Women are notorious for keeping a careful watch on the health of others—children, a spouse, an elderly parent, even an adult sibling—and neglecting their own. But with all the confusing health care information that's out there these days, even women who see their doctors regularly may lose focus on certain basics. Internist Beth R. Nalitt, M.D., an attending physician at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, wants to remedy that by offering five key bits of advice:
1. Don't rely too much on your EKG.
Heart disease and strokes cause far more deaths in women than all cancers combined, Dr. Nalitt points out, yet sometimes they get less attention. How to guard heart health? First and foremost, exercise! "Get your heart rate to maximum for 20 minutes a day," says the doctor. "Then focus on managing 'the big three': blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar." She also warns against letting a clear echocardiogram (EKG) lull you into a false sense of security. "That test only gives you one-third of the picture and doesn't rule out all coronary issues," she says. "If you have a strong family history of cardiovascular illness, request a stress test."
2. Do weight-bearing exercises.
Osteoporosis and the loss of bone density it brings can cause hip fractures and compressions of the spine—but you're not helpless. "I have patients who report, 'I walk from the East Side of Manhattan to Penn Station every day,'" says Dr. Nalitt. "I say, 'Walking is fine, but how about push-ups, yoga, lifting weights?' You need to do weight-bearing exercises to promote bone strength and health." The doctor says women often hesitate to get screened for osteoporosis because it's not causing immediate pain. That's a mistake, because treatments can slow the development of this condition. Ask your physician.
3. Don't just suffer hot flashes.
"Hormone replacement therapy is back on the table," says Dr. Nalitt. Such treatments got a black eye in 2002 when a large national study found that one combination of them increased women's risk of heart disease and cancer. But today women needn't suffer silently with menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes. Ask your doctor about safe ways to use hormone therapy. "Some women with horrendous menopausal symptoms can really benefit," says the doctor. Ask, too, about relatively new medications that are non-hormonal.
4. Heed your doctor on mammograms.
Yes, the mammogram—an X-ray of the breast to spot cancer—is imperfect. Yes, organizations differ about how often women should be screened. And yes, recent publicity over the difficulty of reading mammograms in women with dense breast tissue has prompted some women to get exams they don't need, as Dr. Nalitt notes. But don't let all this unconsciously fuel procrastination. Decide with your physician what screening schedule makes sense for you, and stick to it.
5. Fight stress incontinence—and embarrassment!
Extra-frequent urination or the little leaks that happen when you laugh or sneeze may never be your favorite topic of conversation. But this problem—stress incontinence—won't shock your doctor. It's common among older moms who've had vaginal rather than cesarean deliveries. "There's a lot we can do for it," says Dr. Nalitt. Kegel exercises can help, as can new medications and some devices available over the counter, she says.
To contact Dr. Nalitt at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, please call 973.467.9282 or visit barnabashealth.org/sbmc.