As you’re approaching menopause, you may be concerned with how you’ll be affected by hot flashes, mood swings and sleep problems. Although symptoms like these are troubling, other effects of menopause, like a dramatically increased risk for osteoporosis and a two to three times higher risk for heart disease, have greater implications for your health. Whether “the change” is years away or around the corner, take these steps to protect your health now.
1. Take calcium and vitamin D. Women begin to lose more bone than they build starting in their mid-30s, but at menopause, waning estrogen accelerates bone loss. When bone density declines to a certain point, a woman has osteoporosis, and her weakened, brittle bones are at risk for debilitating fractures, particularly of the wrist, spine and hip.
If you’re a woman age 50 or older, get a daily dose of at least 1,200 milligrams (mg) of calcium and 400 IU of vitamin D (which aids calcium absorption) to help slow bone loss. After menopause, increase your intake to 1,500 mg calcium and 800 IU of vitamin D. You can get more calcium and vitamin D by consuming low-fat dairy products and fortified foods, but you may need to take supplements to ensure you’re getting enough. Talk to your healthcare provider about your osteoporosis risk, when to schedule a bone density test and whether you should take medication to protect your bones.
2. Jump-start your exercise regimen. You’ll need to include both aerobic and weight-bearing activities in your routine. Aerobic, or cardiovascular, exercise uses large muscle groups in sustained activity that gets you breathing deeply and your heart pumping harder. Activities like walking, jogging and biking help strengthen your heart. With weight-bearing exercise, you work against the forces of gravity or weight. Activities like walking, jogging, doing calisthenics and lifting weights help build stronger bones. Exercise moderately for 30 to 40 minutes at least three to five times a week.
3. Improve your diet. Menopause triggers weight gain, particularly around your middle, and changes in your cholesterol with HDL (good) cholesterol declining and LDL (bad) cholesterol rising. Combat these changes by limiting saturated and trans fats. Choose lean meats, poultry and low-fat dairy foods. Enjoy more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and limit your sodium intake. Eat oily fish, such as mackerel, trout and tuna, at least twice a week and switch to olive or canola oil for cooking.
4. Quit smoking. Smokers have lower bone density, are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease and twice as likely to suffer a stroke than nonsmokers. Women who smoke experience menopause a year or two earlier than do nonsmokers. Even “social smokers” are at risk—research shows puffing as few as one to four cigarettes a day can do significant damage.