Certain symptoms women commonly experience after age 40 may be nothing to worry about, particularly if they’re part of your “norm.” But when you have a sudden change, like unexpected vaginal bleeding, heart palpitations that last more than 15 minutes, or a rash on your breast that doesn’t go away within a couple of days, it’s wise to see your doctor.
“The reality is that a lot of times these symptoms are normal,” says Courtney Baechler, MD, a cardiologist and vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing at Abbott Hospital in Minneapolis. To put things in perspective, she reminds her patients that these are all things she’s probably experienced in one form or another in just the past week — but they can also indicate a more serious health condition.
Here are 10 signs and symptoms you should pay special attention to.
Out-of-the-Ordinary Breast Changes
The size, feel, and look of your breasts are as individual as you are, and breasts often change predictably throughout the month. Some women normally have lumps; others get a lump every month before their period. But something outside of your usual breast condition could be a symptom of a health problem, says Rachel Freedman, MD, MPH, a medical oncologist at the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.
“Look for anything new that persists, such as a mass, skin change, or rash that doesn’t go away in a day but sticks around,” Dr. Freedman says. Breast cancer can appear as an unusual redness of the skin that looks like an infection, swelling, lumps, bumps, or nodules. Other potential symptoms include nipple discharge that’s bloody (if it’s not bloody, it’s probably not of concern), and breasts that become unusually asymmetrical.
Unexpected Irregular Vaginal Bleeding
Irregular bleeding, especially if it’s accompanied by pain during sex, could signal a serious condition like cervical cancer or uterine cancer. If your menstrual period becomes unusually heavy or irregular, occurs more often than every three weeks, or you have spotting between periods, get these symptoms checked out.
Discuss any post-menopausal spotting with your doctor. Even a little bit of bleeding after menopause is abnormal, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Some of the common causes are polyps (noncancerous growths), and either atrophy or thickening of the endometrium — the lining of your uterus.
Surprising or Sudden Weight Gain
Dramatic, unexplained changes in weight can be a sign of a serious health problem. Weight loss can be a sign of cancer, while weight gain may be a warning sign of heart failure. If you experience new bloating or distention in your midsection that is persistent, it could be a sign of ovarian cancer, says Dr. Baechler. Ovarian cancer is uncommon, yet bloating is often one of the first symptoms.
If you have weight gain along with swelling in both of your legs, and shortness of breath when you lie flat, you could be showing signs of heart failure, says Ashley Simmons, MD, medical director of the University of Kansas Hospital’s Adelaide C. Ward Women’s Heart Health Center in Kansas City. Rapid weight gain, swelling, and retention of fluid can occur when your heart doesn’t pump fluid as efficiently as it should.
A Change in a Mole
Having moles isn’t inherently a problem, but moles that bleed or change form are red flags, says Daniel Aires, MD, JD, dermatologist with the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. The rule of thumb is to look for changes in the “ABCDE” of your mole:
- Asymmetric appearance
- Border that’s irregular
- Color variation
- Diameter larger than a pencil eraser
- Evolving size changes
The American Academy of Dermatology says these are warning signs of possible melanoma.
If there’s a history of skin cancer in your family, watch your moles even more closely. Routine evaluations can help find potential problems. If you have a concern about a mole, it may be wise to take a photo of it every six months to make it easier to notice changes over time.
Persistent Leg Pain on One Side
Swelling and pain in one leg that doesn’t go away may signal that you have a blood clot inside a vein, known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). These signs should be tended to at once, particularly if you’re at higher risk for DVT. Risk factors that make DVT blood clots more likely get riskier with age. These include smoking, having surgery, being on estrogen-containing pills or hormone therapy, being immobile for a long period of time (like during long-distance travel), being pregnant, and recently giving birth. A life-threatening pulmonary embolism can occur when a blood clot moves from one part of your body to your lungs and blocks a vital artery there. According to Dr. Simmons, about 70 percent of blood clots that travel to the lungs begin in the legs.
An intermittent extra heart beat here or there isn’t something that should concern you. But if you have heart palpitations that last longer than 15 minutes — especially if they’re accompanied by shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness, or losing consciousness — you should be checked out, Simmons says. These symptoms could indicate a heart condition called atrial fibrillation.
In atrial fibrillation, the top chambers of the heart beat more quickly than the lower chambers. When prolonged, this can create blood clots that can move to other parts of the body and may lead to stroke or heart failure over time.
Chest Pain Under Strain
“In older white males, we know chest pain may be a sign of heart attack. But we haven’t gotten that same sort of education with women,” Baechler says. “Women fear breast cancer more than heart disease, but they are more likely to have heart disease.” In fact, heart disease is the No.1 killer of women in America today, causing more deaths than all types of cancer combined.
If you lift something and have chest pain that you’ve never had before, get it checked out. You should also see your doctor about any new chest pain when you walk up stairs or exert yourself in some way. This is particularly important if the pain goes away after a short period of rest. Women are more likely than men to have atypical symptoms of a heart attack: shortness of breath, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, extreme fatigue, a cold sweat, or pain in the arms, back, neck, or stomach, Baechler says. Get these, and any of the more traditional symptoms, checked out.
Worsening Shortness of Breath
Don’t ignore shortness of breath by assuming it’s from a lack of conditioning or recent weight gain. If you experience shortness of breath after exertion that progressively gets worse, it could be a sign of a heart disease like aortic stenosis (a valve problem in an older woman) or coronary artery disease (a partial blockage in an artery leading to the heart). Check with your doctor if you have shortness of breath that’s suddenly getting worse.
Sudden Vision Changes
As you age, it’s normal for your vision to progressively worsen. But don’t ever ignore visual changes that affect only one eye, the sudden onset of double vision, or the inability to see the center of what you’re looking at.
Vision changes that occur suddenly can be signs of a stroke. They’re particularly alarming if they come with other warning symptoms of stroke, such as numbness on one side of the body, or difficulty speaking or finding the right words. More subtle variations on these symptoms could indicate a transient ischemic attack, commonly called a mini stroke. Getting them checked out could prevent a larger stroke later, Baechler says.
Unexpected Bowel Habit Changes
Bowel movements are a measure of how things are passing through your body, which means they can be a good indicator of something that’s awry. Conditions like colon cancer and anal cancer can have similar symptoms. These include bleeding or blood in the stool, and any major changes in the amount, frequency (either constipation or diarrhea), consistency, or appearance of stools.
Bowel changes that don’t go away after a couple of days or weeks should be checked out with your doctor. “It’s really normal most of the time, but it’s just always good to get routine checkups if something is changing,” Baechler says.