Older women's health

If you're a woman over 50, diseases like breast cancer or health issues like the menopause can be of particular concern. By being well informed, you'll have a better sense of how to take care and protect yourself.

Breast cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women of all age groups, but 80 per cent of cases occur after the menopause.

Symptoms – what to look out for

The first symptom noticed by most women is a lump in the breast, most of which are harmless but still worth getting checked. Other symptoms include persistent breast pain, nipple discharge, a marked change in the appearance of your breasts or how they feel, or any dimpling, as if the skin were being pulled from the inside.

Awareness – what to do

Try to become familiar with your breasts by examining them regularly – your doctor will show you how or you can follow an online example. nidirect TV has a short video, Breast Screening, which shows you what to do.

Regular screenings, via a breast x-ray or mammogram, help with detection and are currently available free. Advice is available on the Northern Ireland Cancer Network website.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer affects the lower part of your womb known as the cervix. It's most likely to occur in women aged 25 to 65.

Symptoms – what to look out for

Bleeding between periods, after sex or after the menopause, unpleasant-smelling vaginal discharge or discomfort during intercourse.

Awareness – what to do

The smear or ‘pap’ test is not a test for cancer but it identifies early changes in the cells of the cervix that happen prior to cancer. Early detection and treatment is estimated to prevent up to 80 per cent of cervical cancers.

Women aged 20 to 64 are invited to a free smear test every three to five years through the Health service Cervical Screening Programme. Women over 65 are invited if their previous three tests were not clear or if they have never been screened.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is the fourth most common form of cancer among women.

The disease largely affects post-menopausal women with 90 per cent of cases occurring over the age of 45.

Symptoms – what to look out for

Although symptoms include indigestion, bloating, nausea, unusual vaginal bleeding or pelvic or stomach discomfort, it is not easy to identify early symptoms.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a thinning of the bones that affects one in three women. Getting older increases the risk, linked to a lack of oestrogen caused by early menopause (before age 45), early hysterectomy (before 45) - especially if both ovaries are removed - and missing periods for six months or more due to over-exercising or dieting.

Symptoms – what to look out for

Fractures can occur more easily with osteoporosis, especially in the wrist, spine and hip. One in two women will suffer a fracture after the age of 50.

Awareness – what to do

The key to prevention is as simple as a healthy and active life. Include milk and dairy products, green leafy vegetables, baked beans, oily fish and dried fruit in your diet.

Weight-bearing exercise, like running, cycling, bouncing on a trampoline or brisk walking for at least 20 minutes three times a week improves bone density.

For information on speaking to your doctor about osteoporosis download the following guidance. For more general advice and information, contact the National Osteoporosis Society.

Menopause

Menopause means the last menstrual period, the time when a woman's ovaries stop making the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone. The average age at which it starts is 51.

Symptoms – what to look out for

These range from hot flushes, night sweats, aching joints, vaginal dryness and bladder problems to mood swings, anxiety, depression and irritability.

The Menopause Amarant Trust has an advice line:

HRT and alternative therapies

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) can help symptoms of the menopause. Specialists recommend that you have an assessment every couple of years to find out if treatment is still necessary. It's best to discuss benefits and risks with your doctor.

Alternative therapies can also help you with menopausal symptoms.  

Hysterectomy

A hysterectomy is a surgical operation to remove the womb. By age 55, 20 per cent of women have had a hysterectomy.

Menopause does not automatically occur unless the ovaries have also been removed, but it may occur earlier.

Recovery time from a hysterectomy varies, but it is likely to take several weeks. The operation can lead to a sense of loss – if you need to discuss how you feel after a hysterectomy, you may benefit from counselling.

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