Health & Wellness

The 6 biggest health mistakes women make in their 40s

If you’ve paid attention to your health in your twenties and thirties, turning 40 is no big deal. But if you’ve slipped up a bit — and who hasn’t? — it’s not too late to get on the path to good health to avoid problems later in life.

While a woman’s body undergoes some transitions during her 40s — for example, our metabolism slows and our estrogen may start to wane — avoiding these six health mistakes can help make your 40s rock.

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1. You skip the birth control.

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It's true that fertility declines with age, but if you’re sexually active and you don’t want to get pregnant, don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re too old for birth control, said gynecologist Maureen Whelihan of West Palm Beach, Florida. “Unintended pregnancy is not just a problem for teenagers, and women over forty are still at a significant risk,” she said.

And that risk doesn’t subside until you reach menopause, according to Whelihan.

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To avoid a "surprise," talk to your doctor about your birth control options — which are many since there are no contraceptive methods that are contraindicated based on age alone. But there are options based on your overall health. Oral contraceptives can be a great choice for healthy, non-smoking women over age 35, and they offer additional benefits including a reduction in menstrual blood loss, control of PMS, and a reduction in the risk of ovarian and uterine cancer, Whelihan said.

Other choices include LARCs, or long acting reversible contraceptives such as IUDs, and even the good old-fashioned barrier method approach found in diaphragms and condoms. Permanent methods of birth control include tubal ligation or tubal implants.

2. You neglect your eyes.

Just as you take care of the rest of the body, be sure to take care of your eyes and vision, too. If you haven’t had a comprehensive baseline eye exam in a while, get one now to avoid future problems, said Dr. Amy Zhang, an ophthalmologist at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

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Doctors will look for issues like glaucoma, which presents early with visual field loss and later with central vision loss. Though cataracts generally present later in life, some individuals may have issues earlier. So-called “dry eye” can be an issue for women in their 40s, perhaps due to shifting hormones or staring at a computer screen all day. Your doctor can help with the itchiness and redness with prescription eye drops or other recommendations.

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Even if you’ve had perfect vision all your life, don’t get cocky. Your 40s may find you reaching for reading glasses due to presbyopia, a normal age-related change that makes it tough to focus on nearby objects. Don’t like glasses? Your doctor may have other options.

3. You rely on fad diets to lose weight.

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Your body composition may shift now, thanks to changing hormones. If a little more belly fat at 40 bugs you, you can fight back. But, please, forgo the fad diets. They often don’t provide key nutrients that help preserve bone density and muscle mass. Missing out on nutrients can potentially lead to osteoporosis later in life, said registered dietitian Heather Mangieri, a spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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Your 40s are a great time to make sure you have a healthy vitamin D level, and that you're getting at least 1,000 mg calcium every day, ideally through food, said Mangieri. Three daily servings of dairy (cow’s milk, yogurt or cheese, for example) will help you meet that goal, she says. If you’re coming up short, talk to your doctor about supplements.

Exercise, too, plays an important role in staying in tip-top shape at any age but it's especially crucial as we get older. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends 30 minutes of weight-bearing exercise on most days of the week and muscle strengthening exercises two to three days a week. Be sure to also include plenty of balance and posture exercises, too. If you’ve been a couch potato for a while, check with your doctor before beginning any kind of exercise program.

4. You delay your breast screenings.

Though federal guidelines recommend breast screening beginning at age 50, and every two years thereafter, the American Cancer Society recommends yearly mammograms starting at age 40. Breast cancer screenings can be confusing, which leads many women in their forties to ignore breast health.

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“I happen to agree with the American Cancer Society, and women should start mammograms at age 40,” said Dr. Donna Plecha, director of Breast Imaging at University Hospitals Case Medical Center. The reason is simple. “The best way we can treat and cure breast cancer is by finding it earlier,” she said.

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According to the National Cancer Institute, studies show that screening mammography reduces the number of deaths from breast cancer among women ages 40 to 74, especially for those women over age 50. The one bit of advice everyone seems to be in agreement with: Talk to your doctor. He or she can help guide your decision based on certain risk factors. Also, get to know your breasts with self-exams.

“Self-exams keep you familiar with how your breasts feel so you can notice any changes and then talk to your doctor about those changes,” said Plecha.

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5. You don't get enough sleep.

Demanding families and demanding jobs often take a toll on sleep, but if you want to be healthy and alert, don’t skimp on bedtime. “We recognize that it’s tough for people, sometimes for women especially, to make sleep a priority, but lack of sleep can cause problems,” said Dr. R. Robert Auger, a sleep specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who said insomnia can play a role in obesity and heart disease.

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The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends adults age 25 to 64 get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, although some people need as little as six or as much as 10 hours each night.

To help improve sleep, the NSF recommends sticking to a sleep schedule — going to bed and waking around the same time every day — even on weekends. A schedule helps regulate your body clock. Experts also recommend keeping your bedroom dark, noise-free and cool — between 60 and 67 degrees. If you continue to have trouble staying asleep or falling asleep, see your doctor.

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“We can’t get rid of all the stresses in your life, but we can find strategies that can help you get a better night’s rest,” says Auger.

6. You don't think about diabetes.

Once you hit 45, you should talk to your doctor about screening for Type 2 diabetes using a simple fasting plasma glucose test or a hemoglobin A1C test, according to the American Diabetes Association.

If your test is negative, get screened again in three years. However, if you’re diagnosed with pre-diabetes, remember that proper diet and exercise helps. Research shows that losing as little as five to seven percent of body weight and exercising a half-hour at least five times a week, can lower risk of developing diabetes by nearly 60 percent.

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This story was originally published in September 2015.

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