Everyone who has ever flown on an airplane has heard these instructions: “Secure your own oxygen mask before trying to help others.” It’s also true when it comes to your health. You can’t take care of your loved ones if you haven’t cared for yourself first. Women have traditionally filled the roles of caregivers for their families, which makes it even more important to attend to their own health. 

Erin Leonard, ARNP

As women move through the different stages of life, there are screenings and routine exams based on age that can potentially be lifesaving. Erin Leonard, ARNP at the Mount Ayr Medical Clinic, encourages the basics, “A healthy diet and exercise is so important for women of all ages.” Erin recommends a wellness exam every year. Wellness visits can include breast exams, pelvic exams, lab work, and immunizations. The healthcare providers at the Mount Ayr Medical Clinic encourage younger women and girls to discuss what’s happening with their bodies during well child and well adolescent visits. Beginning at age 21, a pap smear is recommended every three years until the age of 30. “After 30, we do a Pap smear with HPV testing.  This can be done every 5 years, as long as previous testing has been normal,” says Erin. Screening intervals can change depending on previous results. “One size does not fit all. The best approach is shared decision making between a woman and her primary care provider. As women age, they need to add mammograms and colonoscopies to the list, too!” 

Top of mind this year is how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, especially women who are pregnant, or may be trying to get pregnant.  “There have been a lot of questions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, and whether or not women should get it,” said Erin.  The CDC, World Health Organization, and American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommend vaccinating pregnant women against COVID-19 due to the increased risk of complications should they contract the virus.  Additionally, the vaccine has not been tied to adverse outcomes related to pregnancy or fertility.  Recent studies have shown immunity passed on to babies in moms who have been vaccinated during pregnancy and lactating mothers.  Erin added, “If you have any concerns, you should discuss these with your healthcare provider.”

No matter your age, particularly in stressful times like a pandemic, mental health is as important as physical health. “We screen for depression and anxiety in all our annual visits,” said Erin. “Mental health concerns can span across our entire lifetime. We’re here to help when it’s needed.” 

According to Morgan Drake, Director of Ringgold County Hospital’s Senior Life Solutions, women are twice as likely as men to experience symptoms of depression. “There are a variety of reasons,” said Morgan. “But often it’s related to hormones. Women’s hormones change at the onset of menstruation, with pregnancy, if they’re experiencing infertility, or going through menopause.”

Although these hormonal changes may be inevitable, they don’t have to lead to depression. “Physically taking care of ourselves with a healthy diet and some exercise is a great place to start,” she said. “Studies show that even 30 minutes of walking each day can be as effective as taking anti-depression medication.” Morgan added that the walks can be broken up into 10-minute bursts and be equally beneficial.

Along with basic diet and exercise, it’s important to get adequate sleep and practice keeping stress in check. “We suggest learning relaxing techniques and making time to do things you enjoy. Even caring for a pet can relieve stress,” said Morgan.

Morgan invites the entire community to participate in Wear Green Day on May 21 to bring attention to Mental Health Awareness.

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