Keeping your breasts healthy and fit is a lifelong proposition. Here are some tips for maintaining healthy breasts throughout your 40s.
So, you’ve reached the big 4-0. Those wild teen years, raucous 20s, and settle-down 30s are behind you, and you’re excited to see what life going forward has in store for you.
Having been through my 40s a couple of decades ago, I can tell you one thing: the 40s are a relief. If you have kids, they’re probably old enough to be fairly self-sufficient, as far as the daily routine goes: dressing, eating, following a schedule. If you’re working, you’re hopefully on a chosen path to a known (and satisfying) future.
If you’re in a relationship, you’ve worked out the kinks and settled in. Yes?
Your 40s are a middle-of-the-road decade, in many ways; no longer truly young, not yet old, you’re simply solidifying a lot of what you’ve built over the past couple of decades - including your health.
If you exercised, watched what ate, didn’t smoke, and kept the alcohol consumption within reasonable bounds, you’re probably pretty healthy. Congratulations Chances are you’ll enjoy a far more comfortable old age than you would have had you abused your body during your 20s and 30s.
Still, your 40s aren’t simply the middle-aged fulcrum between youth and old age. For women, they’re a turning point - a time when you may undergo some radical changes in your health, and will definitely be making some critical health decisions. Let’s take a look at the changes you can expect as you pass 39 and head towards 50.
Most women experience menopause somewhere between age 45 and 55, with the average right around age 52. Menopause brings with it all kinds of changes, most of them unpleasant; if you ever wondered why older women sometimes refer to it as "the change," you’ll soon find out!
In years past, doctors would recommend women take hormone replacement therapy (HRT), to try to combat the hot flashes, mood swings, and insomnia that often accompany menopause. But studies have determined that long-term HRT raises your risk of breast cancer significantly.
So what’s the solution, if you’re experiencing a difficult menopause, but don’t want to put yourself at risk for cancer?
A short course of low-dose HRT. Studies show that 2 years or less of HRT, taken at a dose just high enough to be effective, doesn’t raise your risk of breast cancer appreciably.
What’s that lump?
The most common type of breast lump experienced by women in their 40s is a fluid-filled cyst. While not dangerous, cysts can be both painful and scary ("Is this new lump cancer?"). An ultrasound can readily identify whether that new lump you feel is a cyst - or needs further diagnostic testing.
If you haven’t been seeing your family doctor or an OB/GYN regularly, now’s the time to start. Women in their 40s should have a yearly clinical breast exam (physical exam by a doctor).
In addition, if you haven’t really been paying much attention to your breasts - wake up. Be aware of how they feel at different times of the month; and check regularly to see if there’s a change from the norm. While your breast cancer risk during your 20s is 1 in 1,837, by your 40s it’s increased to 1 in 68. Being alert to changes - and reporting them to your doctor - can help catch any potential issues early.
Time for a mammogram?
Although the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommends women have their first mammogram at age 50, the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and most medical professionals urge women to consider starting regular mammograms at age 40.
How do you know if you’d benefit by regular screening in your 40s, rather than waiting until you hit 50?
If you have any known risk factors - a first-degree relative with breast cancer; a genetic predisposition; or some other health condition that raises cancer risk - speak to your doctor about whether a yearly mammogram is right for you.
Fit - or fat?
As you age, the balance of tissue in your breasts gradually shifts from glandular to fat. This shift accelerates during your 40s. What does this mean, from a practical viewpoint?
Sagging breasts. Make sure you wear a good-quality, supportive bra. In addition, consider weight training; building up your chest muscles helps support your breasts.
Health in Your 40s | HealthyWomen (n.d.). Retrieved June 28, 2014, from http://www.healthywomen.org/content/article/health-your-40s?page=7
Kam, K. (2011, September 4). Breast Health: Sagging, Pain, Cysts, Mammograms, and More. WebMD. Retrieved June 28, 2014, from http://www.webmd.com/women/guide/a-lifetime-of-healthy-breasts
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.