A Healthier, More Satisfying Second Half of Life: 5 Tips for Every Woman in Her 40s

This is the second in our two-months-long series (40 Things for Every Woman in Her 40s) of Medical Monday articles intended to be useful to all our readers, but pointed especially toward those in their 40s—that in-between decade in which hormonal change has begun but fertility is still possible. Our first article (ideas 1 through 5) focused on self-care; this article emphasizes the need to pay attention to psychological issues. Our expert this week is Megan Riddle, M.D., Ph.D., a psychiatry resident at the University of Washington and a graduate of the Weill Cornell/Rockefeller/Sloan-Kettering Tri-Institutional MD-Ph.D. Program. —Ed.

6664088073_9555939e33_zPhoto by Flood G. via Flickr (Creative Commons License)


Protect your sleep. When you already have a dozen things demanding your attention, it can feel as if something has to give, and often it can be your sleep that suffers. That can be a mistake, for a decent night’s sleep contributes to both your physical and your mental health. Studies show that sleep improves your ability to learn, pay attention, and be creative. Without enough sleep, you’re more likely to have trouble controlling your emotions and making good decisions. On the more extreme end, poor sleep is linked to depression, suicide, and risk-taking behavior. While we all recognize that a poor night’s sleep can leave us groggy and irritable, it can also have serious effects on our physical health. Poor sleep increases the risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke.  On average, we need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, but if you’re not getting enough, you’re not alone. One in three Americans gets less than seven hours of sleep a night, and a full 50 million to 70 million are thought to have sleep or wakefulness disorders—and these are more prevalent in women than in men. If you are able to give yourself enough time to sleep, but find yourself lying awake staring at the ceiling, there are both behavioral and medical interventions that may help. Explore your options and consider talking to your primary care provider.

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Sleep Disorders & Insufficient Sleep: Improving Health Through Research. May 2013.
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Why Is Sleep Important? Feb 2012.



Volunteer. Volunteering has clear benefits for the greater social good, but it also comes with significant personal rewards.  Volunteering offers a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and those who do this tend to report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Furthermore, those who start volunteering are more likely to be more capable and healthier later in their life, even when studies are controlled for factors like previous illness and socioeconomic status. For those with chronic pain, volunteering is associated with decreased levels of pain and disability. After suffering from a heart attack, those who volunteer had reduced levels of depression. To reap the benefits requires a certain degree of commitment—studies suggest that at least 40 hours per year were needed to garner health benefits. That’s less than an hour a week; giving this time can provide significant benefit to your mental and physical well-being. (Click here for a sampling of “volunteer passions,” from reading coach to women building homes for other women, that have enriched the lives of Women’s Voices writers.)

Corporation for National and Community Service, Office of Research and Policy Development. The Health Benefits of Volunteering: A Review of Recent Research. Washington, DC 2007.



Make movement a part of your life. Walk, run, bike, tango, kayak, play soccer, garden.  Whether it’s formal exercise or just parking the car farther away from work, incorporating more movement in your life will bring both physical and mental-health rewards. If exercise has never been a significant part of your life, 40 is a great time to start. Research has shown that starting exercise after 40 seems to have equivalent heart benefits to those you’d receive if you had started in your 20s, when measured years later. Exercise has been shown to slow down the deleterious structural and functional changes that come with age. It offers an emotional boost as well. For those who struggle with low mood, regular exercise has been associated with decreased risk of the relapse of depression. On top of alleviating anxiety and depression, exercise has been shown to improve self-esteem and mental clarity. Studies have even shown that exercise promotes the growth of new neurons in regions of the brain associated with learning and memory. These are benefits you don’t want to miss out on.

Brené S, Bjørnebekk A, Aberg E, Mathé AA, Olson L, Werme M. Running is rewarding and antidepressive. Physiol Behav. 2007 Sep 10;92(1-2):136-40.
Callaghan P. Exercise: a neglected intervention in mental health care?  J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2004; 11:476–483.
Whiteman, H. Starting exercise at 40 ‘has same heart benefits as earlier training.’  2014.



Learn something new. Have you always been curious about Impressionist art?  Have a hidden desire to master Thai cooking or woodwork?  Take the time to explore your hidden interests.  Consider enrolling in a class at the local community college or even just checking out a book on the topic from your local library. Have you always wanted to complete that degree? You are not alone. This year, the National Center for Education Statistics projects that 4.1 million adults over the age of 35 will be enrolled in undergraduate, graduate, or technical school in the United States. Furthermore, these nontraditional students are increasingly making salaries on a par with what the more traditional early twentysomethings earn after graduation. If that degree—whether it’s completing one you left decades ago or starting down a totally new path—is something on your bucket list, consider doing some research and setting up an appointment with a counselor at a local college or look into online options.

Bidwell A. Gallup: Older College Graduates Don’t Earn Less. Dec 4, 2014.
Maag C. For Middle-Age Students, Is College Worth the Risk? May 30, 2012.



Consider forgiveness. When you are wronged, holding a grudge can initially feel very satisfying. It is their fault, after all, and a little brewing anger on your part seems appropriate. However, studies show that holding onto these grudges can lead to both physical and emotional repercussions that extend far beyond the original grievance, and in interesting ways. One study found that after individuals recalled an event in which they had held a grudge, they judged a hill they had to climb to be steeper than those who were asked to remember a time at which they forgave someone. Those who offered forgiveness also were able to jump higher when compared with the grudge-holders. While it is unclear how holding a grudge might have such measurable effects, these findings may suggest that continuing to ruminate on the past makes an individual feel powerless or diverts glucose from a physical activity to a cognitive process. Other studies have shown that forgiveness leads to decreased anxiety and depression, lower levels of stress, lower blood pressure, and even a stronger immune system.

Zheng X, Fehr R, Tai K, Narayanan J, Gelfand M. “The Unburdening Effects of Forgiveness: Effects on Slant Perception and Jumping Height.”  Social Psychological & Personality Science, 2014


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