Every year on the second Sunday in May, Mother’s Day serves as a reminder to honor and celebrate the important women in our lives, and to let those who are still with us know just how much they are valued and appreciated.
In keeping with the spirit of the holiday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health has designated Mother’s Day as the beginning of National Women’s Health Week — a time for women to honor themselves by taking care of their own unique health needs.
Start with the basics
The first step to maintaining good women’s health is to start with “the basics” of good health in general, says Dr. Reid Pierce, vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer of Jefferson Regional Medical Center (JRMC) in Pine Bluff and an actively practicing physician with OB/GYN Associates of South Arkansas, a JRMC clinic.
Pierce says establishing a relationship with a primary care provider and getting “a good physical examination, routinely” are high priorities, as are cultivating healthy lifestyle habits. “We try to get people to think about not smoking, not overeating, and getting some exercise,” he says, in addition to encouraging regular checkups and screenings for female-specific issues.
For younger women
“Generally speaking, pap smears are recommended at age 21” says Pierce — but not any earlier, even for younger patients seeking birth control, “unless they have something significantly wrong or painful.”
Pierce also cautions women who have been vaccinated against HPV (human papillomavirus) not to avoid regular exams out of a false sense of security. Although the vaccine can reduce the risk of cervical cancer, he says it does not eliminate it, nor does it protect against many other diseases.
The reproductive years
Pierce advises anyone who might get pregnant to begin taking folic acid supplements in order to prevent certain types of birth defects. For women who do become pregnant, he advises:
- Don’t wait to get prenatal care, as there are tests that can’t be performed beyond a certain point.
- Ask your doctor about any concerns, but try not to stress about every little thing — pregnancy is not a disease, it’s a condition.
- After the baby is born, watch for postpartum depression. Mild “baby blues” are common, but if a mother is neglectful of herself or her baby she should seek help.
Perimenopause and menopause
All women should get a mammogram at age 40 and continue to do so regularly as their physician advises. “Especially when it’s detected early,” says Pierce, “breast cancer is a very curable disease, even though it’s frightening.”
The onset of menopause can be indicated by a number of symptoms, including disruptions in menstruation, memory loss, night sweats, moodiness, and irritability. Pierce describes the process: “It’s as if you’re in a room, in your young years, where your hormones are active … and then the other room at the end of the hall … that’s the menopause room. But going from one room to the next, it’s not an overnight thing. It’s not like walking through a doorway. It’s kind of a years-long walk down the hallway.”
Many mood issues “have to do with the fact that [women]aren’t getting good sleep,” says Pierce, since many hormonal disturbances, called vasomotor symptoms, occur at night.
In some cases, hormone replacement therapy can help. “Some women need it, and some women don’t,” he says, adding that some need it only temporarily.
Menopause does not signal the end of a need to be aware of women’s health issues, however. Pierce says age-related women’s health issues occur, such as fractures due to lower bone density and increased risks of breast and ovarian cancer. “Occasional pelvic exams are still a good idea — not necessarily a pap every year, but an occasional ovary check, because that’s where ovarian cancer presents,” he adds.
Pierce encourages women of all ages to reduce unhealthy stress and anxiety by recognizing that, while they should always discuss any concerns with their doctors, often the changes they are experiencing are perfectly normal.
“Paying attention and worrying are two different things,” he says. “It’s good to pay attention. But it’s not good to worry.”
For more information visit www.womenshealth.gov.
A.D. Lively is a Little Rock-based writer specializing in health and wellness.