Fifty may be the new 40 -- who would have thought half a century could look like Julianne Moore, Sharon Stone or Iman? -- and thanks to increased awareness about nutrition and exercise many women are taking care of themselves and remaining vibrant throughout this decade. But after menopause, women lose some of the protection that estrogen offered during childbearing years, increasing the risk for health problems such as osteoporosis and heart disease.
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If you are among those who believe breast cancer is a woman’s greatest archenemy, it's time to revise your thinking. Go Red for Women, a heart-health initiative at the American Heart Association, notes that more women die of cardiovascular disease than from the next four causes of death combined, including cancer.
Annual physicals should be routine, and include blood pressure checks and cholesterol testing every three years. Keeping your weight under control is especially important: Declining estrogen levels also cause fat storage to shift from the hips to the waist, and increased abdominal fat raises your risk for diabetes and heart disease.
Health screenings plus knowing your family history, will help you understand your individual risk, says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, director of the Women’s Heart Program at Langone Medical Center at New York University.
Make like Katie Couric and cheerfully book your first colonoscopy soon after your 50th birthday. “No matter what your family history, age 50 is recommended for a first screening,” says Dr. Dana Simpler, a primary care practitioner at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. If no polyps are found, repeat testing every 10 years. “But if your doctor finds polyps classified as adenomas, which have cancerous potential, you need repeat colonoscopies every three years.”
Heart Health Check
A thorough exam early in this decade should include screening for your overall risk of heart disease. First up, a look at waist circumference. The bigger you become around the middle, the greater your risk of metabolic syndrome, including diabetes and heart disease. A circumference of more than 35 inches is cause for concern.
You might think about asking for a blood test called the C-Reactive Protein test, which the American Heart Association recommends to assess silent heart disease risk. An electrocardiogram, says Goldberg, is smart for any woman over age 50, even in the absence of symptoms.
If you have a family history of heart disease, “or if you have symptoms like chest discomfort, shortness of breath, palpitations, or if you’ve been diagnosed in the past with a heart murmur,” says Goldberg, you’ll want to schedule an echocardiogram, a noninvasive sonogram of the heart.
Bone Density Test
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force has tweaked its recommendations for bone-density testing, saying that routine screening should start at age 65, while younger women should be screened only if they are at risk for fractures. Same advice comes from the National Osteoporosis Foundation guidelines. That said, “most women today have been getting screened earlier,” notes Dr. Sharon Brangman, professor of medicine at Upstate Medical College of the State University of New York and past president of the American Geriatrics Society.
Think about getting your bone density checked if you are or were a smoker, if you were prescribed steroids such as asthma medications, are very thin -- there's an added risk for being thin and Asian -- have a strong family history of osteoporosis or have lost height in the last year.
Baby boomers, listen up: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a recommendation that everyone born between 1945 and 1965 get tested for hepatitis C. The organization notes that 75 percent of adults with the virus were born during those years. While the reasons are not completely understood, what is known for certain is that early detection and treatment will save lives. It was previously thought that only those with certain risk factors get tested, but given that many people are silent carriers and considering that hepatitits C can lead to deadly diseases including cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer, screening seems smart.
Check on your tetanus booster, too; you need this vaccine once every 10 years.