My mother and I both take pretty good care of ourselves. We try to eat well and exercise, we take supplements, and we see our doctors regularly. But because we’re more than four decades apart in age, our health care needs differ greatly—as do all women’s. As we move through the decades of our lives, the age-specific concerns related to our physical wellness evolve as well. By being aware of what they are and how to test for them, we can achieve optimal health at any stage.
In Your Twenties
Most women consider their biggest health risk to be breast cancer and, increasingly, heart disease. Those are indeed grave issues later in life, but for women in their twenties, according to Gigi El-Bayoumi, associate professor of medicine at George Washington University Medical Center, the area of greatest concern is actually sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that more than half of the approximately nineteen million new cases of STDs per year occur in nineteen- to twenty-four-year-olds, because women in this age group tend to have more sexual partners than other demographics.
El-Bayoumi also notes that women in their twenties are the most common victims of eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with “healthy” food.
In addition, she recommends that females in this age group get an annual Pap smear to check for the human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common STD, as well as regular checks for chlamydia and gonorrhea. She also refers women who suspect they may have an eating disorder to the National Eating Disorders Association for more information about treatment and specialists in their areas.
Starting at age twenty, women should also start taking 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day to prevent bone loss, according to the daily recommended adequate intake.
In Your Thirties
Fertility begins to decline slightly in your early thirties, according to Renee Scola, an internist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. That’s a problem for women who put off childbearing. If you’ve been trying without success to conceive for over a year, talk to your doctor, who may recommend fertility testing.
This is also the decade when overweight women may develop pre-diabetes, blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not yet high enough to be diagnosed as diabetes. If you have any of the risk factors for diabetes, like being overweight or sedentary, or having a family history of the disease, get regular glucose tests.
The American Thyroid Association also recommends having your thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) levels checked beginning at age thirty-five, and again every five years. You’ll want to get checked more frequently, however, if you have unusual and significant weight changes or unexplained fatigue.
In Your Forties
The hormonal fluctuations of perimenopause (the beginning of menopause), along with the stress of juggling children, careers, and aging parents, leads to an increased risk that women will develop depression during their forties. Their slower metabolism can also contribute to body image-related blues.
Your forties are when you need to start worrying about heart disease as well; according to the National Institutes of Health, it’s the number one killer of women and the leading cause of disability among females. Although women’s susceptibility increases with age, more and more women are developing heart disease young, and, according to one recent study from the University of California, San Francisco, published on Forbes.com, black women are developing the disease at twenty times the rate of white women.
The American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms for women beginning in their forties, even though breast cancer is still relatively rare for women of this age group—affecting one in every sixty-eight women, according to El-Bayoumi—but treatment is most successful following early screening for the disease. The American College of Gastroenterology also recommends that women—especially black women, who are at the greatest risk—begin getting regular colonoscopies for colon cancer at age forty-five.
Age Fifty and Over
Heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis are all major concerns for women over fifty, but the most prevalent risks are breast and colon cancers (along with lung cancer, for women who have been cigarette smokers).
Menopause also brings lots of unpleasantness like weight changes, vaginal dryness, and loss of libido, to name just a few discomforts.
Finally, starting at age fifty, women need a colonoscopy every ten years, an annual mammogram, regular glucose testing and bone density screenings, and a Pap smear every three years. They should also raise their calcium intake to 1,200 milligrams per day.
Like Mother, Not Like Daughter
My mother and I differ in our health concerns because we are so far apart in age. One thing we do have in common, however, is that we are both well women, and wellness is timeless.