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Your (Very Personal) Health at 20, 30, 40, 50

Menstrual Irregularities

Infrequent periods or irregular bleeding may signal polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a condition linked with high levels of androgens (hormones) that affects one in 10 women in their reproductive years and is usually diagnosed in women in their 20s and 30s. Other signs include ovarian cysts, obesity, and facial-hair growth, and it's the most common cause of female infertility.

While PCOS can't be cured, it can be treated, so see your doctor, who will run a series of tests (a physical exam, blood tests, and an ultrasound) to confirm the diagnosis. She may prescribe the Pill to help regulate your cycle and androgen levels. Maintaining a healthy weight is also key, since fat tissue elevates hormone levels. If you are trying to conceive, fertility drugs can help normalize ovulation.

For women age 40 or older, irregular or heavy bleeding may signal a polyp, a usually benign uterine growth that commonly occurs in women in their 40s and 50s (experts don't know why). If symptoms are disrupting your life, polyps can be surgically removed. Another source of period upset for the 40s set: thyroid problems. The thyroid gland powers brain regions that help regulate the ovaries. Once you hit 40, get a thyroid test every five years, since thyroid function naturally decreases with age, says Goist. Meds are available to treat an underactive or overactive thyroid.

Ovarian Cancer

Though it's more common among women who are 50 and older, ovarian cancer can strike in your 40s (or, rarely, even earlier). Symptoms are subtle — in fact, until recently doctors believed there were none — but the American Cancer Society (ACS) now identifies the following as possible warning signs: bloat, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and frequent urination. If you have these symptoms daily for at least three weeks, talk to your doctor — but don't panic. "Just because they're present doesn't mean you have ovarian cancer," says J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, M.D., deputy chief medical officer of the ACS. "But play it safe and get checked out."

Diagnosis involves an exam and/or an ultrasound, and treatment typically begins with removing the ovary and testing lymph nodes to see if the cancer has spread. Ovarian cancer is relatively rare — an estimated 22,430 new cases will be diagnosed in the United States this year — but your risk is higher if you have a close relative with ovarian or breast cancer. If so, you may wish to get tested for a mutation of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes: Women with a BRCA gene mutation have about a 27 percent to 44 percent lifetime risk of developing ovarian cancer, compared with a less than 2 percent risk for the general population.

If you carry a BRCA gene mutation, a cancer specialist can help you decide if preventive measures such as birth control pills or hysterectomy are right for you. All women who have taken the Pill, had multiple pregnancies, and breast-fed are at less risk of the disease, says Linda Duska, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. "These women ovulate less in their lifetime, and we suspect that the more you ovulate, the more likely your ovary is to be disrupted." For more info, go to the National Ovarian Counsel Coalition Website at ovarian.org.

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