Jan 9, 2023 Better Women’s Health at Every Age

3 women hugging on the beach

What women need to know to stay well-from adolescence to ageless.

Throughout a woman’s life, her body and her health care needs evolve. From adolescence through menopause and beyond, women experience many changes. Staying healthy through all those changes can be daunting—but it doesn’t have to be. We asked doctors at RWJBarnabas Health to share some of their best advice on how women can maintain optimal health at every age and stage.

Preventative and General Healthcare

Robert A. Graebe, MD
Robert A. Graebe, MD

Being proactive about preventing illness and injury should start early in a woman’s life. “Adolescent women should be encouraged to establish healthy eating and sleeping habits, exercise regularly and avoid excessive screen time,” says Robert A. Graebe, MD, Chair and Program Director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Monmouth Medical Center. Preventive care, he says, can include taking seemingly simple but important measures such as consistently using sunblock and always wearing a seat belt.

Dr. Graebe also stresses the importance of caring for mental health and says that adolescent and young women should be encouraged to seek support for feelings of anxiety and depression or other mental health problems. In addition, women should schedule an annual well-woman visit. “During this visit, the care you receive will focus on you, your body and your reproductive health,” says Dr. Graebe. “A well-woman visit also provides a time to discuss fertility questions and family planning options and to get screened for sexually transmitted diseases.”

Gynecologic and Reproductive Health

First OB/GYN Visits

Lena L. Merjanian, MD
Lena L. Merjanian, MD

“The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that a girl establish care with a gynecologist between the ages of 13 and 15,” says Lena L. Merjanian, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Rutgers Health. “This visit is an opportunity for her to establish a trusting rapport with her physician. It’s a confidential visit to discuss reproductive health concerns, contraception, relationships, adolescent sexuality and avoiding risky behaviors.”

According to Dr. Graebe, the first OB/ GYN visit is also an opportunity to establish the diagnosis of common problems such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, hypothyroidism, eating disorders, etc. “The majority of bone formation occurs during the early years, so discussion concerning proper bone health is vital to prevent future osteoporosis,” says Dr. Graebe. A first gynecologic visit usually doesn’t include a pelvic exam or Pap smear.

Reproductive Years

During a woman’s reproductive years, maintaining optimal health can increase her chances of a healthy pregnancy and birth if she chooses to start or grow a family. Folic acid supplementation is important, especially when planning a pregnancy. In addition, women should be proactive with age-appropriate screenings, such as Pap and HPV (human papillomavirus) tests. They should use condoms with new sexual partners to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, such as chlamydia and gonorrhea, which can negatively impact fertility. And, says Dr. Graebe, they should be aware that “a woman’s peak fertile years are from about age 27 to 29, with a steady decline starting in the mid-30s.”

Some women, including those receiving cancer therapies and those wishing to postpone pregnancy until beyond their mid-30s, may want to consider egg freezing and subsequent in-vitro fertilization, says Dr. Graebe.

Breast Health

Breast self-awareness should start at about age 20, when women should focus on knowing what’s normal for their breasts. If changes are noticed, women should talk to their primary care provider or OB/GYN. Regular breast screening can help detect cancer at an early and more treatable stage. For women at average risk for breast cancer, a clinical breast exam is recommended every one to three years between the ages of 25 and 39, and a mammogram is recommended every one to two years beginning at age 40. “It’s important for women to be aware of their family history,” says Dr. Graebe. “Women at increased risk, such as those with a family history of breast cancer and other hereditary cancer syndromes, may benefit from seeing a genetic counselor.”

Heart Health

Julie Master, DO, FACC
Julie Master, DO, FACC

“It’s important for a woman to know her risk factors for heart disease, including her cholesterol numbers, blood pressure, family history and smoking status,” says Julie Master, DO, FACC, Director of Noninvasive Cardiac Services at Monmouth Medical Center. “There are also novel risk factors such as pregnancy complications that can put a woman at higher risk of heart disease in the future. A history of cancer treatment may also increase her risk. Having a yearly physical and not ignoring symptoms are of the utmost importance.”

Bone Health

Nicole M. Montero Lopez, MD
Nicole M.
Montero Lopez, MD

Most women don’t think about their bones until there’s a problem with them, but bones need care to stay healthy just like the rest of the body.

Bone density testing is one way to measure bone health. This is especially important for women because, according to Nicole M. Montero Lopez, MD, an orthopedist at Clara Maass Medical Center, hormonal changes during menopause can directly affect bone density. Women 65 and older and women under 65 with risk factors, such as a family history of the disease or fracture, should have a bone density test. Frequency of testing depends on age, results of prior tests and individual risk of fracture. The goal in osteoporosis prevention is to slow down the loss of bone mass to reduce the risk of fractures. You can strengthen your bones with certain exercises and lifestyle changes. Weight-bearing exercise is the most important type of exercise for preventing osteoporosis, and a diet rich in calcium and vitamin D is good for bone health.

Health Equity

Meika Neblett, MD, MS
Meika Neblett, MD, MS

The importance of women’s health equity cannot be understated. According to Meika Neblett, MD, MS, Chief Medical Officer at Community Medical Center, “Women’s health equity requires an integrated approach that recognizes the need for progress in understanding the social determinants of health, diversity and inclusion, and their intersectionality.

“RWJBarnabas Health has made equity a priority in women’s health,” says Dr. Neblett, “and it has taken steps toward removing barriers to preventive screenings that lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment of certain types of cancers as well as improving access to family planning services.”

Learn more about women’s health services at RWJBarnabas Health.