You might not be able to imagine life beyond your 30s, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be thinking about it—especially where your health is concerned.
The choices you make in your 20s have a surprisingly significant impact on your body in those seemingly far-off decades. And assuming you want your retired self to be spry enough to hop on a Caribbean cruise with a cool drink in hand, you should take steps to prevent some common problems long before they cross your mind.
Here are three of those issues you’re probably not thinking about yet—and easy steps you can take to ensure the health of your future self.
Why You Should Care Now: Unfortunately, you can’t compensate for your current weekend staples of double pepperoni pizza and extra-cheesy mac and cheese by eating salmon later in life. How you treat your ticker today will affect its health tomorrow. Studies show that clogged arteries that lead to heart attack and stroke can start forming as early as childhood. And though cardiac problems might seem like a man’s issue, they’re not: Heart disease is the number one cause of death of U.S. women.
What You Can Do:
- Ask your doctor about your risk factors. Talk about both the changeable ones (like smoking, stress levels, or a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos addiction) and the ones you’re stuck with (family history of high blood pressure or heart attack at an early age). Having a family history doesn’t mean you’re doomed—but it does mean that you should be more diligent in controlling what you can: your exercise and eating habits.
- Exercise—even if it’s just 30 minutes of walking every day. “Some women believe that you need to go to the gym and work out strenuously to make a difference, and that’s not true,” says Wendee Duhon, NP, a cardiology nurse practitioner. Walking is better than sitting on the couch.
- Ditch the bad snacks. You’ve heard the litany of foods that are harmful to your health: sugary, saturated/trans fats-filled, and cholesterol-packed snacks. Guess what? It’s true—they’re bad for you. So trade those delicious-but-deadly French toast sticks for healthier choices: lean meats, omega-3 packed fatty fish, reduced fat milk and cheese, and a rainbow of antioxidant fruits and veggies like blueberries, kale, red grapes, and spinach.
- Consider a dental appointment to polish your pearly whites. Research suggests that people with gum disease may have a higher risk of clogged arteries, stroke, and heart conditions in the future.
Why You Should Care Now: Bones stop increasing in density after age 30, due to genetics, inactivity, and decreased estrogen—so strengthening your bones now is key to escaping fractures when you’re older. The goal for your bespectacled senior self should be country line dancing classes at the community college, not a calendar crammed with doctor appointments, right?
Osteoporosis can cause debilitating injuries like hip fractures, which leave 40% of patients unable to walk independently. Breaking any bone when you’re older can have more serious consequences, especially a hip fracture which “definitely changes [patients’] lives…they never seem to be quite back to their old selves,”says Katherine Vojtus, MD, an ER physician.
What You Can Do:
- Work out your bones, not just your muscles, with weight-bearing exercise like dancing, brisk walking, jogging, hiking, or team sports like basketball or soccer. And remember, although swimming and bicycling are heart healthy and have some bone building potential, they’re not considered weight bearing.
- Up your calcium intake. Milk is an automatic go-to to meet the 1,000 mg/day calcium recommendation, but if you’re lactose intolerant or find dairy products distasteful, try less-obvious sources, “like [fortified] orange juice and rice milk,” suggests Dr. Vojtus.
- Mind your vitamins—particularly D and K. Vitamin D is in milk and multi-vitamins and is manufactured by your skin when it’s exposed to the sun. But if you have darker skin, experience sun-starved winters, or have scant contact with daylight, you might need to supplement. Check with your doctor first for specific recommendations. Also get Vitamin K by downing some dark greens, like kale, dark lettuce, or broccoli.
- Consider your choice of birth control. If you’ve been using Depo-Provera for longer than a two-year stretch, you may want to consider discontinuing—studies suggest it may reduce bone mass.
Why You Should Care Now: You might not be ready for a shiny new Volvo with car seats full of screaming kids now, but you might change your mind in years to come. It’s rarely discussed, but your lifestyle choices in your teens and 20s can affect fertility long before you start trying to get pregnant. (And hey, even if you decide to swear off dirty diapers for an eternity, these tips will still benefit your future childless self.)
What You Can Do:
- Ditch the cancer sticks ASAP. Research shows that nicotine and cigarette chemicals interfere with estrogen production and ovulation, causing potentially irreversible genetic abnormalities to a woman’s eggs. There’s a warning slapped on those Marlboros for good reason.
- Insist on safe sex every time. STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhea may not have any noticeable symptoms, but they can silently damage or scar your fallopian tubes and uterus, leading to infertility. Ask for yearly STI screening if you’re not in a monogamous relationship.
- Watch your weight—both ways. According to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, 12% of all infertility cases are caused by irregular menstrual cycles in overweight or underweight women. Aim for a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 19 and 24. (You can calculate your BMI with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s online BMI calculator.)