Ladies, when it comes to your health, you can blame two things: genetics and habits. If grandma had diabetes, you're more likely to have it, too. And that lovely tan you always had in your teen years? It's the reason you check for suspicious moles today.
Each decade of your life brings unique physical and emotional health challenges.
Four health professionals from the Methodist Physicians Clinic Women's Center in Omaha know the landscape well: OB-GYN physicians Dr. Julia Bishop and Dr. Tifany Somer-Shely, sex therapist Brier Jirka and behavioral-health therapist Jennifer Brigden.
Here, they shed some light on women's health by the decade — appointments to schedule, stresses to avoid and milestones to be noted.
No matter what decade you're in, stay informed and make taking care of yourself a top priority.
The teen years can be fun as young women learn to develop and navigate relationships with parents, friends (including boys) and teachers. But girls also face stresses — battling parents, asserting independence, facing the pressure to have sex, worrying about appearance.
Maintaining a healthy body image can be especially difficult for young women. In extreme cases, an obsession with weight loss can lead to such eating disorders as binging, purging and anorexia nervosa. Being too thin, as well as being overweight, can cause menstrual problems. And obesity can contribute to more serious future medical issues, such as diabetes.
Young girls should avoid the fashionable temptation of deeply bronzed skin, staying away from tanning beds and prolonged sun exposure. Both increase the risk of skin cancer, one of the more common cancers in young women, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Lather up on a sunblock that's rated at SPF 15 or higher, and make sure it offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
Well before becoming sexually active, teens need information about protecting themselves from the human papillomavirus (HPV), which can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. It is the most common sexually transmitted disease, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends that the HPV vaccine — a series of three shots administered over six months — be administered to girls (and boys, too) at about ages 11 or 12; it can be given up to about age 26, but is less effective among those who already have been exposed to HPV.
Many doctors recommend that teens also get a vaccine to protect them against bacterial meningitis, a deadly and contagious disease. It often is given as part of a teen's off-to-college exam.
20s and 30s
These are the years when women are making decisions about the roles that family and career will play in their lives — and grappling to find the right balance. Whether single or married, most face stresses about reproductive issues, ranging from birth control to infertility to postpartum depression.
Even before a woman is contemplating getting pregnant, Somer-Shely said, she should prepare her body by taking folic acid or prenatal vitamins. Both can decrease the risk of birth defects, such as spina bifida.
At this age, most women are sexually active and should be checked for sexually transmitted diseases. Douglas County, in particular, has one of the highest rates of chlamydia infections in the nation, according to Somer-Shely.
“We don't know why,” she said. “Of course, one could theorize that it's a lack of easy access to testing, treatment, etc.” She noted that with chlamydia, there might be no symptoms that would prompt a woman to seek care.
Women who did not receive the HPV vaccine as a teen might still be able to receive it, if they have not yet had an HPV infection.
Doctors recommend that at age 21, a woman should get her first Pap test, which screens for cervical cancer and infections of the reproductive system. The Pap tests should continue every three years until age 29. Between ages 30 and 65, women should have a Pap test plus an HPV test every five years or a Pap test alone every three years.
Also recommended for women in their 20s and 30s are clinical breast exams and mammograms; consult your doctor for the recommended frequency. Monthly self-exams are also advised.
The odds of getting breast cancer increases with age. Yearly mammograms are recommended by the American Cancer Society starting at age 40. Genetics and other factors might cause some women to need a regular MRI as well.
At this age, women who are mothers find that their children don't require as much of their time, leaving them less distracted and more able to revisit their marriages.
“This is also a time when relationships can be tested, with infidelity and divorce entering the picture,” Brigden said.
Women of this age might be pre-menopausal and unaware of the changes happening with their bodies, so education is important. Ask questions and get informed.
There also might be a lack of sex drive and new body-image issues — different from those experienced in the teen years. This can be caused by anything, including illness, surgery, medication or declining hormonal levels. If you're concerned, start with a visit to your primary-care physician.
And, yes, that biological clock is indeed ticking. Even women who are content with the size of their families might have concerns about the approaching end of their reproductive years.
Time for “The Big Change.” The average age is 51 for menopause — bringing its hot flashes and fequent swings in hormones, libido and mood. As bodies age, estrogen levels change and bladder problems increase.
At this age, some women come to terms with no longer being able to have children. Others are dealing with empty-nest syndrome and the identity crisis that comes from changing roles.
Similar to in your 40s, but even more so, those of this age who are moms find a new focus on being a wife.
“At this stage, re-identify yourself,” Jirka said. “Start a new hobby, take a vacation, find out what your new interests might be instead of grieving the loss of current lifestyle or identity.”
Women in their 40s through 60s are referred to as being in the “sandwich” generation — stressed by caring for parents and children at the same time. So be sure to set aside time for yourself.
For some women, this can be a happy decade, though health problems loom. Mobility decreases and veins become more pronounced as skin gets thinner (especially for those who have borne children). And, yes, sexual function decreases.
As women lose estrogen, bone density declines, increasing the risk for osteoporosis, according to Bishop. Without exercise and good nutrition, women of this age also are more at risk for heart disease and diabetes. It becomes more important than ever to use food for energy and good health, not comfort.
Women older than 65 who have had regular cervical cancer testing with normal results no longer need a Pap test, according to the ACS. Those who have had a Pap test showing a serious result (such as precancerous cells) should continue to be tested for 20 years or more after the diagnosis.
70s and beyond
By now, women are experiencing big shifts physically and mentally. The metabolism slows, with sedentary seniors facing hypertension and diabetes. Keep exercising and stretching as you are able.
Worries of incontinence, heart disease and hearing loss loom for some. Eyes don't focus as well and cataracts, dry eyes or macular degeneration could occur.
Hair tends to thin and skin gets more fragile.
Depression can creep up due to the loss of friends or a spouse. Alzheimer's disease becomes a concern for some.
It's important to stay social. Join clubs, play cards, swim — whatever your interest might be. The elderly population should avoid isolation.
In your 80s and beyond, it's difficult to find people of the same age to relate to. Kids, grandkids and great-grandkids — some might be 50 or more years younger — don't necessarily share the same values or see the world the same way. It's common for women of this age to feel isolated, especially if health issues force them to move into a care facility and away from a longtime home or neighborhood.
“There is nothing wrong with you,” Bridgen said. “Reach out for some support. Find a listener to help with perspective.”