While you’re not necessarily going to see some huge shift in your health on the morning of your 30th or 40th birthday, your health concerns and needs do change with age. As you get older, you might start noticing a few more crow’s feet or, perhaps, an unexpected increase in your cholesterol. Being in your 20s doesn't make you invincible: What you do as a young person can affect your health in big ways down the line. No matter your age, you’ll always have specific needs and health concerns to look after.
To figure out how women’s health changes through the decades, we spoke with a few leading experts about women’s healthcare — Dr. Nancy Simpkins, an internist at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, New Jersey; Dr. Arlene Ruiz de Luzuriaga, a dermatologist at University of Chicago Medicine; and Dr. Anthony Reder, a neurology professor at University of Chicago Medicine. We asked them about the range of changes a woman’s body goes through, from her 20s to her 60s and beyond. Ahead, what doctors WISH you knew about your health.
We might sound like a broken record, but you should try your best to maintain a well-balanced diet and only drink alcohol in moderation in your 20s. It can have HUGE effects on your health later down the line. “The more you cut back on fatty foods and cholesterol in your 20s, the more likely your arteries will be nice and clean in your 30s and 40s. You’re also less likely to have liver flare-ups later in life if you avoid binge-drinking,” says Dr. Nancy Simpkins.
In your 20s, you’re probably sitting at a desk every workday, so it’s actually really important to try to take ten-minute walks when you can. Besides being good for reducing back pain and blood pressure, a bit of sun will do you good, says Dr. Reder. "Studies in Tasmania have shown that people who played outside in the sun were 50% less likely to have multiple sclerosis when they were older than young people who don't," he said. Besides a correlation between more sun exposure and a decrease in MS, studies have also shown a link between a higher vitamin D intake and lower risks of MS. Since the average age of MS diagnosis is now 28, and the disease affects mostly women, it’s worth doing anything to cut the risks.
But, remember — don’t forget sun protection when you go on that walk, and definitely don’t forget skin screenings. Your 20s are sometimes a transitional time — you’re too old to go to your pediatrician, but you might not have found a primary care doctor for yearly check-ups. "If skin cancer runs in your family, your 20s are a great time to start going to a doctor," said Dr. Ruiz de Luzuriaga. Whether you have a family history of skin cancer or not, you should be looking for moles and new growths on your skin regularly. See something abnormal? Get it checked out. Freckling is an easy way to tell if your skin has had a lot of sun exposure.
Skin aging might not be our biggest concern in our 20s, but certain habits will come back to bite you — smoking cigarettes, which can take the glow out of your skin and increases the risk of wrinkles, and drinking alcohol and coffee. “Drinking alcohol in moderation is fine, but too much of it can dehydrate your skin, as can coffee, even if it is touted for having antioxidants,” said Dr. Ruiz de Luzuriaga.
The ideal skin diet? “We always encourage a lot of fruit and vegetables, which are great for fiber and antioxidants,” said Dr. Ruiz de Luzuriaga. “For protein — which provides the building blocks for your skin components — eat lean chicken, tofu, and fish.”
Some research suggests that women store up much of their bone calcium in their 20s, so how much calcium you get in this decade is so important to your bone health later in life. Working out can also help strengthen those bones and promote new growth.
And, don’t forget to start getting pap smears in this decade — doctor’s recommend you start when you’re 21 and get one at least every three years thereafter. On that note, consider birth control if you’re sexually active or even if you’re simply having tough cramps. Besides the obvious benefits of reducing cramps and the risk of pregnancy, “Many women have also seen their skin clear up on birth control,” said Dr. Ruiz de Luzuriaga.
While the jury is out on when exactly women should start getting mammograms, Dr. Simpkins says most women should start having yearly screenings no later than the 35 to 40 age range. “The curve of breast cancer is tracking down lower and lower, and now it’s hitting younger women as well as menopausal women,” she says. If you have a family history of breast cancer, you might want to start getting your mammograms even earlier.
Doctors usually agree that your fertility is at its peak in your 20s, but women are increasingly waiting until their 30s to have their first child. While you should always be keeping a healthy, well-balanced diet, it’s even more important to keep one if you’re trying to get pregnant. Dr. Simpkins suggests kale, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and yogurt as ideal foods for improving your nutrition and fertility.
Skin-wise, pregnancy can do both wonders and horrors. “We have two camps. Some women’s skin problems disappear when they get pregnant, and then some face the opposite,” says Dr. Ruiz de Luzuriaga. If you’re one of the unlucky pregnant women who has flares of acne, limit how many skin medications you take, and find out which medications are safe for you. Salicylic acid, known to be magical for removing acne, is off-limits during pregnancy.
Women experience higher rates of depression in general, and they’re most likely to experience the disorder from ages 25 to 44. There are probably lots of reasons for this — from genetic predispositions to the career and family stresses that typically occur in your 30s. Therapy, exercise, nutrition, and medication can all help. But, it’s important for women in their 30s to understand that they are simply at higher risk for this mental illness emerging, so they can better seek help if symptoms arise.
While 50 is often considered the magic age when women begin entering menopause, says Dr. Simpkins, many women get premature menopausal symptoms — known as perimenopause — in their early 40s. These symptoms can include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and irregular periods. In fact, some women will feel these effects for at least 10 years. Fortunately, there’s an antidote beyond hormone replacement therapy: black cohosh oil. “It’s a naturally occurring substance that helps block the effects of [low] estrogen in the woman’s body,” says Dr. Simpkins.
Along with the drop in estrogen, women facing menopause also face a drop in serotonin and dopamine — the neurotransmitters that help regulate our sleep and our moods. This is why some women might dip into depression as they experience menopause. If you feel any mood changes, take a deep breath and remember it’s normal. There are lots of ways to approach and treat mood disorders.
And, here’s a little-known truth: Even if you wait until your 40s to start slathering on sunscreen, you’ll still have a lower rate of melanoma diagnosis than if you never used sunscreen at all, says Dr. Ruiz de Luzuriaga. So, while your body can’t regenerate as quickly as it used to, it’s never too late to start following skin-saving, healthy habits.
Here’s a bit of junk science for you: You need less sleep when you’re much older. Studies may show that people in their 50s and older sleep less, but that’s merely because people have a harder time sleeping when they get older. Ideally, women should still hit the sack for seven to eight hours a night. What is one of the culprits behind insomnia? Menopause.
“The drop in estrogen levels is directly linked to insomnia,” says Dr. Simpkins. “I prefer to start with homeopathic remedies. I recommend trying hot baths, over-the-counter aids such as antihistamines, and melatonin.” And, an occasional glass of wine certainly can help, she adds, but no one should become reliant on alcohol to fall asleep. If those doesn’t work, only then does Dr. Simpkins prescribe sleeping pills — a “half-dose three times a week,” she says, mentioning that many women don’t want to take sleeping pills every night.
With menopause also comes drier skin, as the skin’s ability to retain moisture weakens. “Even if you drink a lot of fluids and pile on a lot of lotion, it might not be enough,” says Dr. Ruiz de Luzuriaga. Since your skin is thinner, try using thicker creams. It might be time to ditch the thinner lotions that you used in your 20s and early 30s.
The rapid change in your hormone levels can also affect brain function. You might not be able to recall information as quickly. The antidote? Just a little moderate exercise has been shown to boost both the speed and accuracy of mental processing in those in their 50s.
If you’ve been taking a medication for years, it might be time to reevaluate your dose. Check with your doctor to see if your dose should be adjusted. This is particularly important if you’re taking antidepressants or any other psychoactive drugs.“The older you get, the slower you metabolize everything — calories and medication,” says Dr. Simpkins.
By the time you hit your 60s, your skin will be thinner and much more fragile. It’s now more prone to bruising and mild trauma. “Be conscious of your environment. If you do get injured, keep the area clean and your skin moist so it can heal better,” says Dr. Ruiz de Luzuriaga.
You might also want to ditch the fragrances — because skin dries much more easily with age, many women might not be able to tolerate fragrances as well. “Always remember that older skin requires a much gentler and more conscientious touch,” says Dr. Ruiz de Luzuriaga.