Sure, you get your mammograms. You add a skin cancer check to your visits with your dermatologist. And scheduling a colonoscopy, well, you’ll get to that soon.
For women over 50, taking control of your health means more than crossing appointments off your list.
Brunilda Nazario, the lead medical director at WebMD, says these five steps can help you maximize your wellness.
1. Prioritize your health
“Many of us don’t listen to our bodies,” says Nazario. One reason? We’re all so busy: “So many factors are competing for our attention. We need to prioritize our physical health, personal health, and emotional health.”
“Traditionally what we’ve done is, we’ve left our healthcare in the hands of other folks,” she says. We wait for that call, email, or reminder to make that appointment.
That means regularly scheduled exams—think mammograms and dental checkups—get on your calendar. Other health risks might not get your attention. And worrisome symptoms can get ignored.
Try this: “Remind yourself of your value. Grab your computer, grab your calendar, and see what types of screenings you need. Then make your appointments for that year,” Nazario says.
And when symptoms crop up, get them checked.
Nazario shares the story of a friend who chalked up her fatigue, bloating, frequent urination, and weight gain to menopause or a urinary tract infection and delayed seeking medical advice. It turned out she had ovarian cancer.
2. Take heart disease seriously
“Most women don’t realize heart disease is the number one killer of women,” Nazario says. “It kills more women than breast cancer and lung cancer combined.”
Yet many of us think of heart disease as a men’s health issue. Part of the problem is the way we talk about heart concerns.
For example, one of the most fatal types of heart attack is commonly called a “widowmaker.” But it strikes women, too.
And there’s a gender difference in symptoms of heart disease. While both men and women typically have chest pain, women may notice symptoms men often don’t report, like nausea, vomiting, and fatigue, Nazario says.
Try this: Take steps to reduce your risk. That means managing the classic risk factors for heart disease—high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol levels, smoking, and inactivity.
3. Get the sleep you need
“There’s so much new in the field of sleep and women’s health. Sleep is more than just time to rest,” Nazario says. “It’s so critical to circadian rhythms.”
Sleep can affect fertility and blood pressure, and Nazario says it’s possible that higher rates of anxiety and depression in girls going through puberty could be linked to changes in their sleep cycles that begin earlier than in boys.
Hormonal changes on the other end of our fertility, during menopause, can also disrupt sleep cycles.
Try this: Go to bed at the same time each night, and give yourself enough time there to get the recommended seven or more hours of sleep you likely need. If you struggle to fall asleep or to stay asleep, talk to your doctor or a sleep medicine specialist.
4. Cultivate your social connections
Loneliness evolved as a protective feeling, Nazario says: “In caveman days, loneliness would trigger stress so we would find companionship and the protectiveness of our tribe.”
Chronic loneliness can result in high levels of stress hormones that can damage your organs and raise your risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Nazario points out that the mental health benefits of social connections are much stronger in women than in men.
Try this: Prioritize time with friends and family. “It’s important that you’re finding your tribe and making that time. It’s key to your overall health,” Nazario says. And Facebook and Instagram don’t replace the face-to-face social connections we make.
5. Manage your stress
“There’s always going to be stress in our lives. How we manage it is key,” Nazario says. A burst of anger primes your body for a heart attack—it increases your risk over 200%. “If you’re at risk, that’s a bad scenario,” she says.