The female body is complex. From childbirth to aging, our bodies go through several stages — each with its own set of challenges and needs. Thankfully, there is a plethora of information at our fingertips — and knowledgeable healthcare professionals right here in our community with Brookwood Baptist Health — to help guide us through these stages.
20s & 30s
Dr. LoRissia Autery, an OBGYN at Walker Baptist Medical Center, says that by the time women reach their late 20s and into their 30s, there are a few annual exams they should have on their calendar.
“By this time, she should have received regular pap smears and if they have been normal, then they can be spaced out to every three years in certain cases,” Dr. Autery says. “She should also hopefully feel comfortable enough to discuss all aspects of healthcare with her physician, including depression, genital health and breast health.”
This is also a stage of life when women who have had children might experience urinary issues and pelvic prolapse. Pelvic disorders such as urinary incontinence (lack of bladder control) and pelvic prolapse (a condition in which the uterus, bladder and bowel may “drop” onto the vagina and cause a bulge through the vaginal canal) are common discomforts felt by many women.
Dr. Brent Parnell, a urogynecologist at Brookwood Baptist Medical Center, is well-versed in the best ways to treat the complications associated with urological problems.
“One of the most common issues that I’ve seen is overactive bladder, or urinary incontinence,” Dr. Parnell explains.
Childbirth and high-impact sports are just some of the most common things that can put women at risk for pelvic disorders. It’s estimated that about a quarter to a third of American women have experienced urinary urgency at some point. And there are several options women can take to curb the issue, like practicing pelvic exercises.
“I encourage women to come in even if they have small symptoms,” Dr. Parnell says. “I think young women are the most embarrassed, but they shouldn’t be. It’s a very common, treatable problem.”
Pelvic organ prolapse, a disorder in which one or more of the pelvic organs drop from their normal position, is another all-too common problem that plagues many women. It’s caused by injury to the muscle tissues that support pelvic organs like the bladder, uterus and vagina. Vaginal childbirth often plays a role in the onset of this disorder.
“Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and engaging in pelvic floor exercises can certainly help,” he says. “But, of course, we want to suggest coming in before this becomes severe.”
This age range, 20s through 30s, is also usually associated with child-bearing. “If women are trying to get pregnant, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is paramount,” says Dr. Janet Bouknight, a fertility specialist associated with Brookwood Baptist Medical Center. “Women who are under- or overweight might experience difficulty conceiving.”
Also, sometimes women can be misled to believe that years of taking oral contraceptives beforehand can lead to difficulty getting pregnant — which isn’t the case.
“What’s confusing to patients is sometimes they’ve been placed on a pill because their periods were not regular, so if they come off, their cycle may go back to being irregular,” says Dr. Bouknight. “From a fertility perspective, oral contraceptives are very safe for patients to take when they desire contraception. It will not affect their future fertility.”
What women should be wary of when it comes to getting pregnant are issues of high-stress and engaging in unhealthy habits.
40s & 50s
By the time women reach their 40s, annual mammograms should be scheduled. Because breast cancer is the most common cancer in women worldwide, getting annual screenings is crucial for early detection.
Per the American Cancer Society, women should begin getting screened annually as early as 40 years old. By age 55, women can transition to getting checked every other year. Regular colonoscopies are also recommended when women reach their 50s.
“Mammograms don’t prevent breast cancer, but they can save lives by finding breast cancer as early as possible,” says Erica Bradford, mammography technologist at Shelby Baptist Medical Center.
And, thanks to the facility’s state-of-the-art technology, screenings can be a quick and easy process. Mammograms are performed on a 3-D imaging machine that is ergonomically designed for patient comfort and ease of operation and provides exceptionally sharp images.
An often overlooked and non-spoken issue for women in their 50s and older is sexual dysfunction. But not anymore. Brookwood Baptist Health recently launched a new series called Better with Age, an event dedicated to help aging women take control of their health and age with grace. Attendants learn more about the basics of menopause, including its effect on their sex life.
“This does not always equate to a bad relationship or abuse,” says Dr. Autery. “There are certain conditions like hypoactive sexual disorder, or decreased libido; dyspareunia, or painful intercourse, and other issues that affect women throughout their sexual life span.”
“It is important that women feel validated and know that they are not alone or a minority in issues like this,” Dr. Autery says. “I encourage each woman to speak with their physician if they are having any of these issues.”
A common contributor to sexual dysfunction at this age can also often be due to menopause — defined as the decrease of estrogen production in a woman’s body. Medically, the definition of menopause is going 12 months without a period.
When a woman begins menopause is often determined by genetics. The average age of menopause is 51 for most women, but can vary by more or less than 10 years. The average length of symptoms is about four years.
“Hot flashes and night sweats are the most common complaints associated with menopause,” says Dr. Sarah Aultman, an OBGYN at Brookwood Baptist Medical Center. “Others include vaginal dryness, painful sex and something women usually describe as ‘brain fog,’ which is difficulty thinking straight or feeling more forgetful.”
Women have hot flashes and night sweats because they are “withdrawing” from the estrogen their bodies have been used to having for the majority of their life. Just like any withdrawal, the symptoms of hot flashes and night sweats eventually become manageable.
For symptoms like vaginal dryness and painful sex, Dr. Aultman says there are a number of remedies — like over-the-counter vaginal moisturizers, hormone therapy, medications that mimic the effect of hormone therapy and laser therapy.
“I strongly recommend that my patients complaining of vaginal dryness due to menopause start and stay on a treatment since this is a symptom that will not eventually resolve on its own,” she says.
Just as we learn about our periods when we are young, make sure you are armed with knowledge as you enter every other stage of womanhood. Being proactive in your health and wellness will mitigate any “surprises,” minimize anxiety and ultimately ensure that you remain your healthiest and happiest self in every stage of life.
This article is sponsored by Brookwood Baptist Health. To learn more about Women’s Health services at Brookwood Baptist Health or to sign up for a Better with Age event near you, visit brookwoodbaptisthealth.com.