A Woman’s Changing Body
Your likes, dislikes and perspectives have undoubtedly changed over time—and, though you may not realize all the ways, so has your body.
Understanding how the stages of your life affect you can help you understand how to adjust your wellness routine as you age. Likewise, it can help you appreciate what stays the same: the importance of caring for your body, mind and spirit throughout every moment of life’s journey.
The gains in body fat that both genders experience after age 30 often stop in men at around 55, but weight gain tends to continue in women until about 65. Excess weight tends to settle on women’s hips and thighs from puberty through menopause. After that, however, a woman’s extra pounds are more likely to be unhealthy belly fat, which is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Eating a healthy diet and exercising to manage weight is always important, but it’s especially crucial as you age.
From puberty until roughly age 30, a woman’s bones gain density, especially if she exercises regularly and eats a healthy diet rich in vitamin D and calcium. She starts to lose bone density slowly after about age 35, as hormone levels change—a process that accelerates after menopause. A healthy lifestyle including weight-bearing exercise, such as walking and strength training, helps keep your bones strong both before and after menopause. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that women get a bone density screening at age 65, though at Canyon Ranch we suggest getting one prior to age 50; a woman already has a 50 percent lifetime risk of developing a fragility fracture by then.
Estrogen appears to help keep artery walls flexible and may improve levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol while keeping LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in check. It also protects against the accumulation of belly fat, which contributes to inflammation that can, in turn, increase the risk of a heart attack. After menopause, when estrogen levels decline, heart disease rates in women become two to three times higher; more than 75 percent of women aged 40 to 60 have one or more risk factors for coronary heart disease. But women who eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and don’t smoke are 80 percent less likely to develop heart disease than women who don’t. Follow your doctor’s recommendations for blood pressure and lipid screenings, which will be based on several factors, including your age and family history of heart disease.
A woman’s breasts change slowly after puberty, although each menstrual period often brings short-term changes. During pregnancy, the breasts swell, as the milk duct system grows to nurse a baby. During menopause, as estrogen levels fall, the breasts change again, becoming less full and less elastic, which can result in “sagging.” Breast cancer risk also rises: While a 30-year-old woman’s chance of developing breast cancer over the next 10 years is 1 in 227, a 60-year-old woman’s 10-year risk is 1 in 28. Genetics do play a role in breast cancer, but you can reduce your risk by maintaining a healthy body weight, exercising regularly, minimizing your alcohol consumption and, if you take hormone replacement therapy, doing so for less than five years. As for mammograms, all women 50 and older should get one every year; if you’re between the ages of 40 and 49, or if you’re younger but have a family history of the disease, talk with your doctor about whether to begin regular mammogram screenings.
Pelvic and Reproductive Health
Your sexual, reproductive and urinary health depends on strong muscles and ligaments that support your pelvic floor. Childbirth, hysterectomies and menopause can cause changes, leading to conditions such as pelvic organ prolapse, when the pelvic organs slip out of place, and urinary incontinence, an inability to control urination. Maintaining pelvic-floor and core strength can help you prevent these issues. The basic pelvic floor exercise, Kegels, is simple:
With an empty bladder, pretend you’re holding in gas for a count of 10, then relax for a count of 10. Do five to 10 reps, three to five times a day. Menopause also causes thinner, dryer vaginal tissue, which can make sex less comfortable.
Women keep their skin’s thickness until around age 50. After that, skin becomes thinner, less elastic and drier, and wrinkles become more apparent. Throughout life, eating a nutritious diet, getting restful sleep, drinking plenty of water and not smoking are cornerstones of healthy, glowing skin—even more so as you age. You can try natural remedies for minimizing wrinkles, like exfoliating and applying a retinol night cream, if you’d like. But the most important step you can take? Protecting yourself from the sun. Your dermatologist may do a whole-body scan to check for any abnormalities (like moles that have changed size or color), but taking your own look once a month is important, too.
If you’re going to gray, it’ll probably start in your 30s, though some women experience it earlier (it’s all dependent on your genes). But as you age, your hair also becomes thinner and grows more slowly. If you’re noticing more strands in your brush lately, don’t be alarmed:
Almost everyone experiences some hair loss with time, especially after age 50. Female pattern baldness, a hormone-related condition that may be inherited, usually starts with a widening of the center hair part that spreads to the top and the crown of the scalp. Unlike in male pattern baldness, it rarely claims most or all of a woman’s hair.
Whatever your age and the condition of your hair, you can improve its health by avoiding harsh chemicals and treating it gently.
As you encounter these and other changes, remember that the passage of time has myriad benefits. As they get older, many women relish things like not needing to think about birth control and the freedom that comes from having kids out of the house. You may also notice a shift in your attitudes, such as letting go of the need to please others. And your may find that this is a time to reconnect with your true passions and joys.