Women are capable of amazing things, from giving birth to running marathons and everything in between. When our bodies start to behave differently, don’t cooperate as they used to or show signs of disease, it can be very distressing. As women age and mature, health fears tend to ebb and flow, depending on their stage of life, genetics and lifestyle choices.
As teenagers, concerns may focus on everything from athletic injuries and acne to menstrual issues. Early adulthood and middle age often bring about fears surrounding pregnancies and infertility, mental health issues and the first signs of aging (hello, wrinkles!). Mature women may battle the fallout from a slowing metabolism and experience their serious medical diagnosis, ranging from diabetes, cancer or heart disease.
Jessica Ngo, M.D., an internist and physician on the staff of Texas Health Family Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice, says she sees common threads when working with patients.
“Women often focus on their risk of breast, uterine or ovarian cancer,” she says. “These are female-specific cancers that get a lot of attention and press, so women are more likely to inquire about them. Additionally, both women and men seem concerned about fatigue and their energy levels, as well as weight gain.”
It’s common to focus on what we can see, either on the scale or through changes in our daily lives. We also get worked up about things we feel like we can’t control, but often the things we worry about may not be the things we actually should be worried about.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report on the leading causes of death for Americans in 2019. The top five causes of death for all women include heart disease (21.8 percent), Cancer (20.5 percent), Stroke (6.2 percent), Alzheimer disease (6.0 percent) and chronic lower respiratory diseases (6.0 percent). Unintentional injuries (external causes) were the leading cause of death for people under 44 years of age, followed by cancer for those ages 45 to 64, and heart disease for people over age 65 (chronic conditions).
Ngo says women’s concerns definitely change with their phases of life.
“Younger women in their 20s and 30s tend to focus on issues related to their fertility and wonder if they are able and healthy enough to have a baby and what their chances are of having a healthy pregnancy and recovery,” she says. “Then as they go into their 40s and 50s, they become more concerned about changes in energy and weight gain, which are associated with being post-menopausal. They’re also more concerned about heart disease because they are at the age when high blood pressure, high cholesterol and pre-diabetes/diabetes really start to become more of an issue.
“In their 60s 70s and 80s, women become more concerned about developing dementia and/or having a stroke. They don’t want to lose their independence and especially do not want to become a burden upon their spouses and families.”
Everywhere we look, with every passing year, we face our mortality. Medical experts tell us to eat less, exercise more, see a physician regularly for checkups, focus on our mental well-being, give our brains a good workout, sleep eight hours a night and maintain healthy relationships to extend our lives and improve our health. It’s a lot to think about, especially on top of all of our daily responsibilities, and it can be difficult to know whom to listen to.
Ngo says women will all react to health issues and external pressures differently.
“I think there’s a fine line between reassurance and ignoring symptoms,” she explains. “It takes me some time getting to know a patient to know if they’re more likely to downplay their symptoms or pay attention to every minute twinge.
“I think it’s also important to note that there are health fads that are specifically marketed to women that try to prey on the social pressures to look or feel a certain way. I’m talking about things like charcoal infused juice cleanses that claim to detoxify your liver and kidneys or coffee colonics as part of an attempt to look your ‘glowiest’ for your wedding day.”
Ngo explains that when women have fears that don’t make much sense on the surface, she probes to find out the deeper issue.
“Many times if I have a usually healthy patient come in because she suddenly has a specific concern, I try to get at what’s really bothering her,” she says. “For example, if a patient has lower back pain that she has had for years but she suddenly wants a full body scan, I ask if something new has happened to lead to the concern. They’ll often tell me something along the lines of ‘my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and it went to the spine’ or something similar. This can lead to sudden feelings of urgency about her chronic symptoms and desire for a sometimes over-the-top work-up.
“When that happens, it’s good to step back and re-address what is included in routine cancer screening and whether or not she is an appropriate candidate for more frequent or earlier cancer screening. I also think it’s important to discuss what is and is not common for other women to experience to reassure a patient that what she’s experiencing is common or ‘normal.’”
No matter what current or potential health issue keeps you up at night, work with your doctors to reduce risk through taking preventive measures, manage any necessary medications and treat conditions whenever possible. Women can’t turn back the clock and we can’t do anything about our genetics, but we can rest easy knowing we’ve done everything we can to maintain our health.
If some time has passed since your last checkup, there’s no better time to find a physician who can partner with you to achieve your health goals! To find the right doctor for you or your family, visit TexasHealth.org/Doctors or call 1-877-THR-WELL (1-877-847-9355).