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

Other signs it may be serious: "If you cough only when you’re exercising or sleeping, that can indicate asthma," says Vincent Tubiolo, MD, of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Other symptoms include wheezing, particularly when you exhale; shortness of breath; and tightness in the chest. Risk factors are obesity, allergies, smoking, and a recent respiratory tract infection. "Women who have taken estrogen for 10 years have a 50 percent higher risk of developing asthma," Tubiolo says. "And people with acid reflux are at increased risk, possibly because the acid irritates the airways and triggers an asthmatic cough."

When to act: Asthma isn’t usually an emergency, but it makes sense to consult a doctor since the disease can be progressive (and even life-threatening when breathing problems are severe). Also, the condition can limit your physical activity and interfere with your sleep, both of which can affect your long-term health. Asthma is diagnosed with a pulmonary function test that measures airflow. "People feel a lot better once they receive treatment," Tubiolo says. Reduce your risk by avoiding smoke, including the secondhand variety, and maintaining a normal weight.

Symptom: No Matter How Much You Sleep, You Don’t Feel Well-Rested

Likely cause: The flu

Worst-case scenario: Sleep disorder

Don’t dismiss daily fatigue as an inevitable consequence of aging. Feeling tired is a common symptom of two of the most prevalent sleep interrupters for midlife women: sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes an itchy, twitchy sensation in the legs that makes it difficult to stay still and, as a result, fall asleep. "Many people think sleep apnea only affects overweight men, but it’s nearly as common in women after menopause," says Lisa Shives, MD, of Northshore Sleep Medicine, in Evanston, Illinois. Like sleep apnea, RLS often worsens as you get older.

Other signs it may be serious: If you’re a snorer and you wake up feeling as if you’ve been hit by a truck, chances are you have sleep apnea. The condition relaxes the muscles of the throat, making it difficult to get sufficient air, and the lack of oxygen triggers mini awakenings — sometimes hundreds of times a night. Other signs of sleep apnea: waking with a headache and sore throat; experiencing memory or concentration problems; feeling irritable or depressed. Fatigue-related symptoms such as irritability are also common with RLS.

When to act: If the symptoms of either disorder persist for more than a month, see your internist, who may be able to diagnose the problem based on your description. If not, she may refer you to a sleep specialist for further evaluation. Sleep apnea is treated with a continuous positive airway pressure device, a mask that fits over your nose and/or mouth during sleep and helps open airways with gentle air pressure. RLS is treated with dopamine-like drugs, but some sufferers can control symptoms by limiting caffeine, walking regularly, and massaging or stretching their legs before bedtime. Practicing yoga or meditation may relieve some symptoms. Likewise, lifestyle changes may ease the effects of sleep apnea: Drop pounds if you’re overweight, avoid alcohol, quit smoking, and try to sleep on your side, a position that sometimes reduces symptoms.

Symptom: Trouble Finding the Right Words

Likely cause: Sleep deprivation

Worst-case scenario: Stroke

It’s easy to laugh off a little brain freeze as a senior moment, but if your word problems amount to more than a minor slipup (for example, saying "runny hosted peanuts" instead of "honey roasted peanuts" is normal; saying "red place mat" when you mean "honey roasted peanuts" is not), it could be a stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel in the brain either bursts or is blocked by a clot, depriving brain cells of oxygen. "Language impairment — when you have trouble speaking, or say nonsense words or words that don’t go together — is common in left hemisphere strokes," says Argye Hillis, MD, of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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