Health in Your Twenties: Master These Habits for Lifelong Health
If you're a woman in your 20s, you're probably experiencing the optimal health that comes with youth. Because of that, you also might think you can skip annual exams or screenings. And, it's almost certain that you're not thinking about disease yet.
But, your 20s are an important time to establish healthy routines and habits that are essential for a healthy life now and down the road.
Here are the top reminders I share with my 20-something patients:
Be Careful with the Convenience Foods
Women in their 20s have busy lifestyles. The demands of finishing college or starting a new career or relationship can mean that a carefully planned diet drops to the bottom of your to-do list. Not all convenience meals are terrible for you, but many contain more calories, fat, and sodium than home-prepared meals, and often they don’t include fresh fruits and vegetables.
I tell all my younger patients to schedule a weekly planning day; Sundays seem to work best. Take a few hours and plan meals for the week, make a shopping list, and go to the supermarket. Set an alarm on your phone to help you remember.
Curb Your Alcohol Intake
Ladies’ nights, “wine down” Wednesdays, and happy hours after work can lead women in their 20s to drink more than what's healthy for them. According to national guidelines, low-risk drinking for women means no more than 3 drinks on any single day AND no more than 7 drinks per week.
I recognize that my young patients may drink more than this, but I remind them that I’m not here to judge, just to help them have a healthy lifestyle. Bottom line, if you’re worried that your drinking is a problem, it probably is. Making changes in those patterns now can help you reverse the health risks associated with heavy drinking later in life. Sometimes young women drink to excess to cope with difficult life circumstances; if that’s you, talk to your doctor to find better ways to cope and care for yourself.
Plan Ahead If You’re Thinking About Pregnancy
Starting a family might seem light years away or perhaps you’re married and just starting to think about having kids. Ideally, a woman planning to get pregnant should take 400 mcg of folic acid daily, get smoking and drinking habits in check, and be up to date on Pap tests, pelvic exams, STD testing, and immunizations. If you have a chronic health condition that requires daily medication, know that some drugs can have adverse effects on a developing baby. Talk to your doctor about safer alternatives as early in the planning stages as you can.
Save Your Skin
Are you wearing broad spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen every day, all year? If not, start today—especially if you're fair skinned as you’re at higher risk for skin cancer. Exposure to harmful UV rays adds up over time. The best time to minimize your risk for skin cancer, spots and wrinkles is now. Also, if you have a lot of freckles or moles, get familiar with their size and shape. Then you’ll know if one starts to spread or change, and you can get care right away.
Don’t Skip Well Visits and Screenings
A few reminders of what needs to be done and when:
- Start getting Pap tests at age 21 (even if you became sexually active earlier). If your Pap test is normal, your doctor may recommend having a Pap test every 3 years. If your results are abnormal, she may recommend more frequent screenings.
- Pelvic exams are often confused with Pap tests, but they involve a physical and visual examination of the pelvic area and should still happen every year. If you’re sexually active, your doctor may recommend testing for sexually transmitted infections.
- If you haven’t yet gotten the HPV vaccine, you can still get it until age 26, regardless of when you started having sex. The HPV vaccine protects you from being infected with the human papillomavirus, which is known to cause cervical cancer and genital warts.
- Get your blood pressure checked at least every 2 years.
- Have your cholesterol checked at least once between ages 17 to 21. The frequency of future testing is indicated by those results.
- Get at least a one-time TDAP [tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough)] booster after age 19; after that, a tetanus booster once every 10 years is recommended.
- If you didn’t have chicken pox as a child, and you were never immunized against it, it’s not too late to get a varicella vaccine.
- Get tested for HIV, which is still a major health epidemic in the U.S. At minimum, you should get tested at least once in your lifetime.
- Know your diabetes risk. If your BMI is higher than 25, I would recommend a fasting blood sugar test.
Be Mindful of Stress and Mental Health Issues
There are female-specific issues that notoriously impact young women, especially sexual assault and intimate partner violence. A doctor can help you find the health and social services needed to begin to recover. For young women struggling with life issues or overwhelming stress, a therapist or psychiatrist can help you find relief and get you on the path to balance.
If you’re ever in doubt about a symptom, a concern, or a crisis, know that you can always talk to your doctor.
Updated June 15, 2016