Most women don’t look forward to aging, but thanks to modern medicine, they can at least be prepared for common health concerns that come with it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six in 10 adults have a chronic disease, many of which are the result of lifestyle choices like poor diet, tobacco use, lack of exercise, and excessive alcohol consumption.
The risk for chronic diseases and other health problems also increases as we age, and those problems can vary widely for women, some of whom may have children or may have a higher genetic risk for breast cancer, for example. Awareness is the first step toward preventing, recognizing, and treating health concerns, so here are some of the most common health problems women face as they age.
For most people, your 20s are actually the time when you experience the fewest health problems — but there’s a catch: you have to be proactive about taking care of yourself. Some of the most common health problems that 20-something women can face are: sexually transmitted diseases and infections, diabetes, melanoma, depression, and liver disease, but all of them are preventable.
One in two sexually active people will contract a sexually transmitted infection (STI) by age 25, according to the American Sexual Health Association. And 41.3 percent of adults age 20 to 29 have herpes simplex virus 1, according to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.That’s why it’s important to stay on top of your sexual health by practicing safe sex and by getting regular pap smears. Dr. Janet Adeniran from Novant Health Waverly Pediatrics & Primary Care in Charlotte, North Carolina, tells Woman’s Day that young women should start receiving regular pap smears at 21, and should receive them once every three years. She says pap smears can screen for HPV, or human papillomavirus, which is a sexually transmitted disease that “can be a predisposing factor that leads to cervical cancer.” Women under 25 should also be tested for gonorrhea and chlamydia every year, according to the CDC.
People in their 20s also have a higher chance of developing diabetes or other similar, chronic conditions that result from a lack of exercise or an unbalanced diet, according to the University of Utah Health Hospitals and Clinics. Twenty-something women are also often at risk for melanoma, a form of skin cancer, and should use sunscreen whenever they will be outdoors. Anxiety and depression are also the most common mental health conditions among young adults.
Many of the health conditions women are at risk for in their 20s can also be problems in their 30s, and they can often result from childbearing. Pregnant women can suffer from anemia (iron deficiency), gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression and anxiety, among other issues, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Women who want to become pregnant in their 30s are more likely to struggle with infertility, and those who do become pregnant are more at risk for miscarriage and other pregnancy-related health issues, according to the National Women’s Health Resource Center.
Though not necessarily indicative of any health problem or condition, many women in their 30s also experience weight gain and hair loss, according to the Center. It suggests that women get aerobic exercise, such as “walking, jogging, biking or swimming,” and that they also “eat a well-balanced healthy diet, low in saturated fats, full of fruits and vegetables and light on processed and junk foods.” Weight gain and oral contraceptives can also contribute to high blood pressure.
Dr. Adeniran says that women in their 30s should continue getting regular pap smears and screenings for HPV. Women should also start performing breast self-exams for any abnormalities or lumps, according to the Center.
In their 40s, Dr. Adeniran says women should start taking steps to keep their bones healthy. Women are more likely than men to experience rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune condition “in which the immune system attacks the body's joints,” Dr. Adeniran says. The symptoms are joint pain and swelling, especially first thing in the morning. To help prevent osteoporosis, a disease that weakens bones, she suggests women schedule “two to three sessions of strength training” each week, along with weight bearing and cardiovascular exercises. Women in their 40s can also be at risk for stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, so maintaining a healthy diet along with regular physical activity is important.
Vulvovaginitis, or inflammation of the vulva and vagina that results from an infection, is also among the most common gynecological problems in older women, according to Medscape. Women in their 40s are also more at risk for breast, ovarian, and endometrial cancers. “Unfortunately we don't have screening measures for ovarian or endometrial [cancer],” Dr. Adeniran says, “but at age 40, the American Cancer Society and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend starting breast cancer screening with mammograms.”
The average age for menopause in the United States is 52, according to the Office on Women’s Health, and those hormonal changes can bring a number of health changes too. Some of the symptoms of menopause include hot flashes, problems sleeping, irregular periods and bleeding, vaginal dryness or infection, and depression and anxiety.
After menopause, the ovaries produce much lower levels of estrogen, and having less estrogen in the body can cause women to lose bone mass at a much faster rate, putting them at a higher risk for the bone-weakening disease osteoporosis. The breaking down of bones can also set off other health conditions. According to the Office on Women’s Health, the lead people are exposed to throughout their lives is stored in their bones, and “because bone begins to break down much more quickly after menopause, that lead is more likely to be released into the blood,” which can affect kidney function, and put women at risk of lead poisoning, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis, or the hardening of the arteries.
One in three women in their 50s also experiences stress incontinence, or “urine loss while coughing or sneezing,” according to the AARP, which is often the result of decreased estrogen and vaginal deliveries. Many also experience dry eye and have to start using reading glasses.
Because 91 percent of cases of colorectal cancer are in people 50 and older, Dr. Adeniran says women should start getting screened for colon cancer at age 50.
At ages 60 through 80, much of the health problems women are at risk for in their 50s are the same — the risk just increases as time goes on. The risk for heart disease increases significantly for both women and men in their 60s. According to the AARP, “heart disease accounts for more than 20 percent of all deaths among men and women ages 65 to 74.”
Women’s risk of stroke also doubles with every decade after age 55, according to the Office on Women’s Health.
Women in their 60s also might notice that their skin is more fragile and might experience hearing loss and might be more vulnerable to illnesses like colds and the flu due to a weaker immune system. The AARP notes that people 65 and older are eligible for a higher-dose flu vaccine.
Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging told the AARP that people in their 60s also might be more likely to have a vitamin B12 deficiency. Dr. Adeniran recommends beginning end-of-life planning in your 60s, though she says it wouldn’t hurt to start as early as your 40s or 50s. “Obviously tomorrow is never promised,” she says.
Major health concerns for 70-something women often arise from weakened bones and heart problems. When women reach their 70s, they have roughly the same risk for heart disease as men, according to the Office on Women’s Health. And, “about one in three women ages 75 through 85 has osteoporosis,” the same bone-weakening condition that can affect women as young as 50, “which greatly increases the risk of fractures of the hip and spine,” according to the AARP. Though steady weight-bearing exercises and training can help mitigate the risks associated with weakening bones, some women may still need surgery. On the plus side though, AARP noted that patients who are older than 75 saw about the same recovery time as patients between 65 and 74, according to one study.
Women in their 70s also often experience hearing loss, vitamin D deficiency, and cataracts, which is when a lens in the eye becomes cloudy and affects vision.
Contrary to what many think, people’s happiness generally increases after their 40s and, according to one study, some people report being at their happiest at age 98. So though women in their 80s might be more at risk for heart problems or osteoporosis and other bone conditions, their quality of life doesn’t necessarily always decrease.
In addition to heart and bone problems faced by 70-somethings, people in their 80s are at a higher risk for falls, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, hearing and vision loss, dizziness, muscle weakness, a weaker immune system, and bladder problems or other urologic changes, according to Front Public Health.
According to a 2008 to 2012 Census study, 73 percent of Americans over 85 experienced difficulty walking, and mobile disabilities can often contribute to depression and risk of injury or death from falls.
Rates of dementia and deaths from Alzheimer’s disease also increase with age. Though medications for dementia are only “marginally effective,” Front Public Health noted, older adults still might benefit from being screened so that they can give up or change their driving habits when necessary and live more safely at home.