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Closing the gap: Women urged to put themselves first when it comes to healthcare

During Women’s Health Month in May, women are being encouraged to carve out time on their busy calendars for a bit of self-care. 

When it comes to women and healthcare, Dr. Erin Peterson sees a distinct gap.

Women are excellent about seeing their doctor during child-bearing years, when obstetrical visits, ultrasounds and post-baby follow-ups are the norm. And they’ll schedule appointments in their late 40s and 50s, when health changes like high blood pressure or weight gain might occur.

But in between those life stages, many women won’t visit the doctor on a regular basis. They may be so busy working and taking care of their families that they tend to put their own care last. Or they might simply figure that if they feel OK, nothing could be wrong.

“Oftentimes, if people don’t feel sick, they don’t come to the doctor, and then they’re missing the opportunity to screen and prevent illness,” says Peterson, an internal medicine physician at Lake Region Healthcare.

During Women’s Health Month in May, women are being encouraged to carve out time on their busy calendars for a bit of self-care. Here, Peterson offers a few simple tips on ways they can do that:

Screen sensibly

We hear so much conflicting information on the types and frequency of health screenings required that it can become overwhelming. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Pap smears: This screening for cervical cancer should begin by age 21 and be done every three to five years after that – depending on previous results and the type of test used by your doctor’s lab. This test usually doesn’t need to be done after age 65 or following a hysterectomy.
  • Breast exams (manual and mammogram): Mammograms typically begin at age 40 and are done every one or two years after that. Some women receive “baseline mammograms” at an earlier age, especially if they have first-degree relatives with breast cancer. Most doctors will perform a manual breast exam at your yearly physical, and women also are encouraged to do monthly self-exams. “Those are both important components,” Peterson says. “Not all (breast cancers) can be felt, and not all show up on a mammogram.”
  • Colonoscopy: Men and women should begin getting colonoscopies at age 50, and every 10 years after that. Patients with a family history of colon cancer should consult their doctor to see if they should undergo this procedure earlier.
  • Bone-density scan: This test to screen for osteoporosis should begin around age 65. Patients who have entered menopause early – such as after surgical removal of the ovaries – may need the bone-density scan earlier. Risk factors such as smoking, family history of osteoporosis or fracture, personal history of fracture, use of certain medications and low weight should also be taken into consideration.

Depending on age, the medications taken, and medical history, some women need to receive periodic screenings for anemia, cholesterol level, thyroid function and kidney function.

Their doctors will also review vaccinations to make sure they are up-to-date on immunizations for tetanus or flu. Peterson also recommends that her patients over age 65 are immunized against shingles and pneumonia, as the risk of shingles increases as we age, and pneumonia can be especially dangerous in older people.

Take these five steps toward health

Peterson also offers these five proactive steps we can take to prevent future health problems:

  1. Get enough sleep. Women often feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything they’re supposed to do. So one of the first things they give up to make more time is sleep. But most of us need seven to eight hours of sleep a night in order for our joints and muscles to mend from the day’s wear and tear, to prevent illness and to stay emotionally healthy. So set a dedicated “bed time” each day, and stick to it.
  2. Keep moving. Aim for 15 to 30 minutes of sustained physical activity every day – with an eye on better health rather than weight loss. In fact, emphasizing the latter can actually be a discouragement. “If you’re working out a lot and not seeing that number on the scale go down, you may get discouraged and stop doing it,” Peterson says. Instead, remember the positive benefits that exercise can have on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, heart health, bone density and blood sugar.
  3. Minimize carbs. Westerners simply eat too many carbohydrates – especially when you consider our relatively sedentary lifestyles. Peterson advises cutting back on breads, pastas, sweets and potatoes, while consuming four to five servings of fruits and vegetables a day plus lean protein.
  4. Give up smoking; drink less. Kicking the tobacco habit and moderating alcohol intake can be two of the most effective measures for dramatically improving health. Peterson says there are some effective medications to make it easier to quit. As for alcohol use, more than two drinks a day is considered heavy drinking for most women. Women have less ability to metabolize alcohol than men, which means they get intoxicated more easily and are more vulnerable to liver damage.
  5. Chill and be still. This may be the most challenging one of all. Peterson urges women to take even one 10-minute break daily for themselves – whether that means meditating, reading half a chapter of a book, taking a long shower or even watching a favorite TV channel. Even this small fragment of time can help lower blood pressure and stress levels.

Although it may be challenging to put themselves first, Peterson urges women to make an effort. “I think as much as women value their families and friends, we need to remember that those people around us value us just as much,” she says. ”They want us to take care of ourselves.”

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