Every woman on the other side of age 40 has heard the horror stories about menopause: Suddenly you can’t remember things. Muscle turns to Jell-O. Bones become brittle. Cholesterol and weight creep up, and your waistline expands. But—thankfully—these midlife consequences aren’t inevitable, if you adopt good-for-you strategies now. “If women started developing good habits before they reached menopause, it would not feel as though they are taking on a special assignment at the time of menopause,” says Dr. Margery Gass, executive director of The North American Menopause Society. Here, six changes that’ll get you in fighting form so you can handle whatever curve balls menopause throws you.
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Overhaul your habits. The Women’s Healthy Lifestyle Project followed more than 500 women with a mean age of 47 for 4 and a half years. One group lowered their overall fat intake to 25 percent of daily calories and saturated fat to 7 percent; slashed dietary cholesterol to 100mg a day; aimed to lose five to 15 pounds on a diet of no more than 1300 calories a day; and burned 1000 to 1500 calories a week through exercise. Their efforts paid off: The women’s LDL rose by only 3.5 mg/dL compared to 8.9 mg/dL in the control group; blood glucose levels rose by just 1.6 mg/dL compared to 3.3 mg/dL in the control group. They also lost about a pound–women in the control group gained 5.2 pounds–and shaved an inch from their waistline.
Step up your walking. Logging a minimum of 6,000 steps (about 3 miles) a day adds up to a healthier life for midlife women, report Brazilian researchers, who tracked the daily step count of 292 women ages 45 to 72. That level of physical activity is associated with a lower body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference and a decreased risk for diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Bonus: Walking at least six miles per week may keep your brain from shrinking, sparing your memory as you age, according to a study published in 2012 in the journal Neurology.
Lift weights. As early as your 30s, you start losing muscle—a phenomenon called sarcopenia—and begin to accumulate fat. Between ages 30 and 80, lean body mass drops by about 15 percent, according to Dr. Barbara Bushman, co-author of the American College of Sports Medicine’s book Action Plan for Menopause. Between ages 50 and 70 you lose about 30 percent of your strength. Regular strength training will keep your metabolism humming along and help maintain muscle and slow bone loss, reducing the risk of osteoporosis. Bonus: Keeping muscles strong means you’ll be able to do so-called “activities of daily living” as you age, says Bushman, a professor in the department of kinesiology at Missouri State University in Springfield. “One of the frightening things to me is that women aren’t able to lift even a relatively light weight as they age.” She recommends lifting weights two to three days per week with a day of rest between workouts.
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Protect your brain. Garden-variety forgetfulness and life-changing dementia plague plenty of us as we age. So implement a save-your-memory plan now. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh reported that healthy young adults ages 18 to 25 can improve working memory by getting more omega-3 fatty acids, or fish oil. People took a supplement containing two grams of omega-3s once a day for six months. Even though you’re older, it’s worth a shot.
At the University of California, Irvine, researchers found that short bursts of moderate intensity exercise helps people 50 and older—whether they’re healthy or dealing with mild cognitive impairment—consolidate memories, or convert short-term into long-term memory. What it took: Six minutes of pedaling on a stationary bicycle at 70 percent of maximum capacity. “Controlling your cardiovascular risk factors and keeping circulation open gives your brain a chance to age healthfully,” says Dr. Lynne T. Shuster, director of the Office of Women’s Health at the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn.
Your weight and smoking habits affect memory, too. Obesity ups the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 80 percent according to a 2008 study in Obesity Reviews. So lose excess weight. And if you smoke, stop. Heavy smoking in midlife is associated with a 157 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and a 172 percent increased risk of developing vascular dementia, according to a 2010 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Focus on calcium. If you’ve been skimping on calcium, which keeps bones hard and strong, clean up your act. Starting in mid-life, women lose more bone than they form and the pace ratchets up during menopause. Some women lose up to 20 percent or more of their bone density during the first five to seven years after menopause. Getting enough calcium can slow down that loss. Up until age 50, women need 1000 milligrams of calcium per day, recommends the Institute of Medicine (IOM); after that, 1200mg. Try to get that calcium from food, like milk, cheese and yogurt rather than supplements, advises Shuster. Research has found an association between calcium supplements and heart attacks.
Get more D. Since vitamin D helps calcium absorb bone, now’s the time to meet the IOM guidelines for D. Those call for getting at least 600 IUs of D per day up until age 70 and 800 IUs or more after that. Since it’s difficult to get enough D from food, and too much sun—the main source of D—can raise the risk of skin cancer, take a D supplement.