As a woman, taking steps to maintain your health is one of the most important things you can do to ensure a long and healthy life. The best way to do that is to make sure you understand the medical problems you might face. Below, we’ve outlined four of the most frequent health concerns that present in women and how they can be prevented and addressed.
Osteoporosis and Bone Health
Osteoporosis, which is the thinning or loss of bones, is extremely common among postmenopausal women because their female hormones (estrogen) are much lower. “Women are much more prone to osteoporosis,” says Summit Health family medicine specialist Dr. Megan Blunda. “Genetics and other factors affect osteoporosis risk. Women tend to have smaller frames, which makes the bone loss more impactful and puts them at greater risk for fracture.”
Fractures are especially dangerous for older women, Dr. Blunda notes. “When you have a fracture, it affects your mobility. A hip fracture could potentially alter the course of your life,” she says. “You might also have other co-morbidities, which can complicate healing and general recovery.”
It’s not uncommon to feel a little stressed. However, increasing media attention has shown the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has placed on women, resulting in increased stress and anxiety. “Women have always had to multi-task and remain active in a number of different roles in life, but the pandemic has amplified this: women are now more likely to have left the workforce, have spent more time homeschooling children, and have spent more time on domestic duties compared to their male counterparts,” she says. “Balancing those responsibilities is difficult, and it has added an incredible amount of stress.”
It’s important to not ignore these struggles, as such changes can lead to anxiety and depression, which can lead to physical problems. “If you don’t address the underlying issue, symptoms will persist,” says Dr. Blunda.
Stroke and Heart Disease
Many people think heart disease is much more common in men, but Dr. Blunda points out that it also affects quite a lot of women. “Women are often a little bit older—postmenopausal—and present with heart attacks differently,” she says. While men tend to have “classic” symptoms, such as chest tightness and discomfort, women’s symptoms are more often shortness of breath, heart palpitations, nausea, and arrhythmias.
Dr. Blunda also points out that strokes and heart disease share a common denominator—lack of blood flow to organs. For strokes, it’s a lack of blood flow to the brain, while for heart disease it’s to the heart. Genetic history, high cholesterol, and obesity are all contributing factors to these ailments. Although some risk factors are non-modifiable such as family history, it is important to identify and address common risk factors such as hyperlipidemia, prediabetes or diabetes, obesity, and tobacco use to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Breast and Gynecological Health
Many women visit their gynecologists once a year for their annual checkups. But don’t ignore gynecological health if you notice any problems. “If you are experiencing irregular menstrual bleeding, vaginal discharge, itching, odor, or abdominal or pelvic pain, then you should go to the doctor,” says Dr. Blunda. “You should also go more regularly if you have a history of abnormal pap smears or cancers.”
Family history plays an important role in breast and gynecological cancers, such as ovarian and cervical cancer, so make sure you’re aware of yours. “A lot of times patients will focus on their mother’s history,” Dr. Blunda notes, “but it can be on the paternal side as well.”
What Steps Can I Take to Stay Healthy?
These health risks can feel overwhelming, especially when genetics come into play, but there are many life choices that can help you maintain your health for years to come.
- Talk to your doctor. “If you have a family history of certain disorders, you may need to visit the doctor more frequently,” says Dr. Blunda. “Talk to your provider about getting screenings for what you’re at risk for.”
- Eat a balanced diet. “The Mediterranean diet—which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean meats—has been the most studied and well-validated diet,” says Dr. Blunda. “There is strong evidence that it lowers your risks of cancers, diabetes, heart attacks, depression, and even dementia. It’s also easy to stick to over the long haul, so you can avoid the ups and downs of other more extreme diets.”
- Consider your mental health. You may not realize it, but stress, anxiety, or depression cause physical problems. “Don’t underestimate the strong connection between the mind and the body,” says Dr. Blunda.
- Self-care is critical. “It is extremely helpful to engage in exercises that trigger your body to relax,” says Dr. Blunda. “Deep breathing, meditation, and yoga can be very helpful to practice on a daily basis. If you are new to these practices, consider a meditation app like the free Insight Timer app.”
- Take your supplements for healthy bones. Your doctor can advise you on what works best for your personal health. To prevent osteoporosis, Dr. Blunda recommends calcium and Vitamin D. “Calcium helps your bones stay strong,” she says. “Vitamin D helps your bones absorb that calcium.”
- Exercise often. Regular exercise is key to overall health, be it physical or mental. And it doesn’t need to be a hard-core workout every day. “I recommend 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise four or five days a week,” says Dr. Blunda. “If your workout is less intense, then aim for every day. If the gym isn’t your thing, try to find a type of movement that is joyful to you, like walking with a friend or dancing in your living room.”