by Dr. Shanthi Thomas
Many women are troubled by health problems specific to their gender, throughout life. On approaching middle age and beyond, around the age of 45 to 50, certain problems seem to occur more than others. Some of these problems can be effectively dealt with, while others can only be managed, not cured. Let us take a look at the health problems of middle-aged women.
The risk for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis increases as a woman ages. Women of American Indian, Latino or African-American origin, and those who have a family history are at a higher risk than others. One of the most common autoimmune disorders is inflammation for which anti-inflammatory medications may help.
Ovarian cancer begins in the ovaries. It is difficult to detect until it has spread to the abdomen and pelvis. Early stage ovarian cancer can be successfully treated using chemotherapy and surgery. In the later stages, ovarian cancer may cause symptoms such as abdominal bloating, weight loss, changes in bowel habits, frequent urination, feeling full quickly when eating and discomfort in the pelvis area. Risk factors for ovarian cancer include a family history of ovarian cancer, Estrogen hormone replacement therapy, and advanced age (50 – 60 years).
Cervical cancer is the cancer occurring in the cervix, which joins the vagina to the uterus. The cause of almost all cervical cancer incidences is infection with high risk human papillomavirus (HPV), a common virus transmitted via sexual contact. Vaccination against HPV is the most effective form of precaution against contracting cervical cancer. However, if cervical cancer occurs it is treatable and curable if detected early.
Cancer occurring in the breast is more common among women than men. As women age, the chances of breast cancer increase. A personal history of breast conditions such as lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), and a family history of breast cancer greatly increases the risk of breast cancer. Other risk factors are radiation exposure to the chest, obesity, beginning menstruation at a younger age, beginning menopause at an older age, postmenopausal hormone therapy, and having never been pregnant. Alcohol consumption also can increase breast cancer risk. The best and most effective way of preventing breast cancer is breast self-examination, which can detect any changes in the shape of the breast or any discharge from the nipple. Maintaining a healthy diet and weight, as well as exercising regularly can reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Post-menopausal women are especially vulnerable to heart disease because the estrogen levels in the body drop after menopause. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking are other risk factors. A healthy diet and daily exercise are the most effective prevention strategies for heart disease. In advanced cases, medications such as statins to reduce cholesterol and beta-blockers to reduce blood pressure are useful to ensure proper functioning of the heart.
Difficulties in thinking, communicating and remembering are the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. After the age of 65, the risk for these diseases increases greatly. A healthy diet and regular exercise, avoiding alcohol and smoking are the basic precautions needed. Moreover, older women need to keep their mind active by reading, being socially active or learning to play a musical instrument. The risk factors of these diseases that involve a cognitive decline include untreated depression, and loneliness.
Depression is more common among women than in men. As a woman ages and menopause occurs there is an increase in the risk for depression. There are other risk factors such as the changing social roles and relationships as women age, and perhaps bereavement and caregiving for a sick spouse. It is of paramount importance that women remain active as they age, and play a significant role in the family and society, to prevent being prone to psychological problems such as depression.
Women before menopause are largely protected from osteoporosis because of estrogen hormone, which helps to build bones. When estrogen levels reduce after menopause bone loss increases. This is the reason osteoporosis is very prevalent among older women. Smoking, heavy drinking and certain drugs also weaken the bones. Preventive measures include getting plenty of calcium, vitamin D and exercise. People at risk of osteoporosis are advised to do exercise that improves balance and coordination, like tai chi. It is suggested that women after the age of 65 get screened for osteoporosis. Even younger women who are at high risk for fractures should be screened.
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