The Biggest Health Fear Women Have In Their 50s

August 19, 2015
Erin Schumaker

A guide to health at every age.

Health complaints change over the decades. What worries us at 25 is very different than our concerns at 40. We asked the HuffPost Lifestyle Facebook community to tell us what they worried about most and then conferred with experts. Here's what we learned. (Find all ages here.)

We asked: What is your biggest health worry?

You answered: "After experiencing dementia with both of my parents, I fear losing cognitive ability and being able to enjoy life and taking care of myself." -- Lori Steiner 

 When we surveyed 50-something women about their health fears, dementia and Alzheimer's disease came up again and again (other top concerns included chronic illness and arthritis). Some women had parents or grandparents who had suffered from the disease. Others worried about how their memory loss could affect their loved ones.

"Because age is the greatest risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease, we often think of it as an old person’s disease," said Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and author of the book Two Weeks To A Younger Brain

"The majority of cases do strike people older than 65," Small said. But, he noted, many of thehealth behaviors that can lower risk and protect against mental decline, such as regular exercise, proper diet, mental stimulation and stress management, need to start well before the years start to pile up.

Know your risk

Two-thirds of Alzheimer's victims are women, partly because women tend to live longer than men. Women are also more susceptible to depression, which is a risk factor for dementia. But that doesn't mean that Alzheimer's is an inevitable fact of life. "There’s compelling scientific evidence that genetics is not the full story when it comes to risk for Alzheimer’s," Small said. "In fact, for the average person [without a strong family history of Alzheimer's], non-genetic factors may be more important than genetic factors." 

That's not to say genetics aren't important. Early-onset Alzheimer's, the type Julianne Moore's character had in last year's drama "Still Alice," occurs in people between the ages for 30 and 60. It represents less than 5 percent of all Alzheimer's cases, but it's often genetic. A gene mutation causes familial Alzheimer's cases, and if that gene runs in your family, your chance of inheriting the mutation is about 50/50.

Early diagnosis is key

For the majority of people, however, Alzheimer's is a very gradual process. "When the disease begins -- and it’s subtle -- people are still able to compensate for the problem," Small said. "We can actually see their brains [using brain imaging] working harder to perform."

Over time, people's ability to compensate for their memory loss breaks down. "That’s when people need help from others -- they develop dementia," he said.

That's not to say you should treat occasional forgetfulness, such as misplacing your keys or forgetting an acquaintance's name, as a sign of impending dementia. Normal aging involves memory decline, according to Small. "When it’s beginning to impair everyday life, that becomes a problem," he said.

"An example of normal aging would be forgetting where you park your car on occasion. Where it’s more of a problem is forgetting where you parked your car twice a month."

And like most medical conditions, it's smart to check with a doctor if you've noticed changes in your memory or cognition. "Anytime someone is concerned, it’s better to ask for help and advice," Small said. "I’d rather reassure somebody that this is normal, than wait until it’s more advanced."

Beyond Alzheimer's disease and dementia, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists put together an informative checklist of screenings, immunizations and evaluations that are important for women in their 50s.

The Cleveland Clinic's Health Maintenance Guidelines for women is another great resource.

Here's what to expect for health at other decades.