(This article previously appeared on Grandparents.com.)
When women hit the fifth decade, there are important health practices they need to start doing if they want to stay in it for the long haul. “Women at 50 will attribute their body changes and decreased energy and libido to a normal fact of aging. It’s not just about aging, however; it’s about their bodies’ changing needs as they go through the life cycle. They need to realize that their bodies at 50 need something completely different than at 20,” says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, medical director, Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center. So get started — you’ve got a lot of living to do.
1. Learn to meditate
Two reasons: improved brain function and stress reduction. Our brains shrink naturally with age, but a UCLA study found that specific brain regions of long-term meditators were larger and had more gray matter and more robust connections between fibers than the brains of the control group. And many studies have proven the negative health effects of chronic stress (anxiety, heart disease, depression, sleep disorders). Meditation helps reduce the mental stimuli that causes stress. There are several kinds of meditation practice (guided imagery, transcendental, following your heart rhythm); the Mayo Clinic even offers a basic guide to meditation.
2. Get a bone density scan
“The minute you hit menopause, you start losing bone density faster, putting you at higher risk for osteoporosis,” says Dr. Vonda Wright, spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. If you haven’t already had a bone density scan, do so to get a baseline. And starting now, incorporate weight-bearing, or impact, exercise (such as walking, hiking, or tennis) into your routine. Note: Check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen.
“In studies in people over 50, we’ve found that people who have done a lot of impact sports over their life have denser bones,” adds Wright, who is also the author of Fitness After 40. Hips, knees or feet giving you too much trouble for impact exercise? Try exercising in a pool: Get chest high into the water. Walk forward and then backwards without turning around for 20 minutes. Lunge to the right and left for 20 minutes.
3. You may need a stress test
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, taking more lives than all forms of cancer combined, according to the American Heart Association. To make sure the signs of heart disease don’t sneak by undetected, doctors use a stress test, in which your heart is monitored while you do moderate exercise, to determine how your heart handles physical activity. It’s not necessary to go for a stress test if you live an active lifestyle, unless you are experiencing cardiac symptoms (breathlessness, pain in chest, arms, stomach, back, neck or jaw). If you have been fairly sedentary, get a stress test before starting any new exercise program. Goldberg recommends that all women at 50 get their cholesterol, blood pressure and glucose levels checked. And if you smoke, quit — it triples your risk of a heart attack.
4. Nurture your friendships
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, staying active socially as you age helps ward off high blood pressure and depression, and may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular problems, osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Make sure you keep up with old friends and join activities that interest you to encourage new relationships. Even if you are housebound, there are always Facebook and Skype.
5. Pay attention to changing sexual needs
Not only is regular intimacy a cornerstone of healthy relationships, it also wards off depression, boosts your immune system, and lowers your risk of heart disease. The loss of estrogen following menopause can lead to decreased libido and a lack of vaginal lubrication, however, making sex uncomfortable and sometimes even painful.
(MORE: What to do About Loss of Libido)
Don’t give up: You may find that what once worked doesn’t anymore so experiment to discover the “new you.” Give yourself time to explore what kinds of touches you like and where. And don’t expect your partner to read your mind: When you figure it out, show and tell.
Also, don’t be shy about trying sex toys. “Surveys show that more women are using sex toys for themselves singly and with partners,” says Lou Paget, certified sex educator and author of The Great Lover Playbook. If vaginal dryness is a problem, try different lubricants to see what works best for you. Paget recommends Inner Intimates, which is paraben-free and plant-based. Coconut oil can also be used as a lubricant.
6. Schedule a colonoscopy
According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of death among American women. The good news is that the death rate has been dropping for both sexes over the last 20 years. One reason: More people are getting regular screenings, so cancers are being caught earlier when they’re more treatable. “If you haven’t had a colonoscopy yet, get your first one at 50 for a baseline screening and to check for emerging polyps,” says Goldberg.
(MORE: Yes, You Need a Colonoscopy)
7. Adjust your diet
Dietary needs change a lot as we age. “As women approach menopause, they don’t metabolize sugar as well, so they need to cut back on carbs,” explains Goldberg. In addition, up your fiber intake to protect your colon. For heart health and diabetes prevention, many doctors recommend the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fresh produce, legumes and healthy fats, and advises limited red meat and sodium consumption.
8. Protect your joints
Your joints are your shock absorbers, and over the years, they take a lot of pounding. As a society, we are a lot more active as we age than previous generations, adding to the usual wear and tear. (Knee and hip replacement numbers are going way up.) These tips from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons will help you get more mileage out of your joints:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Moderate exercise every day is healthier. and less likely to result in injury, than occasional heavy activity.
- Take lessons to learn proper form for exercises.
- Prevent overuse injuries by participating in a range of activities and exercises.
- Do strength training on the lower body to strengthen the muscles surrounding your knees and hips, taking pressure off the joints.
- Take calcium and vitamin D supplements daily.
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