Examining a woman’s health in midlife can predict her health decades later, researchers say.
Four specific factors — higher body mass index (BMI), smoking, arthritis and depressive symptoms — at age 55 are associated with clinically important declines in physical health 10 years later, a new study reports.
“Age 55 to 65 may be a critical decade,” said study co-author Dr. Daniel Solomon, of the division of rheumatology, inflammation, and immunity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“A person’s health and factors during this period may set them on a path for their later adult years. The good news is that a large proportion of women at midlife are very stable and will not go on to experience declines. But being able to identify women at higher risk could help lead to interventions targeted to them,” Solomon said.
For the study, the research team used data from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation, that followed U.S. women from 1996 through 2016. The investigators studied their health status measures, lab measurements and imaging assessments.
The researchers compared the women’s overall scores at age 55 to their scores at age 65, finding that 20% of the women they studied experienced clinically important declines in their physical health.
Women who had higher baseline physical health and function were less likely to experience a decline. Factors associated with a decline included higher BMI (a measurement based on height and weight), lower educational attainment, current smoking, clinically significant depressive symptoms and other health issues, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis and osteoporosis.
Though the participants were diverse and representative, the study was small in size, with only 1,091 women. The findings will need to be validated in a larger group, the study authors noted.
The findings were published online Jan. 10 in JAMA Network Open.
The investigators are working to determine how they might apply their results to clinical practice. This could include developing a risk score that doctors and their patients could use to determine the likelihood of future declines in health status.
“As a clinician and epidemiologist, I often think about the window of opportunity at midlife, when people are vital, engaged and resilient,” Solomon said in a hospital news release. “If we can identify risk factors and determine who is at risk, we may be able to find interventions that can stave off health declines and help put people on a better health trajectory.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has more on prevention and wellness.
SOURCE: Brigham and Women’s Hospital, news release, Jan. 10, 2022