From youth to adulthood and beyond, there are certain health priorities every woman should focus on. Dr. Carla Rafferty, an expert in women’s health and family medicine at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana, shares her thoughts on five key areas of women’s health.
1) Important Screenings and Procedures
One of the first screenings women need to consider is a Pap test, which screens for cervical cancer—or even signs of early progression towards cervical cancer. Most women should have had their first Pap test by age 21.
Mammograms are another essential screening. “The guidelines have changed a bit,” notes Dr. Rafferty, “but for the most part, starting around age 40 is when a woman should be thinking about getting her first mammogram. Breast cancer is an important thing to detect early, as it is very treatable.”
The third recommended screening is a colonoscopy, or some other type of less-invasive screening like a stool assessment. Dr. Rafferty states that women should think about this screening around age 50, unless they have risk factors that necessitate screening earlier.
Women who want to get pregnant, or are already pregnant, may not know everything they need to know to maintain a healthy pregnancy. Dr. Rafferty recommends asking your primary care provider for guidance and advice, or turning to trusted resources either online or within the community. Overall, women can ensure that both they and their unborn babies stay healthy by taking prenatal vitamins, quitting smoking and abstaining from alcohol and drugs.
3) Mental Health
Often tasked with being the “caregivers” of their families, many women may not realize how much the stresses of daily life can impact their mental health. It’s important to reach out for help when feeling overburdened. “Every one of our primary care offices has embedded social workers, and even the nurses you might talk with on the phone are a good place to start,” notes Dr. Rafferty. Keeping your mind healthy is just as important as a healthy body.
The milestone often referred to as “the change of life” is not an easy time for many. Women may experience fatigue, hot flashes, decreased libido, difficulty losing weight, mental fog, mood swings and vaginal dryness. “All of these changes can weigh heavily—not only on a woman’s body, but also on her mental state,” cautions Dr. Rafferty.
Dr. Rafferty advises women try to maintain a regular exercise regimen, eat a healthy diet, quit smoking and get adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D. “Menopause also increases a woman’s risk of heart disease,” she adds, “so eating healthy and exercising are also ways to help prevent that risk.”
5) Age-Related Conditions
As women age, they become more at risk for certain conditions. Osteoporosis is one that tends to impact women more severely than men. Dr. Rafferty notes that this bone-weakening disease leads to further difficulties as well, but there are ways to combat it. Proper nutrition and physical activity, particularly doing weight-bearing exercises, will help strengthen bones. Women are often advised to get bone density screenings as they get older, and medications are available to address the disease.
Two additional age-related conditions are heart disease and dementia. Women can monitor the risk of both by maintaining regular visits with their primary care provider.
For women of all ages, Dr. Rafferty has one final piece of advice: don’t put off caring for your health. “If you think something isn’t right, it’s always better to get checked out than to delay.”
To listen to the full interview with Dr. Carla Rafferty on our new Allied and Well podcast, click here.
- Want additional resources and information? OSF HealthCare’s blog is a great source for articles about women’s health.
- On their blog, Sarah Bush Lincoln Health System debunks 10 common myths about menopause.
- A building that’s a metaphor: read this inspirational story about Springfield Clinic’s “pink steel” building.
- Just had a baby and feeling down? This article from Memorial Health System describes the difference between typical “baby blues” and more serious postpartum depression.
- Ovarian cancer affects many women. Read an inspirational survivor story from Carle.