Women have never been healthier – our life expectancy has almost doubled in just one century. That’s good news, but it also means our bodies have to last a lot longer, so it’s up to us to make sure they’re fit for the task by keeping a careful watch on our health and lifestyle and noting any changes.
- The health checks that can save your life – part 1
- The health checks that can save your life – part 3
reathing around 23,000 times a day for 40 or so years means we’re constantly exposed to a variety of toxins, but may not notice any symptoms of lung diseases until the damage is done. Smoking, air pollution and other chemicals attack the small airways and delicate air sacs in our lungs. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the UK’s fjfth biggest killer, although 2.8 million of the estimated 3.7 million with the disease don’t know they have it, putting their symptoms, such as breathlessness, down to a bad cold or being overweight or older. But COPD kills more British women than breast cancer, and is increasing three times faster in women than men, as our lungs get damaged more quickly. (For more on COPD, see page 49.)
Women are also getting more lung cancer (almost 16,000 new cases a year). This is partly because we’re smoking more (although the nationwide ban on smoking in public places will eventually help reduce this) and partly because oestrogen seems to make us more susceptible. MRI scans suggest that lung changes may develop in up to a third of non-smokers who have had high exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke.
- Don’t blame breathlessness or a persistent cough on getting older, fatter, less fit or smoking – see your doctor.
- If you work with dust or chemicals, follow health and safety advice, and go for any recommended checks.
- Get a blood test if a close relative is diagnosed with alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency: a genetic disorder affecting the lungs that increases the risk of COPD — although it’s present at birth, the effects may not show until you’re around 50.
Statin drugs, taken to lower cholesterol, seem to slow lung function decline, especially in non-smokers, and could help people with COPD, as they lessen lung inflammation. Abnormal blood proteins could eventually be used to detect pre-symptomatic lung cancer. NICE now funds Tarceva, a drug which buys extra time for some lung cancer sufgerers, under certain circumstances.
Whats happens next?
You’ll need a chest X-ray and possibly a CT or MRI scan, plus ‘blowing’ tests (spirometry) to see how your lungs are working.
Treatments for COPD include stopping smoking, using inhalers to open airways and suppress inflammation and taking other drugs. In severe cases, oxygen therapy or removing a damaged section of lung may be necessary. Lung cancer is treated by surgery, radiotherapy or chemotherapy.
- Persistent cough (more than three weeks)
- Coughing up blood
- Feelings of breathlessness
- Persistent hoarseness
- Chest pains
- Excessive tiredness
- Unexplained weight loss
any specifically female problems naturally settle after our childbearing years but, for some women, these are replaced by menopause symptoms, or problems with prolapse, when the muscles, ligaments and supporting tissues in the pelvis become weaker. We’re also more at risk of developing cancer of the womb, cervix and ovaries. Back in 2007 a research study suggested that eating fried, baked, roasted or grilled food may increase womb and ovarian cancer risks, but the exact level of the risk was unclear. Prolapse is uncomfortable, and can also lead to urinary problems such as incontinence, as well as pain in the pelvis or lower back, and constipation.
- Have regular cervical smears – usually every five years, but more often if you have had any
- Use a mirror to check if something feels wrong ‘below’.
- Use your diary to keep track of vaginal bleeding.
The Gardasil vaccine, that protects against the two Human Papillomavirus types that cause 70 per cent of cervical cancers, is currently being offered to British teenage girls aged 12 and 13. Older women can have the three-dose vaccine privately.
Whats happens next?
If you’ve had an abnormal smear, you’ll need a colposcopy (examination of the cervix) and possibly treatment to eradicate precancerous cells. If you have irregular bleeding and pain, you may have an ultrasound scan, a telescope examination of your womb, and/or blood tests followed by treatment. Pelvic floor exercises can relieve prolapse and incontinence, but surgery may be required.
- Irregular vaginal bleeding or discharge
- Heavy bleeding with clots or pain
- Bleeding more than six months after your last period
- Lower abdominal pain, pain during intercourse, or bloating
- A sense of heaviness or pressure in the pelvis
- Persistent soreness or white patches on the vulva
Type 2 diabetes means our bodies are unable to handle glucose (sugars) properly and can lead to heart disease, strokes, kidney failure, blindness or gangrene. It’s becoming more common, possibly because of our increasingly poor diets and lack of physical exercise. You’re more likely to develop it after the age of 40 (25 if you’re black, Asian or from an ethnic minority group). You’re also more at risk if you have a waist circumference greater than 80cm (31½in), a (close) affected relative, polycystic ovaries (combined with being overweight) or had temporary diabetes when pregnant.
- Watch your weight. Over 80 per cent of those diagnosed with diabetes are overweight; the more overweight and inactive you are, the greater your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- You can get your urine tested for glucose at your GP surgery, some pharmacies and NHS walk-in clinics. Some offer blood tests, too.
- A diabetes home test kit and glucose monitor is available from websites, such as www.valuemed.co.uk. Boots stores sell a home-test kit which checks your blood glucose, or visit www.boots.com. Do discuss the results with your GP.
Researchers are developing a pill, which could replace insulin injections, but they are still at the clinical trial stage: the major stumbling block has been the fact that insulin is easily destroyed by digestive juices in the stomach before it can get into the bloodstream. Now experts have been able to coat tablets with a special molecule which allows the insulin to safely penetrate the wall of the intestine and enter the bloodstream
Whats happens next?
You’ll need regular checks aimed at preventing complications.
Diabetes can improve with weight loss and lifestyle changes, but you may need medication or insulin injections.
- Excessive thirst
- Excessive urination
- Weight loss
- Blurred vision
- Vulval itching
- Wounds that are slow to heal