Women's Health Is About More Than Pap Smears And Mammograms

by Karen Johnson
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I spent part of my kids’ first day of school this fall at my annual lady doctor appointment. Yay for me! What a great way to celebrate, right? And it was a pretty standard annual exam and check-up—you know the drill—cold clamps prying your vagina open, rubber gloved fingers reaching up to your neck in search of your uterus (yep! still there! although empty, thank God!), awkward conversation during the breast exam (ridiculous weather we’re having, huh?)… And done.

Only this time I wasn’t quite done yet.

This time there were more concerns, thanks to the fact that I’m inching closer and closer to the next decade of my life. This time there were questions about my diet, exercise, and vitamin intake that I hadn’t heard in my younger years when I was closer to 30 than 40. But, it seems those days of eating whatever I want and giving zero shits about what it was doing to my body are gone, only to be replaced with concerns that include words like “osteoporosis,” “vitamin D,” and “glaucoma.”

What is happening?!?

Well, I know what’s happening. I’m 38. And that number ain’t going down.

One of the biggest concerns my OBGYN had about my overall health was the lack of calcium in my diet. I hadn’t thought much about calcium, or osteoporosis for that matter, since I am still active and chasing my kids around. My bones feel fine, I said (as I thought of my grandmother, hunched over, shrinking in size as she aged, knowing the reality was that could be me some day).

My doctor’s concerns arose after I filled out a questionnaire about my typical diet. When asked how much yogurt, cheese, and milk I consume, the answer was pretty much zero. Dairy doesn’t agree with my near-40-year-old belly, so I avoid it as much as possible. If I cut out the cheeses, I feel better, don’t look 7 months pregnant, avoid horrid gas pains, and all is well in my world.

Or so I thought.

Turns out, my body needs a shit-ton more calcium than it’s getting, and I had no idea.

Why calcium? Well, not only is it essential for proper bone density and preventing osteoporosis, but also the heart, muscles, and nerves need calcium to function properly.

So what is osteoporosis? According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, it is “a bone disease that occurs when the body loses too much bone, makes too little bone, or both.” The word “osteoporosis” actually means “porous bone.” The NOF goes on to explain that “viewed under a microscope, healthy bone looks like a honeycomb. When osteoporosis occurs, the holes and spaces in the honeycomb are much larger than in healthy bone. Osteoporotic bones have lost density or mass and contain abnormal tissue structure. As bones become less dense, they weaken and are more likely to break.”

And sadly, most people reach peak bone mass at around age 30. So I’m already on the decline. (Sigh.)

This is why when your great-aunt Martha falls and breaks her hip, she may not recover. For older women, bones are often brittle, which means even a slight fall can be catastrophic.

So when we analyzed my diet, my OBGYN estimated that I’m only consuming a few milligrams of calcium per day, if that. And my body needs 1,000. It helps that I do eat leafy green vegetables and fish, but with a high-protein diet (we like the meats in our house) and without any dairy intake, I’m severely deficient.

What?! I eat healthy and exercise! I thought I was good! (I was wrong.)

But that’s not all. She says I need vitamin D too, as it helps the body absorb calcium. There’s no point in taking calcium supplements if they go right through me, so I’ll need both. Mayo Clinic says, “A few foods naturally contain small amounts of vitamin D, such as canned salmon with bones and egg yolks. You can also get vitamin D from fortified foods and sun exposure. The RDA for vitamin D is 600 international units (15 micrograms) a day for most adults.”

Well, I don’t really eat canned salmon (no thanks!) or egg yolks very often, and I live in a hibernation state where we have like six months of winter, so yeah, supplements it is.

Doctors do caution, however, that too much calcium can be harmful for the body. Studies have found links between calcium supplements and heart disease, among other risks. I talked to my doctor about this, and she said due to my diet, taking the recommended 1,000 mg per day with vitamin D is the best, safest option, but not to increase my intake. If your diet is full of calcium-rich foods like yogurt and cheese, and you get plenty of sun exposure, you might not need them. But talk to your doctor either way.

And the other crucial step in maintaining bone health is movement. I know, I know. Who has time to fit in exercise?! If you’re already chasing tiny humans all day long, you’re probably moving plenty. But now that my kids are all in school and I work from home as a writer, I sit on my ass A LOT. So yeah, I commit to moving my body on the daily with weight-lifting, stretching, and cardio. Don’t forget to move that booty if you want strong bones.

Listen, friends. We do our annual exams, our pap smears, our breast exams. We get our blood pressure taken and our flu shots. We exercise and eat healthy-ish (I mean, who doesn’t want pizza and wine on a Friday night?). So we’re good, right?

Well, maybe not. If you’re in your late 30s or 40s, now is the time to talk to your doctor about your future bone health. I don’t know about you, but I want to dance all night at my kids’ weddings and travel the world well into my golden years. And I’ll need strong bones to do so.

Take care of you—you owe it to yourself.