Anna-Marie Casas looks at five challenges women face as they age and how lifestyle and diet are key to helping stack the odds in favour of good health.
We’re living longer than we used to but, according to a new report this summer, British women have the second lowest level of life expectancy in Western Europe.
According to a study by Public Health England, females in the UK can now expect to live for 82 years and nine months, but this is three years less than those in Spain who have the longest lifespan. The reason is linked to British women smoking heavily after World War II – it should come as no huge surprise that we reap what we sew when it comes to health.
Even if we can now look forward to greater longevity thanks to a reduction in smoking, new heart treatments, drugs such as statins to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure medication, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that those final years will be spent enjoying life to the full. The study revealed that British women spend an average of 19 years in poor health. So, as we journey through our middle to latter stages of life, what are some of the main health challenges we face and what should we be doing to ensure we remain in tip-top condition for as long as possible? Here, we explain what you can do to stay healthy.
Osteoporosis presents one of the greatest health risks. Half of women over the age of 50 experience fractures, mostly due to low bone strength – twice as many as men.
Risk factors include an early menopause, low BMI (body mass index), long-term steroid use, a family history or heavy smoking.
GP Dr Rupert Critchley says, “Fluctuations in hormones, especially the lack of oestrogen during menopause can leave you prone to weaker bones and fractures later in life. A healthy, balanced diet, regular exercise, stopping smoking, reduced alcohol intake and soaking up some of the sun’s rays (vitamin D) can help reduce your risk of osteoporosis.”
GP Dr Rachel Aarons adds that a diet rich in calcium and fruit and vegetables is ideal and “to reduce the rate of natural bone loss, you can do regular weight-bearing exercise and muscle-strengthening activities, such as brisk walking, moderate-resistance weightlifting, heavy gardening and stair climbing”.
Rarely a week goes by without mental health issues hitting the headlines and women of the ‘sandwich generation’ – those raising children and looking after elderly parents while trying to hold down a job – are particularly at risk.
According to the charity, the Mental Health Foundation, women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders.
Dr Critchley says, “Stress really is a silent killer. Stress hormones such as cortisol circulate round the body and impact both our physical and mental health. Mindfulness, meditation and exercise all have positive effects on our bodies and making these part of your daily regime can really help.”
Dr Aarons advises, “Eat a balanced diet, exercise, keep in touch with people who are important to you, and find time to do things you enjoy. Physical activity can go a long way towards helping you manage your stress levels – yoga is a good place to start and is known to reduce stress, lower blood pressure and lower your heart rate. Ditch the double espresso and your daily Facebook scan for a cup of chamomile tea and 10 minutes of thoughtful meditation.”
High Blood Pressure
As we age, our blood pressure can creep up, putting us at greater risk of serious illness so it is vital to keep it under control.
If your blood pressure is consistently above the normal reading of 140/90 mm Hg, you may need to take medication and reassess your lifestyle habits.
Dr Critchley says, “A healthy blood pressure reduces the risk of strokes and heart attacks in the long run. High blood pressure can be prevented or reduced by eating well, maintaining a healthy weight/BMI, regular exercise and not smoking. It is imperative to address these lifestyle factors early in order to prevent the need for life-long blood pressure tablets!”
Dr Aarons recommends aiming for a BMI of 20-25. “This can be achieved by regular exercise and eating a healthy diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products. Avoiding foods with high saturated fats and sugar can aid weight loss and reducing sodium can go a long way to lowering your blood pressure. Alcohol and unhealthy foods are often consumed together, so reducing intake to no more than one unit a day can be helpful for maintaining a healthy weight and reducing blood pressure.”
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK, with one in eight receiving a positive diagnosis and four in five of those cases after hitting 50.
“It’s normal for breast tissue to become less glandular and more fatty as you get older, which makes them feel less firm and full,” says Dr Aarons. “With age, there’s also an increasing risk of abnormal growths in the breast. These are often harmless breast lumps, like cysts, but they can also be a sign of serious conditions like breast cancer, so if you notice any abnormalities, you should always report to your GP straight away.
“The national screening programme for breast cancer invites women for mammograms every three years between the ages of 50-70 and it is important to attend these appointments. Learning to examine your own breasts is an important skill to have and practise at home, and checking yourself monthly is sensible so you are more likely to notice any changes to your body if you are familiar with it.” Maintaining a healthy weight and stubbing out cigarettes for good are also known to reduce the risk.
According to the British Heart Foundation, one in four women die of heart and circulatory disease and a big problem is that many do not realise they are at risk.
“If your blood pressure or cholesterol level is higher than it should be, the risk of heart disease and stroke is increased,” explains Dr Aarons. “It’s important to address coronary risk factors and, with smoking being the most significant, it’s never been more important to discuss stopping with your GP, practice nurse or pharmacist. A cholesterol blood test should be done when you reach 40, and it important to reach a normal level which can sometimes be achieved through a diet low in saturated fats and regular exercise alone.
“To protect your heart, you need to try and do 30 minutes of exercise for most days of the week. I would recommend engaging in moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or dancing.”
Dr Rachel Aarons is a practising GP for GPDQ, the UK’s first doctor-on demand app aiming to deliver a GP to your door within hours. Find out more on gpdq.co.uk
Dr Rupert Critchley is a qualified GP and founder of VIVA Skin Clinics in Harley Street. See vivaskinclinics.com