10 women over 60 share the health advice they wish they'd taken seriously when they were younger
“Pain and discomfort are not normal”
People say ‘the world is your oyster’ like it’s a positive thing. But have you seen an oyster? If we’re going by sensory appeal, then working to break through a hard shell only to be presented with a snot-looking blob might be an apt metaphor. The lucky ones get the pearl. The rest have to make do with seasoning and sauces to make it digestible.
We see life more as a game of Jenga. The first few rounds you’re taking risks, pulling off big moves without the stress of everything falling over. Only later, despite a strong foundation, do things get dicey. Each block we pull is then placed on a higher list of priorities that need attention first. Childcare, housework, in-laws, requests from friends.
As women, it feels like no matter how much we polish off our plates, something new gets added to the mix. In this, we end up neglecting a lot of our own needs as our time, energy, support and empathy get channelled into those around us.
As we grow older, the health advice we brushed off as something we didn’t need to worry about when we were young comes into sharper focus.
The past two years have taught us that good health is a gift. When you’re in your 20s and 30s, it’s easy to take it for granted and dismiss health advice from your parents, family members and peers. You still feel remnants of your childhood invincibility — losing weight easily, bending over to pick up fallen popcorn from our bowl without questioning our muscle mobility.
As we get older, just getting up from the bed the wrong way could result in neck pain for the next three days. That’s when we realise the importance of taking care of ourselves.
It’s natural to feel changes in our body but preparing early on for the transition with good health can ease the process. And we don’t want to wait till it’s too late to take charge.
We asked women aged 60 and above for the health advice they wish they had taken seriously when they were younger. Here’s what they had to say.
Health advice from women who now know better
Focus on strengthening your muscles
Women are always on their feet, running after kids, doing house chores and more. That itself can feel like exercise. But Zeenat Hussain, 60, wishes she had paid more attention to making her muscles strong.
“As a mother of two with a working husband, I was dumped with all the household responsibilities of cooking, cleaning (we live in the US where house help is expensive) and taking care of the kids. I would be too exhausted to even think about exercising or working out. But as I got older, I felt my joints and muscles weaken. I started having back problems, and got a herniated disc.”
Hussain started focusing on exercising in her 50s, following intensive physiotherapy. “My core was weak and the muscles that would hold the spine and joints in place were also very weak. I work out now with daily power walks and strengthening exercises, but it would have been a lot easier had my body already been used to it from a younger age. Even if it’s 10-15 minutes a day, take that time to focus on your health.”
Embrace fats and carbohydrates
It’s easy to get swayed by trendy diets and meal plans. There are healthy swaps we can all make to our daily diet to meet our lifestyle needs. But as Delhi-based nutritionist Nmami Agarwal says, no food is truly ‘bad’. Unless you’re allergic or intolerant to certain ingredients, of course. Going the restrictive way may show results briefly, but you’ll feel the lack of nutrients on your plate, just as Majidah Saiyed, 84, did.
“I didn’t understand the importance of balance when it came to eating. Growing up, my family was always conscious about food. It became more restrictive as I got older, and I carried that on in my life and with my family. But a good diet is a balanced diet, you need fats and carbohydrates for energy. You’ll feel the lack once you’re older. Strict diets result in weakness, because they don’t take into consideration all of the body’s needs.”
Kill your sweet tooth early on
The health advice that Rukhsaar Hussain, 73, ignored when she was younger (and wishes she didn’t) was to control her sugar intake.
“I’ve had a massive sweet tooth from a young age and there was little control when it came to desserts. After every lunch and dinner, there would be some kind of sweet dish. Automatically after every meal, I would start craving something sweet by habit.” Rukhsaar now battles diabetes, brought on by an unhealthy lifestyle. “Keep your sugar in control while you can. But no harm in dreaming about garam gulab jamun with cold rabri.”
While refined sugar is found in the obvious—desserts, candy, aerated drinks, white flour—it’s also lurking in many processed foods, and condiments like tomato sauce, salad dressing, fruit juices under several aliases. “There are 56 different names for sugar,” says Vishakha Shivdasani, a medical doctor specialising in nutrition.
“Some of the common ones are fructose, high fructose corn syrup, lactose, palm sugar, coconut sugar, agave, malt sugar, honey, maple syrup,” Shivdasani adds. “They can be replaced with natural sugars like dates, raisins, berries, but only for the people who don’t have insulin resistance and are not looking for weight loss. Otherwise, you can use sugar substitutes like Stevia or Splenda, erythritol or monk fruit sugar.”
Plan for annual health checks and tests
Gaura Bisht, 63, had her gall bladder removed when a 9mm sized gallstone left her immobilised by pain. An aversion to doctors had kept her away from clinics, a choice she regrets.
“My father was the kind of person who hated going to the doctor. Only if we were seriously ill with a fever over 101 for more than a day or two, would we be taken for a check-up. We weren’t even allowed to take medicines for coughs and colds. I took this mentality into adulthood. I had to get my gall bladder removed back when I was 50. Maybe if I had gone sooner, I would be able to eat what I wanted to right now.”
Some people have a general apprehension when it comes to doctors and medications. But as we get older there are some essential tests that women should get done, especially when it comes to gynaecological and reproductive health. “Prevention is key to longevity,” says Dr Milloni Gadoya, gynaecologist and obstetrician, Apollo Spectra Hospital. “A woman’s body goes through many physical and hormonal changes from puberty to menopause. Most gynaecological conditions are preventable.”
What weighs heavy on your mind can take a toll on your body
There are experiences we carry as emotional baggage through our lives. Some things are easier to let go of and others leave deep scars on our psyche. Our mental and emotional health can impact our body, and paying heed to that is the health advice that Savitra Sharma, 79, has for us.
“I wish I would’ve let go of my grudges sooner before they impacted my physical health. I had a huge falling out with my closest female friend when I was 28. I held onto a grudge against her for a long time. First for doing what she did, then for not trying to sort things out with me. The grudge ran so deep, I gave myself a barrage of permanent physical and mental health issues, including peptic ulcers and chronic pain. And now that I’ve finally let go of the grudge, I feel like I let go of a boulder sitting on my shoulders.”
Long-term stress, whether physical or emotional can cause and exacerbate many health problems. Experts at the American Psychological Association concluded that long-term stress of any kind negatively affects pretty much every part of our physical selves. While having tense discussions, asking for forgiveness or finding common ground with the people in our life can be tough, it’s easier on our musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and reproductive systems.
Don’t let the shame of ‘lady problems’ keep you from the doctor
A trip to the gynaecologist can be a daunting experience for women, especially if you are unmarried. Should you be the one to suggest getting routine medical tests, you risk being served a healthy side of judgement as part of the package.
When we don’t have the language to talk to our own family about such things, talking to a stranger feels even more uncomfortable. More so when things go wrong. It’s something Abida Ahmad, 66, wishes she did more openly when she was younger. She’s not alone. When we asked our Tweak community about their experiences, 45% of the 709 responders said they’ve felt judged/shamed during gynaecologist consults.
“Women need to take personal hygiene and health seriously. I was plagued by urinary incontinence for a long time after my third pregnancy (aged 32) and it made me miserable. I remember asking my mother about it and she brushed it off as something that happens to women after they have children,” says Ahmad. “The incontinence led to a urinary tract infection, which I also ignored because I felt like it was something shameful and dirty. It turned into a full-blown kidney infection for which I had to be hospitalised. It was painful and traumatic.”
Sudha Choksi, 76, went through a very similar experience. She adds, “Don’t shy away from going to the gynaecologist. I did that when I was younger and it led to a lot of serious complications. If you keep thinking about other people, you will never be able to live your life. That’s the mistake I made and I spent a long time trying to recover.”
You can get a workout outside of a gym, find a sport a love
You either hated or loved PT class in school. Experts say that developing a love for playing sports from an early age sets the right kind of foundation for your health – physical and mental. As you get older, playing a sport of your choice can be a fun and engaging form of physical activity.
According to Manhattan Medical Arts, playing a sport not only keeps your weight in check but can help you maintain low levels of cholesterol, hypertension, boost blood circulation, and keep your muscles, immunity and mind at the top of its game. It’s also just a fun stress buster.
Shyamali Ghosh, 60, hates going to the gym. She’d watch her husband and daughter get ready and head out excitedly to work out and could never relate to that kind of enthusiasm. “I wish I had stuck to playing badminton as I used to in school and in college. It used to be a great break from work with friends, and got your body moving also. We used to play slow friendly matches and sometimes, get very competitive also. Now everyone’s staying indoors and there’s no one for me to play with.”
She would see kids in her neighbourhood playing football and badminton after school in the compound and often feel jealous. “I miss that kind of team activity too. It makes you feel connected, something you can all bond over also. Go swimming with friends, badminton, boxing, tennis, basketball. Don’t give up on the sports you love.”
Pain is not normal, advocate for yourself and your health
In healthcare around the world, a gendered disparity has been documented when it comes to treatment. More so, pain. Although women experience more chronic pain conditions than men — whether it’s endometriosis, menstruation symptoms, fibromyalgia or migraines — their pain is taken less seriously and treated as such too.
A University of Miami study found that “when male and female patients expressed the same amount of pain, observers viewed female patients’ pain as less intense and more likely to benefit from psychotherapy versus medication as compared to men’s pain, exposing a significant patient gender bias that could lead to disparities in treatments.”
Sanjeeda Wahi, 63, experienced this firsthand when she was younger. First, her complaints about serious pain and discomfort during her periods were sidelined as being part and parcel of a woman’s biological make-up.
“I would have irregular periods that were very painful and it was dismissed as just something women have to experience. After I gave birth to my eldest daughter, I felt something was off. Every time I mentioned it to the doctor, he would say ‘theek hai, hota hai after birth. It’ll settle, it’s just hormones, something along those lines. I was called hysterical, hormonal and irrational by the medical team and members of my own family.”
After she insisted on further investigation, they discovered she had internal bleeding. “You know your body, you know when something isn’t right. Pain and discomfort are not normal. That means we have to keep pressing the issue but we cannot give up because, in the end, we will only suffer.”
Your family’s medical history shouldn’t be a secret
Aabha Narain, 60, saw her seemingly healthy and fit 55-year-old brother collapse and start vomiting at a family dinner. After being rushed to the hospital, they found that his blood sugar levels were dangerously high. While he stabilised, tests concluded that he was type 2 diabetic, which he didn’t consider would ever happen.
“That’s when we were informed by our parents that they were both diabetics as well. Type 2 diabetes can be caused by environmental factors, but can also be inherited and linked to our genetics. We realised our parents told us nothing about our family medical history up until now. It was always hushed up or dismissed as everything is fine. But kids need to know these things so they can take precautions from a young age.”
General physician Dr Pramod Patel stresses the importance of knowing and documenting medical history to help map out the conditions that may run in the family. “Knowing your medical history, you then know what you have a higher chance of having, like heart disease, certain types of cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more. Prevention is better than treatment.”