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Women's Tips For Staying Healthy

Ann Witt, M.D., and Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D.

A woman's health needs change with her age. While we have no control over our genetic makeup, we all know that our health is influenced by diet and lifestyle choices that we can control. No matter what their individual family risk factors are for given diseases, all women can stay healthier longer by not smoking, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, keeping alcohol intake to one drink a day, and eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables while low in saturated and trans fats.

Women can also help themselves by keeping current on screening tests. Screening tests allow doctors to diagnose diseases earlier, which means that that women can obtain quicker treatment and have fewer health complications. The specific timing of screening tests is based on a woman's age and individual risk factors. Routine screening tests recommended for women include:

  • Cancer Screening for breast (mammogram and regular breast exams), cervical (Pap smear) and colorectal cancers
  • Chlamydia and HIV screening for sexually active women.
  • Routine physical exam, including screening for body mass index (which assesses obesity), depression, and blood pressure at least every 2 years.
  • Blood work for diabetes, cholesterol, thyroid functioning, and vitamin deficiencies
  • Bone density (DEXA) scan for osteoporosis at 65 years of age. Consider having a DEXA scan at age 60 if you weigh less than 155 pounds.

Immunizations play another important role in promoting women's health. A woman should also have routine immunizations such as:

  • Yearly flu shot
  • MMR and Hepatitis B (depending on risk factors)
  • Tetanus every 10 years
  • Pneumonia shot (once after age 65)

At routine visits a women and her health care provider can make certain she is current on her preventive care (such as cancer screening and immunizations), evaluate for healthy lifestyle habits, as well as discussing any physical or emotional issues that are impacting her quality of life. Obviously, this advice assumes that women have established a relationship with a primary care physician. In 2004, 90% of women stated they had a usual source for their medical care. If you are one of the 10% who do not have a physician, it is vitally important to find one as soon as possible. Studies have shown that women with regular medical care are most likely to receive the necessary preventive services tests like those listed above.

For women, the most frequent preventive advice given by physicians is to improve their diet and to increase their frequency of exercising. Unfortunately, many women do not routinely eat a balanced diet and the majority of women do not exercise. Only 45% of women meet their daily vegetable requirements, and 16% eat the necessary amount of dairy. Even though the risk of osteoporosis increases significantly with calcium deficiency, only 25% of women take calcium supplements. In the 35 to 64 age range, only 30% of women routinely exercise.

Medicines also have a place in preventative health care. Currently, a daily aspirin is recommended for women older than 65, and is also considered for younger women with risk factors such as diabetes and history of cardiovascular disease. Sometimes, preventative medications are also considered for women at high risk of breast cancer. Any routine medication should only be used under the advice and consultation with your primary care physician.