Somewhere, out there in the future, there is a version of yourself – a future you – and her health and wellbeing depends on you. These days, our health goals tend to focus on the short-term – we want to get fit for summer or make it through winter without getting sick – but to really set yourself up for the future, it's a good idea to shift gears and broaden your viewpoint.
"It's human nature to think in the short-term," explains Jean Hailes Specialist Women's Health GP Dr Amanda Newman, "but so much about your health and wellbeing lies in the actions you take over the long-term; what you do consistently, your ongoing habits and behaviours."
Recently, dementia overtook heart disease as the numberone killer of women in Australia, and in the growing trend of chronic diseases affecting women today, many are linked to a poor diet, inactivity and an unhealthy body weight. Jean Hailes accredited practising dietitian Stephanie Pirotta echoes Dr Newman's comments, saying that to play the 'long game', women need to have balanced, healthy habits over the long-term.
"Quick fixes tend to be just that, quick," says Ms Pirotta. "It's like buying a cheap piece of clothing that stretches out and loses shape after two washes and you just throw it out. "Invest a little bit more, and a bit more consistently, in your health and you'll be rewarded in the long run."
"Invest a little bit more, and a bit more consistently, in your health and you'll be rewarded in the long run." – Stephanie Pirotta, Jean Hailes accredited practising dietitian.
For example, bone health in women can start to rapidly decline around 50 years of age, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures in later life. Prevention of this, however, can depend significantly on your diet and physical activity levels in the decades prior. Ms Pirotta advises that women in their 20s onwards need to pay attention to their calcium intake. She recommends aiming for 2.5 serves of dairy a day – such as 200ml of milk, 200g yoghurt and 40g cheese. Current recommendations also include doing weight-bearing physical activity that involves impact, such as stair-climbing.
We all misplace our keys or forget something at the grocery store sometimes. There are many causes of poor memory such as stress, ageing, illness or menopause. However, sometimes the cause is something more serious, such as the onset of dementia. Dementia is now the leading cause of death for women in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
In 2016, 8447 women in Australia died from dementia. Dementia is a collection of diseases affecting the brain. It is often seen just as a loss of memory, but it can affect thinking, behaviour and ability to perform tasks. This can interfere with a person's social and working life. Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia. It is a progressive, degenerative illness that affects the brain. A change in your memory does not mean you have dementia. As the brain naturally ages, it becomes harder to learn and retain new information, but most complex skills are not lost.
Dementia is not a normal part of ageing. You can reduce your risk of developing dementia through lifestyle factors – many of which are also good for preventing heart disease and other chronic conditions. Dementia Australia says connecting with others, challenging your mind, eating well and exercising regularly are all key in reducing your risk factors. Spending time with friends and family helps to create better brain function.
Keeping your mind active with new activities (eg, taking up a new hobby, learning a new language) helps to build new brain cells and strengthens connections between them. A balanced eating plan can help to maintain brain health. Physical activity stimulates your brain and strengthens your heart, and is associated with better brain function and reduced risk of cognitive decline. So look after yourself now for the future you. Eat well and stay active. That way, you'll give yourself every chance of finding your keys (most of the time!) well into old age.
As well as what you eat and how much you move, there are other actions or healthy habits to practise to give your 'future you' the best possible chance of health and wellbeing. Surprisingly, a step towards future health involves looking back to the past, says Dr Newman. "Knowing your family history and what diseases you may be at more risk of is very important," she says. "Pay particular attention to conditions that occur frequently in your blood relatives and relay this information to your doctor.
"It's also important to know your own body, and your own 'normal' so you can be on the lookout for any abnormal changes; for example, blood in your bowel motions [stool] or a new lump in your breast, and report these changes to your GP." Dr Newman explains that GPs can play a vital role in setting you up for a strong and healthy future. "Every woman in Australia should have access to a GP who meets their needs," she says. "Find a GP who you can communicate well with and see them regularly – at least once per year.
The more familiar a GP is with your family history, your personal health history and your individual needs, the better he or she can do their job." GPs also give you access to one of the best ways of protecting your future health: health screenings, also known as health checks.
Not to be shied away from, health screenings can provide empowering insight into your body and wellbeing, showing you how you can protect your health for the future. Some of the most important screening tests are in the table below, showing when recommended regular screenings may start. But do discuss your screening needs with your GP. Every woman is unique; some may need screening to start sooner or later than the below.
A new field of research is revealing that your daily habits and lifestyle choices can affect not only your own future health, but that of future generations – even those not born or conceived yet. This area of research is called epigenetics and it's where your genes (your DNA) and your environment interact.
"To understand what epigenetics is, think of your life and health as an enormous orchestra with thousands of instruments." – Professor Anthony Hannan, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health
Professor Anthony Hannan from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health explains. "To understand what epigenetics is, think of your life and health as an enormous orchestra with thousands of instruments," he says. "Consider the instruments to be your genes. Epigenetics are the musicians; they control which genes or instruments get played louder or softer, or get switched on or off. And it's only when you combine the genes and epigenetics that you can produce the 'symphony of life'!"
Although the research is still in its early days, the potential reach and impact of epigenetics on future health as we know it is mind-boggling. "There are too many exciting discoveries in epigenetics to list," says Prof Hannan. However, the recent discovery from his laboratory at the Florey Institute is among the most exciting. Using laboratory mice, Prof Hannan and his team found that lifestyle factors – which included physical activity, diet and stress – throughout the life of parents prior to conception can change the future health of their children and even their grandchildren.
The major contribution of their research focused on fathers, but other studies have confirmed similar findings in mothers. The follow-on impacts to the offspring included changes in brain function and metabolism, as well as behavioural changes suggesting an increased risk of developing major illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders. So with these far-reaching effects in mind, how do we harness this information for good?
"The research is reinforcing the importance of a healthy lifestyle, not only for yourself, but for your future children and grandchildren," says Prof Hannan. "The five pillars for brain health are similar to those for body health, and include maintaining a healthy diet, staying physically active, staying mentally active, managing stress levels and maintaining healthy sleep patterns. Epigenetics is suggesting that a healthy lifestyle is not only good for you and your brain, it's good for your kids too!"
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