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Your 40s: body basics

Whenever we hit a decade-marking age - 10, 20, 30... 40 - we supposedly go through some imagined transition, like we've just crossed some important threshold. But what makes 40 feel so different? Why do we perceive 40 as the top of the proverbial "hill," that hill we supposedly roll down into the valley of old age? In a word: estrogen.

For women, much of the force of 40 comes from the fact that this is the decade in which our fertility declines. It's the time when many women move through perimenopause, the years leading up to full-blown menopause. Some women skip suddenly to menopause in a matter of 2 years or so, while others note subtle and overt changes across years, even a decade.

During perimenopause, estrogen levels fluctuate, triggering switches in menstrual cycles - they may be lighter, shorter, heavier, or longer, the intervals between periods may change, but they'll likely be different than they've been before. Irregular ovulation makes it much more difficult to become pregnant. While many women over the age of 40 will experience fertility problems, those who do become pregnant also face higher risk of complications (e.g., high blood pressure or diabetes during pregnancy), miscarriage, birth defects, and low birth weight.

These hormonal shifts can bring menopause-related symptoms, including hot flashes and sleep difficulties with or without night sweats. Mood swings, irritability, and depression, more likely linked to stress or lack of sleep than hormonal changes, may also arise.

Dropping estrogen may mean less vaginal lubrication, which can make sexual intercourse difficult and possibly painful and also make a woman more vulnerable to urinary and vaginal infection.

Estrogen loss has also been linked to bone loss, making it all the more important to support your bones via strength training and adequate calcium intake (1000 mg per day). And as estrogen dips, heart disease risk can increase, due to boosts in bad cholesterol, diminished elasticity of arteries, and accumulation of belly fat.

That belly fat - sometimes jokingly called the "meno-pot" - can increase a woman's risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. And it is stubborn fat, too. Even with regular exercise, it can be tough to keep it - and your overall weight - in check. That could be because a woman's caloric needs change as she gets older, even if her activity levels don't. Basal metabolic rate also declines little by little with each decade of life, so fat-burning requires extra effort.

Fat-burning is not purely cosmetic, and neither are some of the other changes to the appearance of a woman's body as she ages. Signs of aging may become more apparent, in the form of wrinkles, dry skin, loosened skin around the neck, and crinkles and furrows around the eyes and mouth. Hair may show more white or grey and become thinner.

A woman in her 40s may also note changes in the way her breasts look. The breasts are fatty tissue and contain no muscles. It is an underlying network of connective tissue called the "Cooper's ligaments" - along with a well-fitted bra - that support breast tissue. As a woman ages, these ligaments become less taut, which leads to sagging.

A whole host of other health risks spring into a woman's peripheral awareness in this decade, too. Osteoarthritis, a joint disorder that usually affects the hips, knees, feet, and spine, tends to strike women in their 40s and 50s, although it can occur at any age. Risks for breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer rise in this decade, too.

Weakened pelvic muscles may play a role in urination issues like incontinence, and in some women a condition called pelvic prolapse is to blame. Women who are obese or have given birth in the past are more susceptible. Excess weight may also make a woman more vulnerable to uterine fibroids, non-cancerous tumours that are more common as a woman moves toward menopause.

With all that is known about living a healthy lifestyle and preventing disease, women need not worry about the whole over-the-hill thing. Read "Your 40s: healthy habits" for the many ways women can make their 40s fantastic.

All material copyright MediResource Inc. 1996 – 2024. Terms and conditions of use. The contents herein are for informational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Source:

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