Interestingly, experts agree that there are a set number of behaviors that are more common in women over 40 that are increasing their risks of certain diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes.
So what are some of the top diseases that you might be able to avoid with simple behavior changes?
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1. Unprotected Sex
Yes, you’d be surprised about how many women engage in more risky sexual behavior once they get older. Although young adult women are most vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), rates are rising in their mothers’ generation as midlife women reenter the dating scene after divorce or widowhood. In fact, the most common STD, trichomoniasis, is more common in women in their 40s and 50s than in younger women, a 2011 Johns Hopkins study found. Untreated, trichomoniasis can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease. Rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, and herpes are up in 45-plussers, too.
Between 6 and 10 percent of HIV infections are in women over age 50, according to estimates, and the number rises to 28 percent of HIV cases in women over age 65. Normal changes due to aging, such as a thinning of vaginal walls and less lubrication, raise the risk of HIV infection, according to the Center for Age Prevention Studies.
Health Note: Barrier-method contraceptives and regular testing dramatically lower the risk of disease for those reentering the sex scene after a long, monogamous, trustworthy relationship.
2. Inadequate Sleep
Women have more trouble falling asleep than men and get less sleep overall, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Women also suffer more insomnia, more restless legs syndrome, and the sleep disruptions due to menopausal changes. Sleep apnea, which is more common in men, begins increasing in women after age 50; by age 65, it affects one in four women.
Insufficient sleep doubles the risk of hypertension in women, according to a 2007 University of Warwick study, upping the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. (Men’s levels of inflammatory markers didn’t change with less sleep.)
Health Note: The sweet spot for adding years to your life through sleep is more than 5 hours a night but less than 8.5, according to an analysis of Women’s Health Initiative data done at the University of California, San Diego, in 2010.
3. Sitting Too Much
Women are less likely than men to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, according to a 2012 study in Preventive Medicine. Yet those who do move their bodies for half an hour a day showed a reduced risk of depression, metabolic syndrome, high cholesterol and obesity. Exercise at midlife also helps protect against osteoporosis, depression, cancer and, of course, being overweight.
Health Note: Sitting for long stretches can erase the benefits of daily exercise, warns the American College of Sports Medicine, raising the risk of diabetes and heart disease. Keeping moving, even standing up to stretch while you work, makes a difference.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in middle age. The longer you do it, the higher your risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, lung disease, and cancer. Women smokers of normal weight who smoked for 10 to 29 years had a 16 percent higher risk of breast cancer than nonsmokers, according to Women’s Health Initiative data on more than 76,000 women. Smoking for more than 50 years results in a startling 62 percent increase in death risk.
Health Note: No matter at what age you quit, your risk of added heart damage is halved after one year. The risks of stroke, lung disease, and cancer also drop immediately.
5. Drinking Too Much
Women are at greater risk for developing alcohol-related problems, including breast cancer, heart disease, alcoholism, and alcoholic hepatitis. Women, on average, weigh less than men, and have less water in their bodies than men – water helps dilute the alcohol. Hormone and aging also affect how they metabolize alcohol. More women than men show alcohol-related problems later in life, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Health Note: The federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for one drink per day for women, compared with two drinks per day for men. And red wine is full of recommended antioxidants.
6. Dieting Too Much & Dieting Too Little
Many American women simply do not eat the right things, and their unbalanced diets lead to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, anorexia, heart disease, and other health problems.
Health Note: The middle diet ground is a healthful diet that doesn’t skimp on nutrition or overdo empty calories. Nutritionists emphasize focusing on a mainly plant-based diet featuring whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, healthy oils, and fish – what’s generally known as the Mediterranean Diet. Its anti-inflammatory, high-antioxidant benefits include a 33 percent reduced risk of developing metabolic syndrome.
7. Being A Caregiver
The average caregiver in the U.S. is a woman in her late 40s. Many are “sandwichers,” looking after both children and/or husbands and aging parents. With little time or opportunity for adequate self-care, they’re prone to “caregiving stress syndrome,” a condition linked to a medical chart full of health problems, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, dementia, and back strain. More than 70 percent of family caregivers show signs of depression.
Health Note: Caregivers are twice as likely to manage stress by smoking, binge drinking and emotional eating. When stress is managed with good self-care and time off, many caregivers report a deeply enriching experience. Some caregivers even show improved longevity, better memory, and better physical strength, as well as a sense of meaning and purpose, say Boston University researchers. If you are a caregiver, make sure you make time for yourself and your health. Caregivers who have a good support system have been seen to live longer than those who do not.