By Meredith Melnick-The Huffington Post
I’m turning 30 today and, as has become HuffPost tradition, I wanted to share some of the health lessons I’ve learned along the way. There is a fundamental irony to writing a health-themed “things I’ve learned” blog at the age of 30 when, medically speaking, I’ve already been mature for more than half my life. Leaving my twenties is a cultural milestone rather than a biological one. And while it may seem glib to compare the two, there is an undeniable disconnect between our biological and social expectations for people, especially women.
But first, a caveat: I still have yet to go through the major health issues that face large numbers of women: giving birth, having a major health scare or developing a chronic condition of any kind. I’m sure that one or more of these will change over the next 10 or 20 years, but as I stand now, I don’t feel as though I inhabit a dramatically different body than I did five or 10 years ago. I’m approximately the same weight. I have relatively similar anaerobic capacity and strength. I continue to vacillate between a plant-based and omnivorous diet. Sometimes I like the way I look and sometimes I shake my fist at the universe that I was not born Penelope Cruz’s identical twin. I’m a pretty normal woman, in other words.
Except that, apparently, living in a normal woman’s body in America in 2012 is remarkable in the truest sense of the word: a part of the public discourse. I can’t control how we examine and devour the female form in the celebrity culture. I can’t stop the cynical political machine that jeopardizes the medical rights of young women through devastating legislation and willful misinformation. But I can tell you what it’s like to navigate from within one human body, from behind this set of secondary sexual characteristics. And how, more than anything, becoming an adult is an exercise in self care. I am the steward of this thing, the murky depths of which are unknown even to the most advanced medical minds. I’m doing my best and this is how:
1. You are the only expert on your body
Doctors are your most important resources in your mission to take care of yourself, but they are only as useful as the information you give them. That doesn’t mean you should give equal attention to your Aunt Phyllis’ creative ideas on antibiotics or your own home remedies, but it does mean you need to be an active participant in your own health. Make sure you’re keeping track of symptoms, patterns and lifestyle factors. Don’t lie about risky behavior like unprotected sex or drug use — your doctor isn’t the school principal, she isn’t there to scold you. But she does need the full picture to offer you the best care.
2. You will now have peers who are doctors and that will be crazy
That friend from your freshman dorm who lived on cold pizza and cigarettes? He could be a neurosurgeon by now. Turning 30 means that all your friends who started medical school after college are now charged with caring for your hospitalized love ones.
3. It is your responsibility to be scientifically literate
You can’t rely on health news alone (thought it’s a good place to start). To truly understand the latest developments in health, you need to learn how to read a study. That means boning up on things like what constitutes statistically significant data, the difference between in vitro and in vivo lab research, what “confounding factors” refers to and more. That way, the next time you see a headline like “Eating Unicorn Meat Causes Cancer,” you can evaluate the study and realize that, actually, the research found something much less definitive and far more convoluted like: a compound found in unicorns, when applied directly to mouse cells in a petri dish, resulted in an increase of cancer cell division.
4. Internet symptom databases are only sort of your friend
Yes, reading up online is important. But checking each symptom you have on a database will inevitably lead to panic and misinformation. Yes, a headache can indicate a brain aneurism, but chances are that’s not what you have. What’s more, diagnosing yourself using a search engine could delay your visit to a doctor, who can offer you a proper diagnosis.
5. As a scientifically literate person, you must learn not to call your gynecologist “the lady doctor”
It isn’t cute. Let’s train people to hear real, adult words from real, adult women. We have vaginas and those vaginas are sometimes cared for by gynecologists.
6. And once you can say gynecologist, find one you can trust
Many women see their gynecologists as often or more often than their GPs, so in many ways this is your primary doctor relationship. I think my gynecologist is one of the best doctors: he’s flexible, involved and careful. He takes everything seriously, offers suggestions and backs them up with research. Decide what your criteria are and make an informed choice. Shop around!
7. Birth control is medication and medication is a Big Deal
Perhaps because it is extremely common, birth control is often overlooked as the ongoing, long-term medication that it is. If you decide to take it, you could be on it for decades. That means there’s no settling: find the absolute best method for yourself. Don’t suffer through intolerable side effects and make sure you know what all the options are. Talk to your doctor and read up about all the methods out there.
8. Yes, your fertility is on the decline
We may be engaged in a culture of prolonged adolescence, but our ovaries are unaware of that fact. By 30, your ovarian reserve will have begun its decline (the height of fertility is in the early 20s) and that decline will become precipitous by 35. That means, if you want to give birth to biological children, it requires a bit of planning.
This necessarily introduces a new dynamic: you are biologically compelled to act out a social behavior (planning a family, looking for a mate) in a way that your male and non-child-seeking peers do not. Yes, it’s unfair, but what can you do? As Cole Porter wrote, “We’re merely mammals.”
9. Speaking of mammals, smelling like a human is healthy — and sexy
Don’t smell like flowers or like a poundcake. There’s no reason to stop bathing, but ditch the heavy, synthetic fragrances. Smell like you. Not only will you cut down on the number of potentially harmful endocrine disrupting compounds you are exposed to (common beauty product ingredients like phthalates and parabens), but you’ll also make a statement. It’ll be attractive to some people and it will offend only the sort of people who reinforce that tired old social expectation that women should rise above their earthly bodies — shouldn’t have bodily functions or smells or imperfections. And why would you want to cater your grooming habits to someone who wants to deny your humanity?
10. Facial moisturizer:
A lot of beauty products include pseudo-scientific advertising terms that make them seem like medical remedies. As someone who is deeply skeptical of anything that is advertised with digitally enhanced models, I have previously dismissed many skincare products. But moisturizer not only protects the hydration of your skin just at the age when it begins to lose moisture, lotions that carry sunscreen are a necessity for every day.
11. Start protecting yourself from the sun now, if you haven’t already
Skin cancer is still the most common type of cancer in America. The sun damage that often causes it may start accumulating early, but a lifetime of sun exposure contributes to the risk. That means wearing a daily sunscreen, covering up with hats and clothing in direct, prolonged sunlight and wearing sunglasses to protect your eyes. And just because you don’t burn doesn’t mean you aren’t at risk.
12. Accepting your body might be hard, but it’s also really fun
Unsurprisingly, as a teenager I struggled to accept my appearance. I managed to drop 20 pounds during my first semester of college by living exclusively on garden salad, miso broth and fat free frozen yogurt (and midori sours, because I was a teenager unleashed on the public with a fake ID). Thanks to a hearty Mediterranean metabolism, the extent of my disordered behavior was largely hidden by a more-or-less healthy BMI, but I can tell you that I was grumpy. I was moody and spaced out, but most importantly, I had the same love/loathe relationship with my appearance as always. Now, reunited with my 20 pounds, I’m a great deal happier with how I look. And I’ve given up the exhausting habit of thinking about it all the time.
13. Find a physical activity that you love
Preferably one you can do for a long time. Everyone of every age needs to incorporate daily physical activity into their lives, but that will be infinitely easier and more enjoyable if it’s something you truly love. It doesn’t have to be conventional and it doesn’t have to be focused at a fitness center: find a passion in tournament volleyball, folk dancing, horse-back riding or a bike commute and you’ll be a healthier, more youthful adult later on.
14. Run a race
As a preternaturally embarrassed person, the idea of running en masse filled me with dread and was long filed under the category of public spectacle (see also: parades; the ‘Happy Birthday’ song). But one weekend, a friend convinced me at the last minute to join her for a small 5k race near my house. I quickly realized that there is something primal and energizing about running in a pack — something that makes race running an entirely different experience than a solo jog.
15. Grow your own food
Even if it’s just a basil plant on the kitchen windowsill, having food that you’ve grown yourself will help inspire more whole food recipes. Because if there’s one thing that doesn’t go with fresh produce, it’s processed junk. And even if you put those hard-earned basil leaves on a frozen pizza, training yourself to appreciate the taste of fresh, whole foods will help in the long run.
16. Learn to meditate
Choose your reason: many people meditate as a way to center themselves and set a focus and intention for their day. But if that sounds new age-y to you, there are plenty of research-based reasons to take up the practice: it reduces anxiety, helps treat trauma, increases empathy and may help prevent the onset of age-related dementia.
17. PUT YOUR PHONE DOWN
Sorry for yelling. But please: pay attention to the people around you. It’s bad for your brain and bad for you eyes and bad for your relationships to text and instagram your social interactions away. Even if they don’t say so, even if they don’t seem to notice, your loved ones will benefit from your shift from half to full attention. If I’ve been too shrill and brief on this topic, a good place to learn more about the psychological and social costs of our smartphones can be found in Sherry Turkle’s brilliant book, Alone Together.
18. See a therapist
Visiting a therapist has probably been the nicest thing I’ve ever done for myself. You don’t need to be dysfunctional to go — you just need to be interested in learning more about yourself and the dynamics you have with other people. There isn’t anybody who doesn’t get stuck — who doesn’t fall into rote patterns in professional and personal relationships. And there’s nothing wrong with seeking the help of a professional to help guide you through a deeper understanding of yourself.
19. Learn to cook
Cooking for yourself is the best way to control what goes into your body. You will use less oil than a restaurant, fewer ingredients than a fast food meal and it’ll be easier for you to modify dishes to make them more healthful.
20. Know when to splurge on organic
There are differing and passionate feelings about the importance of eating organic produce. Given its higher cost and lower availability, it’s not surprising that many people choose conventionally-grown food instead. But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing: some foods tend to have higher pesticide loads than others and so it is possible to choose a combination of cheaper, relatively clean fruits and veggies and more expensive, must-be-organic foods.
Here are some things to try:
Try it for a week or a month or however long you’d like. It’s useful to know how your body feels without animal products. You’ll be a more creative chef and adventurous eater afterwards and you’ll be forced to consider your nutrient intake — on the modified diet and off. Don’t know where to start? Here’s a primer on what to consider.
Because flexibility and muscle mass diminish with age and a strong yoga practice can help retain and enhance both.
Physical courage, like flexibility, diminishes with lack of practice and with age. It’s important to remind your body of what it feels like to be on shaky ground. It’s important to use your brain to problem-solve different landscapes and spatial surroundings. If you’re not near water, many other activities, like rock-climbing, can also accomplish this.
24. Fermenting things
Taking produce at its peak season and learning to preserve it for later is a healthful way to keep veggies on hand in the pantry. When a salty snack craving hits, you’ll be glad to have pickles instead of chips. And, like many single 20-somethings, it might take a little longer than the shelf life of a cucumber to work your way through the fridge — making fermentation an easy way to keep food waste down.
25. Sleep isn’t just for wimps, it’s for you too
I’ve gone to high-pressure schools my whole life full of determined children, influenced by their equally ambitious parents. What I noticed is a certain machismo about forgoing sleep for schoolwork. And that, frankly, backfires. Not only do studies show that losing sleep harms overall school performance, chronic sleeplessness is associated with a host of health problems — from cancer to heart disease. That chemistry midterm, on the other hand? You’ll probably forget about it.
26. On that note, stress is just as insidious — and just as dangerous
It’s associated with some cancers, poor memory and learning acquisition and more. It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle of school or work, but it’s also important to find a healthy, productive way to de-stress. De-stressing is also your job.
27. You don’t need “study drugs”
Enthusiasm for “study drugs” like Ritalin and Adderall was just reaching a fever pitch as I graduated from college. I admit it — I took a couple of pills, mostly out of curiosity, to see if it would help with my papers. But my experience was similar to what’s born out in the research literature: you might have more fun in your library carrell, but you won’t do better work. And you’ll feel like your head’s stuffed with cotton balls the next day.
28. People you love will have health scares and it won’t be okay
During one 18-month period about five years ago, three people who were close to me were simultaneously diagnosed with different types of cancer. I thought I was handling everything pretty well. I could rattle off all the medications everyone was on (my chemotherapy puns are to die for). I could give injections. I had the stamina for marathon bedside sessions. But also, I couldn’t remember anything. Words escaped me. I couldn’t focus: I would forget what a conversation was about midway through. I was literally browning out from the stress.
29. Caretaking is hard
The cancer wasn’t a blessing in disguise. It sucked. And while it sucked most for the people going through it, it wasn’t great for the caretakers either. Being cancer-associated is its own kind of exhaustion. And, as a young person, you are far more likely to find yourself in the role of caretaker than you are patient. So please realize that what you are doing is not for the faint of heart and it requires a great deal of energy and emotional fortitude. Go easy, don’t forget to do nice things for yourself and, above all, ask for help.
30. Listen to yourself
At this point, you’ve been around the block a few times. You are a better judge of character than you used to be. You know your body and its reactions to things. You have a sense of whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert. Don’t deny yourself what you know that you need: time alone, a nap or even a few days without heavy meals. You are the expert, don’t let anyone else tell you how you are.