Body

Must-have health checks if you're a woman in your 40s

If you're in the 40s club it's time to get real about your health.

By: Karyn Henger

I'm 46 and fit and healthy, so have seldom needed to visit a doctor. But a nail through my foot recently sent me to my GP's for a tetanus shot, and the visit gave me a wake-up call.

The first thing my GP did, once the tetanus shot and a prescription for antibiotics (my foot was infected) was sorted, was order a series of blood tests. She wanted to check my cholesterol , thyroid function and make sure I hadn't developed diabetes.

There are a few health issues that can start to show up at the 40 to 50-year mark and it's worth booking yourself in for a health checkpoint.

My blood test results showed I hadn't developed diabetes but my cholesterol was a little high and my thyroid function was abnormal.

It's not like you begin to fall apart when you hit middle age but you have moved into a phase of life where your health status can change. And lifestyle choices you made when you were younger can start to catch up with you.

Here's what I've learned about middle age health:

You need a tetanus booster shot

The nail through my foot was probably a blessing in disguise because it sent me to my GP's for a booster shot that I was due anyway.

Under the New Zealand Immunisation Schedule Kiwi children are vaccinated for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis at the age of 11 or 12. But few of us are aware that we need a tetanus/diphtheria booster shot when we turn 45.

If you've had precautionary vaccinations to travel to certain areas overseas, you may have already had your booster shot, but otherwise book yours now.

You'll need a second booster shot when you're 65.

Get your thyroid function tested

Thyroid dysfunction is more common in women over 50, but symptoms can develop unnoticed over a long period of time.

There are two main types of thyroid dysfunction and both are typified by symptoms that can easily be written off as being busy or 'just getting older'.

Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) brings symptoms of tiredness, lack of energy, unexplained weight gain, constipation and feeling the cold.

Hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid) has symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, having difficulty sleeping, shakiness, feelings of anxiety and increased heart rate and blood pressure, excessive sweating and frequent bowel movements.

Both conditions are caused by auto-immune disorders and are commonly treated with hormone control medication. Beta-blockers can also help control many of the symptoms of hyperthyroidism.

Thyroid conditions can be hereditary. My mum died suddenly in a car accident when she was 43 and I was 15, so I never got the chance to ask her about stuff like this, but I do remember her talking about having an underactive thyroid, and it turns out mine is too.

My blood test revealed my 'reading' to be 9.4 and my doctor says when it hits 10, I will be put on hormone control medication. I have another blood test in a month's time.

How are your cholesterol levels looking?

As mentioned, my cholesterol was a little on the high side but my doctor said that could be because my thyroid hormone levels are out of whack, rather than a true reading - so we'll keep an eye on that.

You can develop high cholesterol at any time in your life (even in childhood) and you only know your levels are high if you get a blood test done. According to the Heart Foundation, high cholestoral can run in some families.

To lower your cholesterol , follow a heart-healthy diet, stay active, manage your stress levels, don't smoke and watch your alcohol intake.

When you don't address high cholesterol , you can go on to have a heart attack or stroke.

Our risk factor for developing diabetes increases

According to Healthline our risk of developing diabetes increases from the age of 40.

It's genetics that determine whether you develop Type 1 diabetes, and most sufferers are diagnosed in childhood, though there are instances of adults developing Type 1 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is more common and you're at a higher risk of developing it if you're overweight, a smoker, you eat a poor diet and don't exercise enough, you have high blood pressure.

See how those lifestyle choices can come back to haunt us in our middle years!

The age of perimenopause

Forget menopause - that's the phase when your periods have completely stopped, and this happens for most women at age 51.

Perimenopause is the stage we're in. It commonly starts six to 10 years before menopause and is typified by symptoms that can sometimes make you feel like you're going quietly insane - mood swings, irritability, depression, lack of energy, irregular and/or heavy periods, night sweats, insomnia and hot flushes.

For me, I mostly suffer mood swings and not being able to sleep so well at night. I've started taking a natural hormone support supplement and it has helped to even out my moods. Talk to your doctor about the best solution for you.

A lot of women are still wary of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after a 2002 study came out that suggested taking HRT increased your risk of breast cancer and stroke. But the study was later found to be fundamentally flawed - the majority of its participants were women in their 60s, which is not representative of the age of women who take HRT.

Sign yourself up for NZ's free breast screening programme

From the age of 45 to 69 years, women in New Zealand are entitled to a free mammogram every two years, through BreastScreen Aotearoa, to check for signs of breast cancer.

If you haven't signed up yet, do it now.

I had my first mammogram last year and the women who did my screening were so lovely, down-to-earth and matter-of-fact about it all, I soon got over my embarrassment. It wasn't painful either, just a little uncomfortable.

In New Zealand 3000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year and 70 per cent of those women are over 50 years old. Start checking your breasts now. In half of cases where breast cancer is detected, it has been through women checking their breasts at home and then reporting this to their doctor. Learn how to do a self-check here, and then check them regularly.

Were you a sun worshipper in your teenage years?

I have a friend the same age as me who has to have regular check-ups with a dermatologist to check for melanomas because she spent her teenage years baking in the sun with Tanning Oil SPF5. It's come back to haunt her now.

"Despite being so careful in the sun for the last couple of decades, our skin really does remember!" she warns.

Check your blood pressure

I have another friend, age 47, who never used to have an issue with her blood pressure, but now has high blood pressure. High blood pressure can sometimes run in families and can also be an indicator of kidney or glandular disease. However, it can also be brought on by eating too much salt, drinking too much alcohol, being overweight, and not moving around enough each day.

Over time high blood pressure can cause a heart attack, stroke or major organ damage.

The only way to find out if you have high blood pressure is to get yourself tested because for most people there are no symptoms.

Sight and hearing

The forties is often when people start to notice a deterioration in their sight. I've also just discovered, courtesy of a free hearing test with Triton Hearing prompted by my kids who tell me I'm deaf, that I have moderate hearing loss in my right ear (my phone ear).

If you've got to the end of this story and have started feeling quite depressed, remember this:

We may have passed our flush of youth, but there's plenty of life in us yet - and plenty of living to be done.

Look after your body, and it will look after you.