8 Warning Signs Women Over 40 Shouldn't Ignore

Got a cough? Bloating? Tingling in the feet? How to tell when symptoms that seem minor are really trying to tell you something.

By Ginny Graves
Photograph: Illustration by The Heads of State

When to act: If you have some of the above symptoms, call 911 and say, "I think I’m having a heart attack. I need an ambulance." At the hospital, the staff should do an electrocardiogram to detect whether your heart is being deprived of oxygen, a blood test to measure cardiac enzymes and proteins, an echocardiogram to see if the heart has been damaged, and possibly cardiac catheterization — inserting dye into the arteries to see them clearly with an x-ray. Getting examined quickly may save your life: It’s estimated that you have a 50 to 70 percent chance of dying if your heart attack takes place outside a hospital. Among women ages 40 to 60, heart disease is as common a killer as breast cancer, but with some precautions, you can decrease your risk. "Keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and weight under control, and exercise regularly," Goldberg advises.

Symptom: Burning, Tingling, or Numbness in Your Feet

Likely cause: A tight-fitting pair of shoes

Worst-case scenario: Prediabetes (elevated blood sugar levels)

Some 57 million Americans are prediabetic, but because prediabetes is often asymptomatic, most don’t know they’re on the cusp of serious illness. (Without intervention, the condition typically progresses to full-blown diabetes within a decade.) Foot symptoms occur "because the illness damages the nervous and circulatory systems," says John Giurini, DPM, of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons.

Other signs it may be serious: Some prediabetics may also experience tingling and numbness in the arms or hands, says Giurini. If you have full-blown diabetes, you may also experience frequent urination, excessive hunger or thirst, weight loss, fatigue, or blurry vision. The risk factors for type 2 diabetes include being older than 45, being overweight, being sedentary, having a family history of diabetes, having had gestational diabetes, or having given birth to a baby weighing more than 9 pounds.

When to act: If you have burning or tingling feet for more than a few weeks, call your internist and ask to be seen in the next week for a checkup and a fasting blood sugar test, Giurini suggests. Recent studies have shown that by losing 5 to 7 percent of your body weight through diet and exercise, you can prevent the development of diabetes.

Symptom: Bloating and Pelvic Pain

Likely cause: Gastrointestinal bug

Worst-case scenario: Ovarian cancer

Several medical groups, including the American Cancer Society, warned in 2007 that bloating and pelvic pain can be early signs of ovarian cancer — big news, since doctors have long believed that this often deadly disease is symptomless until it’s too advanced to treat. "If caught early, ovarian cancer is up to 90 percent curable," says Barbara Goff, MD, of the University of Washington.

Other signs it may be serious: Additional symptoms of ovarian cancer include feeling full quickly or having difficulty eating, urinating frequently or with great urgency, and changing bowel habits. You’re at increased risk if you have a family history of the illness, have tested positive for mutations in the genes BRCA 1 or BRCA 2, or have been on hormone therapy. (Your risks are lower if you have had at least one child, breastfed a baby, taken birth control pills, and maintained a healthy weight.)

When to act: "If the symptoms are new, occur almost every day, last more than a few weeks, and don’t go away if you eat more fiber, reduce your salt intake, or exercise more frequently, schedule an appointment with your gynecologist," says Linda R. Duska, MD, of the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. Ask to be seen within two weeks. Diagnosis is tricky, so don’t be afraid to push your doctor for appropriate testing: a pelvic ultrasound and perhaps a blood test to check your level of CA-125, a substance found in high amounts in the blood of many women with ovarian cancer. Partly because the incidence of ovarian cancer rises with age, the ACS recommends annual pelvic exams for all women over age 40.

Symptom: Persistent Cough

Likely cause: A cold

Worst-case scenario: Adult-onset asthma, a condition that can worsen as women enter midlife

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