Women can be so good at taking care of everyone else—children, partners, aging parents—but sometimes they have a tough time extending that same level of care to themselves. To compound matters, certain health issues impact women differently. But making that time for women-centric self-care is critical, according to area experts such as health and fitness leaders, dentists, massage therapists, plastic surgeons, and reproductive and fertility practitioners.
“Women’s health is family health,” says Tommi Thompson, Executive Director of the non-profit Wisconsin Women’s Health Foundation. WWHF focuses on promoting prevention and early detection of disease, and it collaborates with other health-focused organizations providing health education and connecting individuals with resources. WWHF is committed to improving the health and lives of Wisconsin women and families through health education, outreach programs, and the funding of women’s health research. “By improving the overall quality of life for women, we are impacting their whole family,” says Thompson.
Take cardiovascular disease, for example; as with men, chest pain or discomfort is the most common heart attack symptom for women, but women also experience lesser-known signs like nausea and vomiting, or back and jaw pain. In the case of osteoporosis, four times as many women as men suffer from the disease. In addition, twice as many women as men experience depression and two of the ten most common cancers that are diagnosed in women are gender-specific: uterine and ovarian. Put simply, things are different for women—yet those things don’t always get the attention or funding they need, whether from research, care providers or the patient herself.
“Some of the most important health behaviors women can engage in are avoiding tobacco, engaging in regular exercise, making healthy eating choices, and taking time to focus on the self,” says Thompson. “As women are often the heart of the health care system within their family, it is imperative that they take care of themselves. As the saying goes, ‘Put on your oxygen mask before assisting others.'”
As a dentist, Dr. Scott Kirkpatrick knows a thing or two about how a bright, healthy smile can affect a woman’s entire appearance and attitude, not to mention her overall physical health and well-being. But one of the biggest detriments to health is one you might not expect your dentist to consider: the lack of restful sleep.
“So many women, particularly young moms, lack sleep and it shows up in their teeth and jaw muscles,” says Kirkpatrick. “Overdoing caffeine and sugar weaken teeth as well, but they also seriously inhibit healthy sleep patterns.”
For women, lack of sleep doesn’t usually show up in the same way it does for men, which is in grinding, flattening and breaking teeth.
“Women tend to express pain more in the muscles,” says Kirkpatrick, adding that this can lead to Temporomandibular Disorders commonly known as TMD. “Eighty-five percent of the time TMD is not a breakdown of the joint, fortunately, but rather fatigued and injured muscles. Muscles we can deal with, if we get the bite right and address issues such as caffeine intake.”
Primary and sleep physicians will get a woman started on the path to proper sleep, but often she will be referred back to practices such as Kirkpatrick’s to have her airway assessed. Orthodontists will examine adenoids and tonsils, perhaps fitting her with an oral appliance that repositions the lower jaw to open the airway, or a grinding split that idealizes the bite and allows the muscles to relax at night.
When it comes to good health advice, most women have heard just about everything. But the best advice may be the simplest advice, says Sharon Baldwin, Senior Healthy Living Director of the YMCA of Dane County.
“Stay physically active, eat right and get enough sleep and you’ll reduce your risk of most diseases,” says Baldwin. “Seventy to eighty percent of health risks come down to lifestyle habits. Unfortunately, many women often don’t see the link.”
The Y offers a variety of classes to get women moving, increasing their energy and helping them live a happier, healthier life. Zumba, Boot Camps, Group Cycling, Strength Training and TRX classes are just a few that women can participate in and benefit from.
“Everyone should also know their health numbers,” says Baldwin. “Knowing your risk for certain conditions before they occur can make all the difference in helping to prevent them. Getting regular screenings helps you do this by revealing to you and your doctor what is happening in your body.”
Baldwin recommends working with a healthcare provider to find out your specific key indicators for blood pressure, waist size, BMI, weight, cholesterol and fasting blood sugar.
“At the Y, it’s not about the activity you choose as much as it’s about the benefits of living healthier,” says Baldwin. “On the inside as well as the outside.”
For a long time, massage was perceived as a luxury. Now it turns out that there’s a reason we’ve attached the word “therapy” in recent years. Sure, it feels terrific—and there are very real health benefits to massage therapy.
“In addition to easing tight, sore muscles, massage helps to reduce the stress hormone cortisol, which can help manage anxiety, boost immunity and improve sleep,” says Nichol Harvey, co-owner of Kneaded Relief Day Spa and Wellness. “For women, especially, massage can help with the symptoms of PMS by reducing bloating and by boosting mood regulators dopamine and seratonin. I’m also proof that regular massage can help curb migraine and tension headaches.”
Harvey says that, as a woman and a mother, she understands exactly how easy it is to get wrapped up in taking care of everyone else, from her work schedule to picking up the kids, running errands, fixing dinner and cleaning the house.
“We always end up last on our own list, but it’s so important to take time out for ourselves,” she says. “I schedule my every-other-week or every-three-week massage, and my monthly facial, pedicure and wax. I schedule myself a lunch on busy days and put my workouts on my calendar. If I don’t, I easily forget until it’s too late and I’m either in pain, wondering why I’m breaking out, or starving.”
There are many reasons couples may find themselves struggling with infertility, and lifestyle factors can play a critical role in conception.
“Overall, it’s really important for women to be as healthy as possible in order to become pregnant,” says Dr. Elizabeth Pritts of Wisconsin Fertility Institute, “so working with your doctor to optimize your health is a great idea. This should include modifying lifestyle factors, if needed—quit smoking, reduce alcohol intake, and maintain a healthy weight. All of these factors can improve a woman’s chances of conceiving.”
Dr. Pritts and her husband, Dr. David Olive, who is also a surgeon and fertility specialist at Wisconsin Fertility Institute, have been through infertility themselves and have helped hundreds of women struggling with this emotional issue. “We have our best chance of helping women conceive when they vigorously concentrate on their overall health going into the process,” says Dr. Olive.
Both extreme thinness and obesity lead to loss of menstruation, making it difficult to get pregnant. Women who smoke lose their fertility potential five years sooner than non-smokers. Smoking not only kills eggs, it kills sperm. And even if only the man smokes but does not smoke around his partner, her miscarriage risk still increases in the first trimester. And for alcohol—both men and women should drink no more than one drink per night for three months up to conception.
In addition, timing is important. Dr. Pritts notes that fertility in women begins to wane by age thirty-five; by age forty-three, only ten percent of women will be able to become pregnant using their own eggs.
After pregnancy—no matter how wonderful and miraculous—many healthy women are surprised to find they can’t exercise or diet their way back to their pre-pregnancy bodies. The abdomen and breasts are the areas most affected, and most often in a way that nothing but surgery can fix.
“It’s not only the skin that becomes stretched, which it does, but the muscles are stretched too,” says Dr. Clifford King of Dean Clinic-Aesthetic Surgery Center. “Even if you lose weight, the stretched muscles are not going to simply become un-stretched. The extra skin is not simply going to disappear.”
King repairs and tightens muscles surgically with an abdominoplasty, while also excising or cutting away redundant skin to create the flatter, smoother stomach that no amount of crunches—and not even liposuction—will achieve.
Breasts are heavily affected by bouts of weight gain and weight loss, as well as by the repetitive sort of growing and shrinking caused by the nature of lactation and breastfeeding. For these women, King performs a mammoplasty, or breast lift, removing excess skin and sliding the nipples back into place. For many women this is enough to restore volume; others may opt to add an implant as well.
“I think there are a lot of women out there who feel that they need to just live with what they have, that there’s no hope,” says King. “We can help them feel good about themselves again.”
Sometimes surgery on the breasts comes as a result of cancer treatment. Although reconstructive surgery is a very individual and personal decision—and it might even be the last thing on a cancer patient’s mind at the time of diagnosis—Dr. Jeffrey Larson of Meriter Medical Group says meeting with a plastic surgeon before treatment to discuss options can be beneficial.
“A lot of cancer patients don’t know their reconstructive options at the time of surgery,” says Larson, a fellowship-trained plastic surgeon with additional specialized training in complex reconstructive surgery. “I think the same goes for any cosmetic intervention. It’s so important to meet with the surgeon, find out what they’re a candidate for and what their options are.”
As a reconstructive surgeon, Larson says his goal is to restore a patient; to give her back what she has lost. As a cosmetic surgeon, his goal is to improve the patient’s qualify of life by improving appearance. Both goals are met more easily today by advances in technique. For breast reconstruction after cancer, for example, new techniques now spare abdominal muscles by utilizing extra skin and fat instead, minimizing the negative impact to the abdomen. Other non-surgical solutions, such as injectables, have also come a long way.
“A lot of these non-surgical techniques are becoming more and more popular in the last few years,” says Larson. “They’re quicker, have less down time, and are less expensive, which is very important to patients.”
Over the past five years or so, researchers and doctors have begun to better understand the role that volume plays in facial aging.
“In the past, we were always just trying to lift everything up,” says Dr. Kevin Robertson of Robertson Plastic Surgery and RENEW Skin and Laser Center. “But it turns out we were only taking aim at one arm of the aging process.”
In our twenties, we each have about seventy-five cubic centimeters of fat in our faces, creating that full, flush shape we associate with youth and vitality. Beginning in our thirties, we start losing about a cubic centimeter every year. By our forties, that’s up to two cubic centimeters per year.
“By the time people are fifty, they’ve lost, on average, at least half the volume of fat from their faces,” says Robertson. “So you start to see some clear loss [resulting in] sagging. The face starts to look elongated and drawn out.”
Over the years, there have been a number of different approaches to resolve these issues, but just in the last three to four months, the federal Food and Drug Administration has approved a new hyaluronic acid filler specifically for the cheeks. Robertson says Voluma, from the makers of Botox and Juviderm, is more accurate, more natural, and easier on patients than anything he’s used yet.
“We use it now to not just restore volume but add some lift back to the facial structure,” says Robertson. “It’s really been a significant change in the strategies we have to address facial aging.” •