You know when you should get screened. You know the importance of exercise and good nutrition. You probably feel and look amazing.
But midlife will bring some special health challenges to women. The good news is that none of those challenges have to stop you from living a vibrant and productive life — for decades to come. To keep yourself in the best of health, avoid these six common health mistakes at midlife and beyond.
1. You ignore heart health.
Heart disease is the number one killer of women, and risk rises as women age. Menopause doesn’t cause cardiovascular disease. Rather, it’s those bad habits earlier in life, such as smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise that can begin to take a toll on heart health in the 50 and over woman, according to the American Heart Association.
A September 2015 report issued by the CDC on so-called “heart age” versus biological age shows women, on average, have hearts that are five years older than actual chronological age. If a woman has high blood pressure (140 mm Hg or more), her heart’s “age” is 18 years older than she is, according to the report.
But the good news is that it’s not too late to change habits that increase your risk of heart disease, says Leslie Cho, M.D., director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Women’s Cardiovascular Center.
“Although some damage may already be done, the evidence points to the fact that changes you make in terms of getting more exercise, eating smarter, losing weight, and quitting smoking, no matter what your age, will benefit your heart,” says Cho.
In fact, a study by the German Cancer Research Center of nearly 9,000 people between the ages of 50 and 74 showed that heart attack and stroke risk can be cut by some 40 percent within the first five years of tossing those cigarettes.
This is also the time to make sure you keep up with heart health tests such as blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol testing. “Prevention or early detection, when problems can be easily treated, will help keep a woman active and healthy,” says Cho.
Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. “If you are having problems with exercise or weight loss and blood pressure control, don’t think you have to do everything on your own,” she says. “Talk to your doctor. He or she can help you.”
2. You put up with menopause miseries.
One of the biggest mistakes women make during this time is thinking they have to learn to live with menopausal symptoms like hot flashes, sleeping difficulties, and vaginal and urinary problems.
Although short-term use of hormonal therapy has been shown to help many women who deal with some of the most severe problems of menopause, not every woman is a candidate or may want to take hormones, says reproductive endocrinologist Barbara Soltes, M.D., of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “But that doesn’t mean they have to suffer since there is other help available,” she says.
For example, if hot flashes are causing difficulty, the North American Menopause Society just released findings on what really works to cool the heat. According to their report cognitive behavioral therapy (including relaxation techniques, learning how to feel more positive about menopause, and sleep strategies) can reduce hot flash severity. Clinical hypnosis has some good evidence, too.
Bladder issues like stress or urge incontinence can also be helped with medications, devices, and behavioral changes, says Soltes, who advises women to see a doctor with a special interest in menopause if they are having any menopausal difficulties.
3. You think sex is over.
Sexual frequency can decline with age, but a survey published in The New England Journal of Medicine shows even 75- to 85-year-olds had sex two to three times a month, with more than 20 percent reporting sexual relations at least once a week.
However, sex can change due to hormonal upheavals at menopause, which can cause vaginal dryness and potentially painful sex. But over-the-counter lubricating products can help, as can prescription topical estrogen, says Kat Van Kirk, a licensed family and marriage therapist and board-certified clinical sexologist in Lihue, Hawaii. (Yoga, Kegel exercises, and pelvic floor physical therapy may also help some women improve sexual function, according to The North American Menopause Society.)
It’s important for women to remember that sex “. . . can be hugely beneficial to our bodies, minds and spirits,” says Van Kirk, often resulting in improved pelvic muscle tone, healthier vaginal tissues, and better psychological well-being.
Despite the challenges, sexual relationships can actually improve as people age since women no longer fear pregnancy and couples have less stress about careers or financial situations, she adds.