Women: Stay Healthy After 50

Health, Home & Family
on October 13, 2002

When women reach age 50, their health concerns begin to change. Menopausal women are more vulnerable to certain illnesses, including breast cancer and heart disease, due to shifting hormone levels.

The incidence of cancer and other diseases increases as women age, and thats why routine health screenings are critical for women over 50, says Dr. Hope Ricciotti, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard Medical School.

Fortunately, you can maintain good physical and mental health as you age. You always should consult a doctor to identify individual risk factors, but these screening tests are helpful for maintaining wellness for women 50 and beyond.

Annual physical exam. Routine blood tests, blood pressure check, and rectal exam can catch early warning signs of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and colorectal disease.

Blood cholesterol test. Cholesterol levels in women rise sharply around age 40 until about 60. Heart disease in women greatly increases if you have high blood cholesterol. A simple blood test can determine your risk and whether you need to take steps through diet, exercise, or medication to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Bone Mineral Density (BMD) scan. This painless test helps your doctor determine your risk of developing osteoporosis and osteoporotic fractures and if there is a need for further prevention or treatment, Ricciotti explains. The BMD scan measures the amount of calcium in a special area of your bones.

Breast exam and mammogram. A breast exam and mammogram should be performed yearly for early detection of breast cancer, Ricciotti advises. After 50, women are more likely to develop the disease due to many factors, including changing hormone levels. A womans risk also increases if the disease affected her mother, sister, or daughter.

Colonoscopy and stool testing. A colonoscopy is an examination of the colon with a flexible, lighted tube called a colonoscope. After age 50, a screening colonoscopy is recommended every three to five years, and an occult stool blood test should be performed annually, Ricciotti says. Check with your doctor if you have a family history of colon cancer, because more frequent screening may be necessary.

Depression screening. Mood disorders, particularly depression, tend to be more prevalent as women age and menopausal hormone fluctuations occur.

Eye exam. A thorough eye exam should be performed annually after age 60 to check for glaucoma or other age-related eye diseases such as macular degeneration.

Pap smear and pelvic exam. A Pap smear can detect cervical cancer and other cervical abnormalities. The test usually is performed every one to three years; discuss your individual risk factors for cervical cancer with your doctor to determine how often you should be tested.

The best disease prevention is maintaining a healthy diet, because weight tends to increase with advancing age and a sedentary lifestyle, Ricciotti says.

Besides regular health screenings, the best ways to maintain health is to quit smoking and focus on diet and exercise, Ricciotti advises. These simple changes do more to prevent heart disease and cancer than all of the high-tech medical procedures combined.