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Women can make healthy choices at every age

Women can make healthy choices at every age
Written by
Keith Uhlig

Women are caregivers by tradition and natural inclination.

But ladies, taking care of yourselves is just as important as looking after others.

Healthy lifestyle choices and measures taken to prevent disease throughout your lives pays deep dividends for the future, health care providers say. And those choices can make the present more vibrant as well.

Women need to take preventive measures that are specific to their gender, experts say.

"The unique (aspects) of women's health, we call them the bikini area," said Dr. Julie Luks, the medical director of Aspirus Women's Health and Aspirus Senior Health in Wausau.

Working to prevent diseases such as breast cancer, cervical cancer and diabetes can be a daunting process, but starting early makes it easier, Luks said, and it can be done step by step as you move through the various stages of life.

Here's a broad road map that women can follow to prevent health problems down the road:

20s and 30s

You're young, active and vibrant. Now's the time to develop the habits that will keep you that way for decades to come.

"You're basically setting the foundation for a healthy lifestyle," said Sarah Gregory, a physician assistant at Marshfield Clinic in Marshfield. "You want to have a physical, usually every year."

Age 21 is the recommended year to get regular pap smears. Those tests are important at this and all ages, Luks said, and are done to detect precancerous changes to the cervix.

She also recommends that women younger than age 26 get vaccinated for the human papilloma virus, or HPV, a virus that can lead to cervical cancer.

Most women at this age also start thinking about starting families, Luks said.

"Fifty percent of babies born are unplanned -- not necessarily unwanted, but unplanned. Maybe take a more thoughtful approach for planning," Luks said.

She said she often recommends "folic acid supplementation prior to conception to decrease birth defects."

Gregory said women in their 20s and 30s also should get their blood tested for the effects of cholesterol and other markers of future heart health problems.

"Some people have significant problems, even in young adulthood, linked to genetics," she said.

Both Luks and Gregory advise that young women take care of their skin, making it a habit to slather on the sunscreen and do all they can to avoid sunburns.

"Get a few blistering sunburns in your teens and 20s, and it substantially increases your risk of cancer later," Gregory said.

40s and 50s

Start getting your annual mammograms at age 40, Luks and Gregory say.

"I know a study came out questioning that age we, and most providers, say women should get an annual breast exam," Gregory said.

Pelvic exams, which are conducted to look for masses and abnormalities, can help make an early diagnosis for cancer or sexually transmitted diseases, Gregory said.

"We're also seeing, at this age, women struggle with weight and blood-sugar levels," Gregory said. Now's the time to check for diabetes.

Cardiovascular health takes a higher profile for women in their 40s and 50s. Along with that, the need for exercise and healthy eating habits take on greater importance.

Screenings for colon cancer need to begin at age 50. They're not fun, but finding a polyp in the precancerous stage is crucial, Gregory said.

"People are very eager to wait until they see a problem. But if there's blood in the stool or other abnormality ... the chance of you having an advanced, incurable disease is high," Gregory said.

Luks said women in this age group can be more prone to experience depression, sleep disorders and urinary incontinence, and too many simply accept those problems as natural aging issues.

"These are not normal parts of aging," Luks said. "Seek (medical) help if you experience them."

Gregory has been asking women in their 40s and 50s if they feel muscle aches, fatigue and weakness. She's finding many have vitamin D deficiencies. Vitamin D is absorbed through sunlight and some foods, particularly dairy products. The dark winters make it difficult for Wisconsinites to get enough of the vitamin.

Gregory recommends taking vitamin D supplements, which can help stave off osteoporosis and has been shown to help prevent certain cancers.

60s and older

Even if you're older and haven't been exercising, eating right or even seeing a doctor, it's not too late to begin.

"It's never too late to make changes," Gregory said.

Exercise is stressed again, to help strengthen bones and muscles.

"Lifting weights is increasingly important for those ages," Gregory said.

That doesn't necessarily mean hitting the gym. There are exercises in which body weight is used, or women can use household items such as milk cartons to build strength. She also recommends consulting YMCAs or senior centers to get help.

Luks said older women should focus on simply being active.

"Whatever a person can do in their daily lives will be beneficial," she said. "Certainly, weight lifting is beneficial, but you don't have to think so rigidly."

As people age, Luks said they need to make sure their homes don't have obstacles in them that can lead to falls.

"Injuries from falls are a huge health issue for more elderly people as they maintain independent lives," Luks said. "If people have balance or vision issues, those all increase a chance of a fall with injury."

Luks also recommends vaccines for elderly women to prevent ailments such as flu, pneumonia and shingles.

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