Old Symptoms, New Risks
Flashes, flushes, fatigue — they may have meant nothing in your younger years. But now they could signal a serious problem. What to watch for, what to do
By Meryl Davids Landau
When you were in your 20s and 30s, you probably ignored random aches or other minor physical annoyances, and they usually went away. But now those symptoms can come back — often with a different cause, and calling for more serious attention.
Symptom: Heart Palpitations
What it may have meant in your youth: You were in love
What it may signal now: Fluctuating hormones
You expect hot flashes and "senior moments" in the years leading up to menopause, but many women are surprised to find they also have palpitations — their hearts pound or beat irregularly. In one 2007 study of more than 1,000 women in four countries, for example, 12 percent said they'd had this sensation. Yet experts aren't sure why it happens. "It's amazing how little research there is," says menopause researcher Susan D. Reed, M.D., professor of ob-gyn and epidemiology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Shifting hormones — the estrogen-progesterone ratio changes at menopause — likely play some role.
If this happens to you: Such palpitations are usually harmless, but even if yours are mild or occur only once in a while, you can't be sure they're nothing until a doctor checks you out, Dr. Reed cautions. Your physician can test your heart rhythm with an in-office EKG, and may suggest you wear a portable monitor for up to three days. In addition, you'll need to rule out other conditions, such as an overactive thyroid, that can also cause palpitations. If you're a serious coffee or cola drinker (young or old), a switch to decaf might also solve your fluttering-heart problems. And of course, regardless of your age, if your irregular heartbeat is accompanied by chest pain, shortness of breath, feeling faint, or any other sign of a heart attack, call 911 right away.
Symptom: Spots in Your Eyes
What it may have meant in your youth: Flaking mascara
What it may signal now: Floaters
Add a gel you've likely never heard of to the list of body parts that can break down in middle age. Positioned in the back of the eye between the lens and the retina, the gel-like vitreous humor becomes liquefied with aging, and can separate from the retina, causing tiny shadows known as floaters. "It looks like it's moving in front of your eye, but it's actually inside it," explains Lama Al-Aswad, M.D., assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology at New York City's Columbia University Medical Center. The clumps themselves aren't worrisome, but occasionally they pull on the retina, causing a tear or hole that can lead to a detachment. People who are extremely nearsighted are more likely to develop detachments--sometimes at younger ages — because of the shape of their eyes and their thinner retinas.
If this happens to you: Check with an ophthalmologist right away if you develop a new floater, see flashes of light, or lose side vision — signs of possible retinal detachment. "A tear or hole must be repaired quickly to prevent vision loss," Dr. Al-Aswad says. If it's simply a floater, it will just keep, well, floating — but eventually you'll adjust and notice it less.