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Healthy Balance

Becoming a Middle-Aged Woman: How to Hit 40 Healthy

Author’s note: All the facts and details here are taken from the 2013 Educational Symposium on Women’s Midlife Health Issues in April of this year, with Drs. JoAnn Pinkerton, Anita Clayton, Amy Tucker and Jennifer Harvey.

Last month, there was a musical here in Charlottesville called, simply, “Menopause.” I took it as a bad sign that I actually considered buying tickets to the show.

That’s right. It’s happening. I’m growing older. And so are all my friends. As I approach the 40-year mark, close friends who have already passed it are starting to have hot flashes, stress over heart disease and breast cancer, worry about their sex lives.

Hot flashes? Sexual dysfunction? The symptoms of menopause can be addressed, if not totally cured.
Heart disease, breast cancer, hot flashes: Exercise and other healthy habits can help lessen the risks and symptoms of aging and menopause.

What Modern Women Face

We are lucky to have these challenges. One hundred years ago, women didn’t have difficulties associated with menopause. They didn’t live long enough to. Today, women are living nearly 30 years after menopause.

Thanks to the news, we all know about our longer-living, ageing population. And it’s a cultural cliché to think about a man’s mid-life crisis: the red sports car, the Viagra prescription. But reports often overlook the significant shifts and increased health risks that occur in women during middle age.

Middle-Aged Health: Did You Know?

  • 1 in 2 women over age 40 will develop heart disease, which is the No. 1 killer of women
  • Dense breast tissue, which is fairly common, not only increases your risk for breast cancer, but makes cancer harder to find with a regular mammogram.
  • Sexual dysfunction affects about 43% of the female population. Menopausal symptoms can cause a range of problems, from a decreased sex drive to painful intercourse.
  • Menopause can disrupt your memory, concentration, emotional well-being, sleep and urination.

Women & Heart Disease
Heart disease causes 1 in 3 women’s deaths each year, killing approximately one woman every minute.
• The symptoms of heart disease can be different in women and men, and are often misunderstood.
• While 1 in 31 American women dies from breast cancer each year, 1 in 3 dies of heart disease.

JoAnn Pinkerton, MD, doesn’t just know about the issues affecting women in midlife; she tries to find ways to help. Director of the Women’s Midlife Health Center, she leads a team of expert doctors in research and treatment targeted to issues specific to women in this age group.

And that is good news. There are some simple things you can do to manage and lessen the effects of the hormonal and physiological changes that occur at mid-life.

Healthy Lifestyle Basics

De-Stress. You’ve heard it’s harmful to your health. But in middle age, you really need to take stress management seriously.

  • Women with stressful jobs have a 40% increased risk of heart disease.
  • Stress increases your risk for sexual dysfunction.
  • Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, deep breathing – these de-stressors can help your heart and provide relief for hot flashes.

Sleep. Did you know that a lack of sleep can stimulate your appetite? Too little sleep has been linked to weight gain, one of the risk factors for heart disease. Poor sleep is strongly linked to heart disease. Regular, good sleep can lessen hot flashes.

Exercise. It is medicine. And even a little bit counts.

  • Exercise decreases depression – which helps your heart health and your sexual health.
  • Exercise promotes better sleep.
  • Even short bouts of daily exercise can reduce your heart disease risk by 40%.
  • Regular exercise can help lessen hot flashes, and short spurts throughout the day are as effect as one continuous hour.

Eat Well. A healthy intake of food and a balanced diet helps your weight and affects all of your general health issues.

Stop Smoking. A no-brainer. But smoking is a risk factor, not only for heart disease and stroke, but for menopause symptoms and sexual dysfunction.

Get a Mammogram. UVA recommends you start at 40. The recommended timing and type of mammogram you need depends on your risk level. Fortunately, UVA offers more kinds of mammograms than anywhere else in the region.

  • Find out if you have dense breast tissue at your next mammogram. If you do, you can get tomosynthesis, a 3D breast scan that finds breast cancer sooner than a regular mammogram.
  • Other technologies include screening breast ultrasound and breast MRI

Beyond Prevention

Along with the advanced mammography options, UVA offers a variety of experts in women’s heart disease, sexual health, incontinence, and other midlife issues. New hormone therapies, antidepressant combinations and other nonhormonal options are being developed as we speak.

In menopause despair? Have prevention questions? Visit the Women’s Midlife Health Center.

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