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Women’s Health Week - Important Health Topics For Aging Women

Posted May 10 2010 11:20am


Menopause marks the end of a woman’s reproductive years. You have reached menopause when a full year has passed without having a period. This happens for most women after age 45. Some women are hardly aware of the changes occurring as they near menopause. Some are bothered by hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness. You might notice other changes too, such as mood changes and memory problems. We don’t always know if changes are related to menopause, aging, or both. For most women, some discomforts related to menopause, such as hot flashes, may go away 3 to 5 years after reaching menopause. Other symptoms, such as vaginal dryness, may not go away.

Many women are able to cope with mild menopause discomforts. Try these tips:

Hot flashes
• Wear fabrics that breathe, and dress in layers.
• Drink something cold when a hot flash starts.
• Keep track of when hot flashes happen so you can avoid triggers.

Night sweats
• Keep your bedroom cool or use a fan.
• Wear breathable nightclothes.

Vaginal dryness and discomfort
• Water-based lubricants or estrogen creams or tablets can help restore moisture and tissue health when dryness is caused by reduced estrogen.

Taking hormones, called menopausal hormone therapy (MHT), can be good at relieving moderate to severe symptoms and preventing bone loss. But MHT has some serious risks, especially if used for a long time. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of MHT. If you decide to try MHT, use the lowest dose that helps for the shortest time you need it. Keep in mind that menopause is a normal part of a woman’s lifenot a disease. But it can affect your health in some important ways. Lower levels of estrogen increase your risk of bone disease in the postmenopausal years. Heart disease risk also increases after menopause. You might wonder if MHT can help. But recent studies suggest that women should not use MHT to protect against heart disease. And other drugs can help bone loss. You also can take steps to lower your risks for these health problems.

Men and women lose bone as they grow older. But women need to give bone health their full attention, even more so than men. Women have smaller bones than men. But also, they lose bone faster than men do because of hormonal changes that occur during the menopause transition and after menopause. Over time bone loss can lead to osteoporosis (OSS-tee-oh-puh-ROH-suhss), which makes your bones weak and more likely to break. Of the 10 million Americans with osteoporosis, 80 percent are women.

Osteoporosis affects all people, including women of color. But those at greatest risk are Caucasian women
thin, small-boned women
women with a family history of bone breaks because of weak bones or who have broken a bone as an adult women who smoke
women who use certain medicines for a long time, such as those used to treat asthma, lupus, and seizures

Your bone health matters because your risk of falling goes up as you get older. About 1 in 4 women age 50 and older falls each year. Broken bones that result from falls are frequently caused by osteoporosis or low bone mass. A broken bonecommonly of the hip, spine, or wristis often how a woman finds out she has osteoporosis. Don’t let a broken bone be your wake-up call. Talk to your doctor about your risk of osteoporosis and whether you need a bone density test. This test can tell how strong your bones are and if you have a higher chance for breaks. You should get a bone density test if you are age 65 or older or if you are between ages 60 and 64, weigh less than 154 pounds, and don’t take estrogen.

Also, take these steps to help keep your bones strong and prevent bone loss:

Eat foods rich in calcium and vitamin D. Both are needed to build bone and keep bones strong. Adults age 50 and older need 1200 mg of calcium and 400 to 600 IU or more of vitamin D3 daily. Supplements can help if you cannot get the amount you need from the foods you eat.

Engage in weight-bearing physical activity 3 to 4 times a week to make bones stronger. Examples include walking, jogging, tennis, and dancing.

Don’t smoke, and use alcohol only in moderation. Smoking is a risk factor for osteoporosis. Heavy drinking is linked to lower bone density and high risk of bone breaks.

For women at high risk of bone disease, many medicines can help slow bone loss and reduce the risk of bone breaks. Short-term use of estrogen (menopausal hormone therapy, or MHT) can relieve symptoms of menopause and prevent bone loss. But long-term estrogen use has serious risks. If used, MHT should be used for the shortest time possible. Currently, no “natural” products, such as phytoestrogens (feye-toh-ESS-truh-juhnz), are recommended to prevent osteoporosis.

If you are at high risk, talk to your doctor about your options.

Falls are the most common cause of injury and injury-related death among older adults. Falls that result in serious injury, like a broken bone, can threaten your physical health and independence. Even if you don’t get hurt from a fall, a fear of falling again can keep you from doing things you want or need to do. This can result in isolation and depression. There are many reasons older people fall more. But hazards around you are the leading cause of falls. Many times, these falls could have been avoided.

Here are some steps you can take to lower your risk of falling:

• Get regular physical activity to improve strength and balance.

• Ask your doctor to review the medicines you are using to check for side effects and interactions that might make you dizzy or sleepy.

• Have your eyesight checked by an eye doctor every 1 or 2 years.

• Make your home safer: Install handrails and grab bars, secure throw rugs, improve lighting, remove clutter
you can trip over, keep items you use daily within easy reach, and wear supportive shoes both inside and outside.

Many women want to live a long life, but worry about memory loss or becoming “senile.” Our brain healthor cognitive healthinvolves the functions we need for everyday activities. These include thinking, learning, memory, judgment, planning, talking, and perception. Some people think that losing these functions is a normal part of aging. But this is not true. Most older adults do not have the marked decline in mental function that so many of us fear.

Still, declines that are not related to normal aging are a distressing reality for many older people and their families. These can range from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to severe dementia (dih-MEN-chuh). People with MCI have a slight mental decline, such as memory loss, that is worse than that ex-pected for their age. But it does not interfere with the ability to care for oneself. Some experts think MCI, mainly involving memory, might be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

Dementia is a group of symptoms that are caused by changes in brain function. AD and stroke are the most common causes of dementia in older people. People with severe dementia are not able to think or remember well enough to take care of themselves. They might not have control of their emotions. Their personalities might change. They sometimes see things that are not there.

AD develops over time, and more women have it than men. One reason for this is that women live longer than men, and the risk of AD goes up greatly with age. In fact, nearly 1 in 2 people older than 85 have AD. More and more people are expected to develop AD in the future because of longer life spans and our aging population. How to best care for people with AD and support their caregivers are areas of intense public health interest.We don’t know what causes AD, how to prevent it, or how to make it better. Beyond age, family history of AD and having a lower level of education are other risk factors for AD. Research also strongly suggests a link between poor heart health and cognitive decline. It also suggests that a healthy lifestyle can help to maintain mental function. This is important because older adults with cognitive decline are at higher risk of getting dementia later in life.

Taking these steps might help maintain mental fitness:

• Lower high cholesterol (koh-LESS-tur-ol) levels.

• Lower high blood pressure.

• Maintain a healthy weight.

• Control diabetes.

• Don’t smoke.

• Engage in regular physical activity.

• Take part in social activities.

• Stay connected with friends and family.

• Read, do puzzles, play games, or learn something new to keep your brain active.

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