You might think you've got a few decades before heart disease and other "old-age" problems will affect you. Think again. Many of the common conditions your parents or grandparents suffer from started when they were young. Here's what you can do today to protect yourself.
1. Loss of bone strength
Women develop about 90 percent of their bone mass by age 18, says Dr. Wei Wei Lei, an assistant professor of general internal medicine at the University of Chicago. "You'll never have the opportunity to build bone mass after age 30." In fact, starting at 30, you'll lose about 1% of it per year -- good times. About 8 million U.S. women suffer from osteoporosis and another 34 million from osteopenia, its low-bone-mass precursor. It's super-important to keep what you've got by drinking milk and eating kale, almonds, sardines, broccoli, tofu, cheese, yogurt, and other calcium-rich foods. Women ages 19 to 50 need a daily dose of 1,000 milligrams of calcium. To avoid bone loss, doctors also recommend doing weight exercises, not smoking, and drinking less alcohol.
"High blood pressure can definitely start happening when you're younger," says Lei. Try to get your systolic (top number) under 120 -- 120-139 is considered pre-hypertension -- and your diastolic (bottom number) under 80. Check your pressure on your upper left arm while you're sitting down, says Lei. You can do it at a pharmacy, or buy your own monitor.
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3. Heart disease
Heart disease is the number-one killer of women. That's why the American Heart Association recommends that anyone over 20 take its "heart attack risk assessment." Then you'll know how likely you are to have a heart attack or die from coronary disease in the next decade. The good news: You can control risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, cholesterol, diabetes, weight, and physical activity. Also, just in case, learn now about heart attack symptoms, including shortness of breath and unexplained fatigue.
Women who have had gestational diabetes, which affects 2 to 10 percent of American pregnancies, have a higher lifetime risk for Type 2 diabetes, according to The American Diabetes Association. Get a fasting blood sugar test to predict your odds, advises Dr. Jeanne Conry, president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity is a dangerous combo (commonly known as "metabolic syndrome") and can be a precursor to diabetes. Watch your weight and get at least 150 minutes of moderately strenous exercise a week, recommends Dr. Alan Glaseroff, co-director of Stanford Coordinated Care. "The origins of [metabolic syndrome] are almost always present in people in their 30s."
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Don't dismiss any aches. Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that most often strikes the joints in the fingers and wrists, starts affecting people as young as 25. "If you have persistently swollen, tender joints in your hands, wrists, shoulders, or knees, you shouldn't just attribute it to wear and tear or strain," says Dr. Gary Martin, a geriatrician at Northwestern University. "You should get it checked out. If you ignore it, you can get permanent damage that can't be reversed."
Even if cancer doesn't run in your family, you still have a chance of getting it. The lifetime breast cancer risk for any woman is 10 percent, and the lifetime colon cancer risk is 6 percent. The American Cancer Society continues to recommend annual mammograms once you hit 40. And while you don't need a colonoscopy until you're 50, you may want to start a decade earlier if an immediate family member had the disease. And to reduce the risk of skin cancer, which affects people of all ages, don't forget to wear sunscreen under your makeup every day -- even in the winter.
7. Alzheimer's disease
Current medical thinking believes the brain changes related to Alzheimer's disease actually take place 20 to 30 years before you start to show symptoms, says Sandra Weintraub, PhD, director of the clinical core and neuropsychology program at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University. To reduce your risk of the disease (which strikes women more often than men), your best bet is exercise. It improves blood flow and releases chemicals that are good for nerve cells. "Anything you do that's good for your heart is good for your brain," says Weintraub.
When younger people have strokes, it's usually an inherited problem. But birth control and smoking increase risk too, says Dr. David Zich, an emergency room doctor and internist at Northwestern. The pill ups your risk of blood clots, and smoking constricts blood vessels. "Women who smoke and take the birth control pill [are] a classic double whammy," says Martin. "[You'll see] a 30- or 40-year-old woman have a blood clot to the lung or the leg. Some things really magnify each other."
9. Mental illness
Your exposure to "adverse childhood experiences" -- such as physical and emotional abuse, your parents' divorce, and family substance abuse -- can predict many future problems, including anxiety, depression, and alcoholism. "You can't erase the past, but you can get out of the doomsday scenario around it with the right kind of trauma-informed care," says Glaseroff. Consult with a doctor as soon as you can. "If women have predispositions to mood disorders, they do tend to get worse with aging," says Dr. Kathryn Teng, director of the center for personalized healthcare at the Cleveland Clinic.
- By Karen Springen
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