Fifty could 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 of nutrition and exercise, many women are taking care of themselves and maintaining their vitality throughout this decade. But after menopause, women lose some of the security that estrogen offered during the fertile years, increasing the risk of health problems such as osteoporosis and heart disease.
If you’re among those who believe that breast cancer is a woman’s greatest archenemy, it’s time to review your thinking. Go Red for Women, a heart health initiative of the American Heart Association points out that more women die from cardiovascular disease than from the next four causes of death combined, including cancer.
Annual physicals should be routine, including blood pressure and cholesterol tests every three years. Keeping your weight under control is especially important: Declining estrogen levels also cause fat storage to move from the hips to the waist, and increased abdominal fat increases the risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Health screenings, in addition to identifying your family history, will help you understand your risk, says Dr. N. Goldberg, director of the Women’s Heart Program at New York University Langone Medical Center.
Do like Katie Couric and cheerfully reserve your first colonoscopy shortly after your 50th birthday. “No matter what your family history, the first evaluation at age 50 is recommended,” says Dr. Dana Simpler, a primary care physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. If no polyps are found, repeat the test every ten years. “But if your doctor finds polyps classified as adenomas, which have carcinogenic potential, you need to repeat colonoscopies every three years.
Heart Health Screening
A comprehensive examination early this decade should include evaluation of your overall risk of heart disease. First, look at your waist circumference. The larger you become about half, 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 consider ordering a blood test called a C-reactive protein test, which the American Heart Association recommends to assess the risk of silent heart disease. An electrocardiogram, Goldberg says, is smart for any woman over 50, even in the absence of symptoms.
If you have a family history of heart disease, “or if you have symptoms such as chest discomfort, shortness of breath, palpitations, or if you’ve been diagnosed with a heart murmur in the past,” 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 modified its recommendations for bone density testing, saying routine screening should begin at age 65, while younger women should be screened only if they are at risk for fractures. The same advice comes from the National Osteoporosis Foundation guidelines. That said, “most women today have been screened before,” says Dr. Sharon Brangman, professor of medicine at Upstate Medical College at the State University of New York and past president of the American Geriatrics Society.
Consider having your bone density checked if you are or were a smoker, if you were prescribed steroids as asthma medications, if you are very thin (there is an additional risk of being thin and Asian), if you have a strong family history of osteoporosis, or if you have lost height in the past year.
Baby boomers, listen up: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a recommendation that all people 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. Although the reasons are not fully understood, what is known with certainty is that early detection and treatment will save lives. Previously it was thought that only those with certain risk factors are tested, but since many people are silent carriers and considering that hepatitis C can lead to deadly diseases such as liver cirrhosis and liver cancer, the evaluation seems intelligent.
Also, check the tetanus booster vaccine; you need this vaccine once every ten years.