Breast cancer, heart disease and hormones are health issues that will bring your grandmother or mother to mind, but they are actually what women should be concerned with as early as their 20s, doctors say.
“The things you do in 20s affect you in your 30s, your 40s and so on,” said Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine. “There is no age that is too early to start taking care of yourself.”
Minkin, also a practicing OB-GYN, is part of a breakthrough effort to give women the knowledge they need to be in charge of their own health.
She is one of a team of doctors offering a way for women to earn a Yale University “medical degree” in a single day.
The “One-Day Medical School," held last week at Yale, featured lectures by Minkin and other top doctors in the field of women's health. Each lecture is now available online so women can choose the topic they need to see, at any time.
“One-Day Medical School" is the brainchild of Geri Brin, the founder of FabOverFifty.com, as a way of getting women the answers they need on topics they may not want to discuss. It is also designed as a one-stop resource that can float above the often inaccurate health information available online.
“Women don’t talk to our doctors, we don’t talk to our partners and we’re busy not discussing health topics, even with our good friends,” Brin said. “This is a way of bringing all these important subjects to the front, in one place, with incredible doctors who are passionate about treating women.”
When it comes to treating women's medical needs, not all doctors are prepared, especially as women move past their childbearing years, according to both Brin and Minkin.
Minkin's number one piece of advice for women is to find a doctor they can relate to.
"Be with a healthcare provider who you feel comfortable with, who you relate to and who listens to you and takes you seriously," she said. "It can be a doctor or a physician assistant or a nurse or nurse practitioner or a midwife."
When it comes to talking to your doctor, age matters, as health concerns for women change as they age.
Minkin broke down the questions women should ask their doctor as they enter each new decade, starting in their 20s.
20s: What should I do now to maximize my fertility?
Your 20s are when you should develop a good relationship with your healthcare provider and have honest conversations about fertility and safe sex, according to Minkin.
"Talk about your long term goals and how you can protect yourself from STIs [sexually transmitted infections] and unwanted pregnancy," she said. "Ask about your nutrition, exercise, calcium intake and whether you need to be on any vitamins."
The age of 21 is also the time to start getting a pap smear screening exam for cervical cancer performed every three years, if normal, and regular blood pressure screenings.
Women in their 20s should also talk to their doctor about alcohol and cutting down their drinking if it is more than one drink per day, recommends Minkin.
Being in your 20s is also the time to make exercise a habit and to make sure to maintain a healthy weight. A body mass index (BMI) of 25 is ideal, but, in general, make an effort to keep a BMI of 30 or less, according to Minkin.
30s: What do you need to know about my family history?
Women in their 30s should talk to their doctor about their family history of diseases like diabetes, breast cancer and heart health.
The age is also a time when many women are focused on having children, so conversations should focus on what you can do to plan for a healthy pregnancy and then maintain good health during pregnancy.
The 30s are also a time when many women are expanding their careers or juggling motherhood and work, so talk to your doctor about how to minimize stress and pay attention to any symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping.
40s: What should I know about menopause?
Perimenopause, the time when ovaries gradually begin to make less estrogen, typically hits women in their 40s.
This decade of life is a time to not hold back when it comes to honest conversations with a healthcare provider so that symptoms of perimenopause, and later menopause, can be minimized.
Women in their 40s should also talk to their doctor about their lifestyle, from nutrition to exercise to alcohol, and what they can do to maintain their health when they age, according to Minkin.
Don't forget too that breast health becomes a particular focus for women in their 40s as annual mammograms, for some women, become the norm. Women should check with their healthcare provider about when to begin mammogram testing.
50s: How are my bones, breasts and heart?
Women in their 50s should start talking to their doctor about bone density testing, especially after menopause. Discuss with your healthcare provider when to start bone density testing and, in the meantime, stay active, do strength training, take in 1000 units of vitamin D a day and, for most women, aim towards a calcium intake of 1,000 to 1,200 mg per day, advises Minkin.
Women often are still in menopause through their 50s, so keep an honest conversation going with your doctor, and speak up about symptoms, she said.
This decade is also a time to pay close attention to breast health, including mammograms, and heart disease, the leading cause of death for women in the U.S.