Overcoming stress is key to long life

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 June, 2010, 12:00am

A stressful lifestyle may be the culprit behind a litany of illnesses affecting women, according to health professionals. The wellbeing of women is deteriorating from a generation ago, even though they 'are living longer'.

Dr Stephanie Chow, an obstetrician and gynaecologist specialist at the Hong Kong Adventist Hospital, says women 'are experiencing newer forms of illnesses and different types of cancers. We are also seeing more infertility problems'.

She adds that 'stress is a huge factor', because 'stress will deprive you of the sleep that is vital to repairing your body. Insufficient sleep means your body will be unable to do this work'.

Chow proposes a return to the basics: get the sleep you need, drink plenty of water, exercise, eat a nutritious diet - and be happy.

Diets should be as pure and simple as possible. Eggs, vegetables, fruits, chicken and fish are high on the agenda. 'Go for the basic food groups,' she says. 'Eat fruits and vegetables with plenty of colour, and as fresh as possible. Opt for slow food rather than fast food; organic and not mass-produced items. Steer clear of food that come out of a packet and avoid microwaving.

'It really boils down to living a balanced life between work and play. It is a simple philosophy, but many people are unable to do it. They are swept up in hectic lifestyles and jobs that demand all hours,' she says.

It is perhaps the post-war baby boomers, the fastest-growing age group among Hong Kong women, who are living with the most psychological, physiological, social, financial and emotional stress. 'The 45- to 64-year-old age group is what we call the sandwich class,' says Professor Suzanne Ho, director of the Centre of Research and Promotion of Women's Health at Chinese University. 'With longer life expectancy, they not only have to look after ageing parents, but also their own children. In some cases, they even have to take care of grandchildren. Their bodies are also undergoing enormous changes as they approach menopause.'

Cancers of the breast, colon and lung, heart disease and pneumonia are among the leading killers of women. Osteoporosis, the disease that causes bones to become brittle, is common among older women, who are four times more likely to get it because they have less bone mass than men, and their rate of bone loss speeds up post-menopause, says the United States-based National Osteoporosis Foundation. 'Osteoporosis can be a significant factor in triggering or exacerbating other illnesses,' Ho says. 'It affects mobility and quality of life. It can make someone bedridden and, consequently, raise the risk of pneumonia.'

The disease is not typically discovered until a fracture is found. Ho recommends those with a history of the disease to opt for bone density screening. Regular weight-bearing exercise can help prevent the disintegration of bones, and women should maintain a body mass index from 20 to 23, and boost nutritious diets with calcium and vitamins.

As far as cancer is concerned, few women carry out regular self breast-examinations, according to Dr Fiona Leung chi-shan, Baptist Hospital's resident consultant in general surgery. 'Women understand the seriousness of breast cancer, but very few, maybe just one to two in 100 women we see, make a habit of [examining their breasts]. Some say they don't know how to do it, others say they can't feel anything or don't have the time,' she says. A similar trend is reflected in mammograms, with only 10 to 20 per cent of patients scheduling screenings as a preventive measure.

'Early detection makes a huge difference,' Leung says. 'The scale of the treatment is more minor, the prognosis is better and doctors are more likely to focus on breast conservation rather than reconstruction.'

Although breast screening is not widely accepted, doctors have noted a growing interest in a cervical cancer vaccine. It works by preventing the human papillomavirus from infecting the cervix. The infection leads to more than 70 per cent of cervical cancer cases, says Dr Sue Kong, doctor-in-charge of Women's Health Services at Matilda International Hospital. 'Research shows that the vaccine is effective for girls aged from nine to 26, before they have had sexual contact. But the average age of our patients is from 20 to 40 years old,' she says.