Being healthy is a common goal for many people, but good health does not have a finite endpoint; it’s an ongoing process that unfolds over a lifetime. For women, aging can bring on surprising health changes as they move through the decades of their life. From good nutrition and proper exercise to bone health and vaginal wellness, knowing the changes aging may cause can empower women to better care for themselves and prepare.
“From puberty to pregnancy to menopause, a woman’s body can go through a plethora of changes in her lifetime,” says Dr. Alyssa Dweck, an OB/GYN, author and expert on women’s health. “Once adulthood hits, the next few decades bring about expected, and some not-so-expected, physical, mental and emotional changes. Those changes mean how we care for our bodies will change, too.”
While each woman’s aging experience will be as unique as she is, Dr. Dweck points to some common health changes women may encounter during several decades of their lives:
With puberty completely over, women can begin to identify what is and isn’t normal for their bodies. While diet and exercise are important at any age, during their 20s women begin to understand what is required in order to maintain a healthy weight. Menstrual health may fluctuate during this decade of life and many women will focus on both contraception and feminine hygiene, Dweck says.
“Women ages 21 and older should get a pap smear at least every three years,” she adds.
During this age range, infections are not unusual. In fact, three out of four women will experience a yeast infection in their lifetime. Diets high in sugar and/or alcohol can increase the risk, as well as other factors like staying in a damp bathing suit or tight clothing for extended periods and menstrual cycle fluctuations. For those experiencing an infection for the first time, it’s best to visit the gynecologist to confirm the diagnosis.
During their 30s, women often start to focus on family planning and pregnancy, among other things.
The hormonal changes that occur with pregnancy and/or use of birth control can cause shifts in pH balance, which can lead to infections. Being familiar with yeast infection symptoms from past experience allows women to find quick and easy solutions, like the over-the-counter treatment of MONISTAT(R) in the feminine hygiene aisle of local drugstores. It relieves symptoms four times faster and works on more of the most common strains of yeast than the leading prescription.
Nutrition continues to be important during this decade, whether women choose to begin families or not, as bone loss generally commences in the fourth decade and metabolism slows. Women should adjust their diets and exercise to ensure their caloric intake meets their needs, including maintaining their intake of calcium and eating nutritious, low-fat foods.
Perimenopause can cause significant health changes for women in their 40s, including a decrease in estrogen levels. Something many may find surprising is that at this age, women are at their sexual prime. However, intimate areas become thinner and less elastic in a woman’s 40s, which may cause varying degrees of discomfort.
Most women will experience menopause during their 50s, and while this new stage can cause pH changes, having no more menstruation or erratic cycles can be very freeing. With diminished estrogen, drying can occur in private areas, for which moisturizers and lubricants can be useful. Women should avoid feminine products that are not both dermatologist and gynecologist tested as they can cause yeast infections, Dweck cautions.
At this age, it is more important than ever to maintain a regular exercise routine, including cardio, strength training and flexibility training.
60s and beyond
By this age, most women know their bodies intimately and can quickly tell when something isn’t right. Common health issues that can occur with age include diabetes, arthritis, cancer and heart disease, many of which also cause irregularities in feminine health.
Women should remain active and continue to eat healthily as metabolism slows and bone health decays. Brain health is also important. Along with regular exercise and intellectual stimulation, social interaction with family and friends can help prevent cognitive decline.
“Women will typically know what’s normal for them. There isn’t one normal — just normal for you,” Dweck says. “Women should never be afraid to familiarize themselves with their bodies and ask their doctors questions. Be inquisitive and don’t consider any topic taboo. Good health is a multifaceted process, and gynecological health is an important part of a woman’s overall well-being.” (BPT)