Younger women typically rely on their gynecologist as their only physician, says Dr. Katharine Taber, director of the Women’s Wellness Center at Northwest Hospital, “but at midlife that really changes.”
A single doctor can’t realistically provide all of the specialized services needed for midlife health, she explains, but women’s clinics have a network of expertise to draw upon, “and we try to work together and communicate well, so that the whole patient is really addressed and taken care of.”
According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), by 2020 approximately 46 million women in the U.S. will be older than 55, and an estimated 6,000 women will reach menopause every day, the average age of which is 51.
It’s no surprise then that Taber cites some of the top concern of patients, ages 45 to 65, visiting the Women’s Wellness Center, are about perimenopause and menopause transition.
Dr. Neil Rosenshein, medical director of the Weinberg Center for Women’s Health and Medicine at Mercy Hospital agrees.
“This is a dramatic change for the individual and for the family, and I think that’s an important life landmark for these women,” says Rosenshein. “This is one of the more common issues our group deals with, and there are a variety of issues [that arise with menopause]. But the most important thing we try to relay is that this [life transition] is normal, this is natural.”
Since about half of all women who reach age 50 are expected to live to age 80 or even older according to ACOG, women may spend 40 percent of their lifetime in a post-menopausal stage.
“So when you have someone in their 60s and they have potentially 20 good years” and good quality health is their desire, says Rosenshein, “our job is, to the best of our ability, to make sure they achieve that.”
Which is another reason why Taber likes to take a holistic approach to health.
Though women may initially visit a women’s clinic to voice concerns about menopausal symptoms, she says, doctors also look at the patient’s weight, blood pressure and whether they’ve kept up with health screenings such as mammography, colonoscopy, Pap smears and routine blood work.
“We look at those because most women will die from heart attack or stroke, so these are the risk factors,” that we want to see maintained at normal levels, says Taber.
A significant decrease in estrogen hormone — a common signal of menopause — can cause myriad changes in a woman’s health ranging from libido fluctuations to hot flashes to depression. During menopause, women may also become more susceptible to some cancers, which, after heart disease, is the second most common cause of death for women.
“Part of the overall process as women get into this [life stage] is also cancer awareness, says Rosenshein, who is also director of the Institute for Gynecologic Care and the Lya Segall Ovarian Cancer Institute at Mercy. He stresses the importance of cancer screenings and “paying much more attention to family history.” In some cases, he says, a patient may be advised to get genetic testing or evaluation, which he asserts, will become more important in cancer prevention and early detection.
Taber cannot stress enough that for women at midlife or any age, “it’s about maintaining a good weight, exercising, eating healthy and getting enough sleep,” which she outlines, along with other health tips that range from daily flossing and laughing to bladder control advice, in a comprehensive pamphlet she designed for patients. “Those are really the fundamentals.”
But, she admits, “health education is complicated,” and though she lauds the knowledge some patients acquire, she warned that the Internet can provide unreliable information.
“I think that women who come in [to the clinic] in this age group are much more informed and savvy about their health issues,” says Rosenshein.
“But there are many messages out there that are conflicting,” says Taber, “so it’s important to have a good physician you can trust to get accurate and up-to-date information.”