, and carrying through age 84, cancer is actually the leading cause of death for women, and heart disease is second. Those are changes from years past.”
Breast cancer is the fourth most frequent type of fatal cancer. Black women, who may have less access to care, have a higher rate of breast cancer deaths.
Aging in Women Brings Physical Changes, New Lifestyles
Heart health is just as important for older women. As they move into their 50s and 60s, most have fewer responsibilities for children and more idle time to sit without much day-to-day physical activity. This change in lifestyle can lead to weight issues, muscle aches and pains, and chronic conditions. Women should be getting at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week to get their heart rate up. They should also build in some strength training a couple of times each week.
Exercise also builds bone strength to protect against osteoporosis. “Some of the effects of menopause from the decrease in estrogen can impact our bones,” McAdams said. By incorporating balance exercises, women are less likely to have issues with agility and falling as they get older.
“Stretching is also important, as it keeps bones, joints and muscles flexible,” McAdams said. “It’s important at any age, but more so for older women because we tend to stiffen up and get tight.” A workout buddy not only will help women keep up with their exercise, but also will provide the social contact that keeps people from feeling isolated or lonely.
Eating habits often change for empty nesters. Women should be eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, with lots of color in their produce choices (such as blueberry, leafy greens and red berries). This helps to deliver a better variety of antioxidants and other plant-based nutrients needed for a healthy body. Older women should also be cutting down on meat and dairy products to lower their saturated fat intake.
Some female health issues related to menopause are harder to control. For example, hot flashes can impact sleep; vaginal dryness can impact a woman’s sex life; and over time, a decrease in estrogen can cause the tissues of the genitourinary system to thin and weaken, which can contribute to other problems with leaking of urine and bladder infections.
Keep Up With Health Screenings at Annual Wellness Visit
Gynecological care, mammograms and colorectal cancer screenings should all be done regularly. Your primary care doctor will help determine whether to continue HIV tests, or Pap tests for cervical cancer. And don’t forget eye exams or dental appointments. Glaucoma or cataracts can harm your vision, and bad gums and dental hygiene can lead to heart conditions and nutritional deficiencies.
Women tend to see their primary care doctors more than men, but not necessarily for all health issues. Medicare pays for an annual wellness visit and a number of health screenings, without copay, to determine if you need to watch or treat specific health problems. Annual wellness visits should complement other visits to the doctor’s office throughout the year, and unlike other visits, allow your doctor to address ongoing health issues that include but are not limited to chronic conditions, memory loss, depression, substance abuse, etc. Scheduling an annual wellness visit can help you better control your health issues whether they are physical or mental.
“We take care of our kids,” Dr. McAdams said. “We take care of our parents. We take care of our spouses. We take care of everybody around us, but we neglect our own health. If something happens to you, who's going to take care of those that you are taking care of?”
Women can take care of their loved ones by taking care of themselves. Now is the time to think about your well-being and protect your heart, body and mind.