By Morgan Lord
When we women leave our 20s and enter our 30s and 40s, we finally peak—comfortable in our skin, we exude confidence. But although our minds, like whiskey and leather boots, become better with age, our bodies are working in reverse—bone mass declines, our metabolism slows, and we’re more susceptible to a slew of new symptoms. Thankfully, we don’t have to be at odds with our aging selves.
I spoke to the experts to figure out the tests that we women need to consider and the health concerns to keep our eyes peeled for as we move further beyond our 20s into our 30s and 40s.
Get Routine Health Screenings
At 30, it’s time to start thinking about all of the routine tests that you may have neglected in your 20s, says Katherine Thurer, MD, an integrative gynecologist at the Raby Institute for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern. You’ll want to test your blood pressure, blood sugar, BMI, get a clinical breast exam, pap smear and cholesterol panel.
You may have zoned out when a nurse took your blood pressure when you were younger, but with age, it’s more important to keep an eye on those vital numbers. About one in three adults in the United States—an estimated 68 million—have high blood pressure, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, two of the top killers of women.
Your annual exam is a good time to catch up on all the tests you may have slid past in years prior, and it’s a great time to fill in your doc on any abnormal symptoms you’ve been experiencing, such as fatigue or constipation. Since you’re already there for the annual, he or she may want to take a closer look and perform a few additional tests.
Be Aware of Your Bones
The average woman has acquired most of her skeletal mass at 20 years old. “Starting in their 30s, most women start losing more bone mass than they make,” says Erin Malone, MD, a practitioner at Presence Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center, who focuses on internal medicine and pediatrics and emphasizes healthy lifestyle, eating and wellness. To prevent this bone-mass loss, both men and women in their 30s should add weight-bearing exercises to their workout routine.
This decline increases the risk of osteoporosis. To keep brittle bones at bay, you need vitamin D from sunlight, calcium from whole foods or supplements, and bone strength by adding weight-bearing exercise to your routine such as yoga, Pilates, lifting free weights and push-ups and pull-ups.
“In Chicago, a lot of people are vitamin D deficient due to the lack of sun,” Malone says. During the darker winter, when it’s more difficult to get sun exposure for 30 minutes a day, add more vitamin D-rich leafy greens to your diet. Some of the top suppliers of calcium include spinach, kale, okra and collards. “And if you’re not getting enough from your food, add supplements.”
According to a report from the National Cancer Institute, melanoma incidence has more than doubled among women in the past 30 years. What can you do to prevent the big skin C? Apply daily sunscreen of at least 15 SPF and get a mole screening each year.
“Go annually to a dermatologist for a full skin exam,” says Malone. “Patients know their bodies best, so keep your eyes on any changes in moles, and let your physician know if you notice [changes].” There are five things to focus on when you are sizing up your moles: asymmetry, the border, the color, the diameter and if it seems to be changing.
Stress Less, Eat Less
Easy, right? But despite our confidence, “Most of my patients are experiencing more stress in their 30s and 40s,” Malone says. “It’s important to decrease stress as much as possible through forming good habits (avoiding tobacco and minimizing alcohol intake), incorporating a daily exercise routine and getting good sleep.”
Research shows that with excess stress, women produce more of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to increased abdominal fat. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only issue that’s fighting your figure; there’s your metabolism, too. Starting at about age 25, the average person’s metabolism declines between 5 and 10 percent per decade.
“Most women gain about 10 pounds when they reach their 30s and 40s because of the decrease in their metabolism,” Malone says. “Women may not realize that they need less calories to stay just as full.” Instead of staying on your college diet, go for a better-balanced diet, chock-full of whole foods and vegetables. And again, it’s all about working out. “Exercise 30 minutes a day, five times a week,” says Malone.
Make A Pill Plan
If you’re looking to get pregnant in your 30s, it may be a bit more difficult. “A lot of women [start] the pill at the age of 15 or 18 for bad cramps or irregular periods, then they stay on it until their 30s when they decide that they want to get pregnant, and then they end up having trouble because the pill masked underlying problems,” says Thurer.
Try to regulate your periods off hormones for six months to a year before you would like to get pregnant. Thurer says that getting your period back on track helps you get pregnant when you’re ready.
Get Your Shots
If the last immunization you got was in college, it’s time for another. You should get your tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) shot once every 10 years and the flu shot annually, Malone says. Immunizations are easy to forget about when you reach your 30s and 40s, but they are important, especially if you’re around children.
It was Audrey Hepburn who said, “And the beauty of a woman, with passing years only grows.” True as this may be, now is the time to get your mind and body in sync so that you can be at full peak as you approach those later decades.
Published in Chicago Health Winter/Spring 2014