Healthy Breasts at 40, 50, and 60

Nervous about breast cancer? Make each decade worry-free with our comprehensive guide to breast health.

By Bari Nan Cohen and Cathy Garrard

Keep Watching Your Weight

The evidence is clear: After age 35, gaining 40 or more pounds is bad for breast health. And gaining 20 or more pounds after age 50 also has repercussions: In her research, Ahn discovered that women who gain that amount of weight in that decade have 40 percent greater risk of developing breast cancer. Underlining the point is a report released last year by the American Association for Cancer Research specifying that your risk for breast cancer increases four percent with every 11 pounds you gain. And you should literally watch your waist: If that measurement is more than 32 inches, you’re at risk for diabetes and heart disease as well as breast cancer. But while getting the message is easy, losing the weight can be hard. "As menopause begins, women who have been able to manage their weight at a younger age find that it’s harder now," says Karen Collins, MS, RD, a nutritionist with the American Institute for Cancer Research. Another decade of age means another step-down in your metabolism; as a result, it’s not unusual for women over 50 to gain a pound or two a year without eating more or exercising less. Nonetheless, Collins says, "If your weight is getting off track, now is the time to get it under control."

Think Before You Drink

The more alcohol you consume, the higher your risk for developing breast cancer. "We’ve been told that a drink a day is beneficial for heart disease prevention, but that’s not true for breast cancer," Willey says. The reasons aren’t clear, but moderate alcohol intake may affect estrogen and progesterone levels, particularly in postmenopausal women, whose bodies now make less of those hormones. In new research by the National Cancer Institute, postmenopausal women who took a drink or two a day had a 32 percent increased risk for breast cancer, and those who downed three or more drinks per day saw their risk increase by up to 51 percent.

Don’t Assume Calcifications Mean Cancer

At your annual mammogram, you’re told that the radiologist sees calcifications. Now what? Breast calcifications — small calcium deposits in the breast tissue that appear as white spots on a mammogram — are generally not a cause for concern. They have nothing to do with dietary calcium intake (so don’t stop taking calcium, which you need for bone health). Rather, they are deposited in areas of rapidly growing cells, and are usually benign. "They are worrisome when they appear in specific groupings or patterns," Minkin says. Your doctor can help you decide whether they require investigation.

Don’t Try to Overdose on Veggies

Every woman should aim to eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day (for the vitamins and the weight-control benefits), but eating more than that won’t score you extra cancer-prevention points. A July 2007 Journal of the American Medical Association study found that both pre- and postmenopausal breast cancer survivors who ate more than the recommended five servings a day did not lower their chances of recurrence more than those who stuck to the standard amount.

Start Taking Dietary Supplements

"After age 50, our bodies make many fewer essential nutrients, such as vitamins D and K," says Pamela Smith, MD, of the Crittenton Hospital, in Rochester Hills, Michigan. "Nutrition becomes more important overall, but we can’t get enough of everything we need from food, so supplements become important in bridging the gap." Coincidentally, one nutrient that is getting a lot of attention these days happens to be vitamin D.

Several recent studies have linked a deficiency in this vitamin to an increased risk of breast cancer; on the positive side, one study found that women may cut their risk in half by taking 2000 IU of vitamin D3 a day. As a good protective step, ask your doctor to check your vitamin D level (all it takes is a blood test, one that is usually covered by insurance) and then add supplements to attain the level she thinks is appropriate. You can also talk to your doctor about appropriate dosages of vitamin E, magnesium, fish oil supplements, and iodine, all of which will benefit your whole body as well as your breasts. A tip from Christiane Northrup, MD, best-selling author of The Wisdom of Menopause: "If you have breast tenderness, you may be iodine deficient."

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