Taking Charge of Your Health

A Woman’s Guide to Wellness at Every Age

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By M. Elizabeth Swenor, D.O.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, aging is inevitable. Unfortunately, many women aren’t tuned in to the changes that take place in both body and mind as the years go by. Plus, women tend to spend much of their lives caring for others — partners, kids and eventually, parents — often at the expense of themselves.

The good news: There are things you can do to maintain your health and well-being as you journey into your golden years. The first step, of course, is increasing self-awareness. From hormonal shifts to mood swings, here’s what most women should watch for during each life phase:

In your teens

Today, many girls begin menstruating before they turn 13, Swenor says. So, during your teen years, you’re developing breasts, your figure is changing and you may notice pubic hair growing and thickening. Hormonal changes before and after puberty can also lead to acne, which can last well into your 20s. Add academics, social pressures and body image concerns to the mix and some teenage girls may feel anxious or irritable.

What to do: Sleep seven to nine hours each night to encourage normal development and optimal function. A clean diet is also key. “Processed foods, soda and added sugar can increase the risk of developing cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis later in life,” Swenor says. “Avoid drinking and eating out of plastic containers, too, since chemicals in plastics can wreak havoc on your hormones.” If you’re sexually active, talk to your doctor about birth control and STD prevention, including the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccination.

 In your 20s

Gaining weight is common during this decade, particularly as your body takes on a more adult frame. Plus, with college exams and/or work demands and a busy social schedule, you might find it difficult to get the rest, food and exercise you need. Maybe you drink coffee in the morning to get yourself going, or you sip wine at night as a social release. Unfortunately, these behaviors can become a slippery slope toward adopting unhealthy habits. Both alcohol and caffeine interfere with your ability to get quality sleep, which can increase your risk of problems later in life. Plus, overindulging in alcohol can increase your risk of engaging in unsafe practices (including unprotected sex).

What to do: Adopt healthy habits now while you’re young, so you’ll carry them with you into adulthood. “Strive to get 150 minutes of cardiovascular activity each week (things like jogging, walking and cycling), plus two to three days of resistance training and weight-bearing exercise,” suggests Swenor. Not only will these activities help you build strong bones and stave off osteoporosis, they also encourage healthy brain development. Take steps to prevent substance abuse, accidents and sexually transmitted infections and diseases – and get the appropriate screenings from your physician. Thinking about starting a family? Visit your doctor, eat healthy and take 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid daily.

Related topic: Q’s You’re Embarrassed to Ask Your Gynecologist (But Should)

In your 30s and 40s

Many women in this age bracket are juggling child rearing, job demands and aging parents. If you have children during these years, you may also be navigating hormonal changes from childbirth and nursing. “A lot of women are burning the candle at both ends during their 30s and 40s,” Swenor says. Unfortunately, that approach has significant drawbacks, including weight gain. Getting sufficient sleep helps stave off food cravings, and that’s critical during your 30s and 40s when your metabolism is slowing.

What to do: Prioritize self-care. Practice mindfulness, take a yoga class, try Pilates – any activity that offers you “me” time and minimizes stress is fair game. Then, eat a healthy diet, get seven to nine hours of sleep and work out four to five times each week. You should also ask your doctor to screen you for diseases like diabetes, thyroid disease and cardiovascular risk factors (including cholesterol levels and blood pressure).

 In your 50s and 60s

Just like the teenage and childbearing years, these decades are fraught with hormonal shifts and changes. Many women experience insomnia, night sweats, mental fog and depression as they go through menopause. You may notice hairs cropping up on your chin, neck and face at the same time as secretions in your nether region lessen. Add it all together and you could notice changes in sexual desire and function. Shifting hormones may also lead to cholesterol and blood pressure concerns.

What to do: Eat a predominantly plant-based diet where 80 to 85 percent of your plate is filled with fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eliminate processed foods, soda and cheese as much as you can. To increase desire and sexual activity, get sufficient sleep, reduce your stress level, exercise daily, communicate openly with your partner about sex and consider using a good water-soluble lubricant, suggests Swenor.

70s and beyond …

During your 70s, you may notice difficulty with focus, balance and agility. Your appetite and sleep cycle may change and you may find yourself going to bed earlier at night and waking up earlier, too.

What to do: Take steps to prevent falls in and around your home, get your eyes checked and make sure you have the appropriate prescription eyeglasses. Develop a daily schedule for meals, bedtime and waking time. Exercise regularly – including both cardiovascular activities and strength training – so you can maintain your balance and strength. Also, visit your doctor at least annually.

The key to wellness throughout your life, and especially during your golden years, is maintaining healthy lifestyle habits. Be sure to avoid activities that are known to increase your risk of developing certain diseases. Then, eat a clean diet, exercise regularly, challenge your mind and remain socially engaged with friends, family and strangers.

To find a doctor or registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).