Most of us learn from an early age that change is inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any easier. And body changes — the kind that happen internally and externally — are among the most difficult to handle. Women are particularly are prone to these shifts, each decade offering up its own set of surprises. To give you a little preview of what you might experience in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond, read on.
1. Your hair will thin
Long, healthy locks are definitely something ladies take for granted during their youth. After age 40, though, expect to see some changes in everything from color and texture to thickness and growth. In fact, approximately half of women experience hair loss by the time they’re 50 years old, the North American Hair Research Society reports.
Essentially, hair experiences three phases — growth phase, transition phase, and a resting phase, Dendy Engelman, M.D., of Manhattan Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery, says. The growth phase is, obviously, where your hair grows and resting is where it sheds. But when you age, your hair spends more time in the resting phase than the growing phase, meaning you shed more than you can grow.
2. Your skin starts to sag
Most women in their 20s can sit in the sun for hours or pop a giant zit without a single care when it comes to the damage it might cause. Somewhere around your 30s, however, skin starts to become more sensitive and prone to scarring. And that’s not all. “In your 40s, skin is already thinning and wrinkles are more obvious,” Tsippora Shainhouse, M.D., a Beverly Hills-based dermatologist, told The Cheat Sheet.
3. Your lady bits will get dry
While it’s not always a sudden change, most women experience a lack of lubrication down there over the decades. This happens as the body’s production of estrogen, the female sex hormone, decreases. “In essence, your body becomes the Sahara desert — aka it’s no longer the lush garden of delights it was in your younger years,” Janet Choi, M.D., a top reproductive endocrinologist with CCRM-New York, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “Things get a little… parched as moisture levels drop even in the vaginal canal.” The good news is ample use of vaginal moisturizers and lubricants, plus hormone replacement therapy can help with vaginal lubrication issues.
4. Your metabolism will slow down
As women get closer to the age of menopause, levels of estrogen, progesterone, and hormones significantly decrease. This means metabolism takes a nosedive for most around age 40.
“We lose lean body mass or muscle as we age — and less muscle means lower metabolic rate,” Alyssa Dweck, M.D., a New-York based gynecologist, and author of The Complete A To Z For Your V, said in an interview with The Cheat Sheet. “Regular exercise including weight training, can minimize this impact on metabolism and weight changes.”
5. Your period will stop
When you’re deep in the throes of battling painful menstrual cramps and buying a new box of tampons every few months, the idea of no longer having to deal with a period sounds pretty great. Eventually, every woman will lose her period, however it comes along with a whole slew of other less-appealing symptoms, such as hot flashes, difficulty sleeping, moodiness, weight gain, and more. This is known as menopause and occurs, on average, at the age of 51 years old, according to The National Institute on Aging.
6. You will lose bone mass
As time passes, bone density wanes significantly. Think about how toddlers and children have the uncanny ability to run as fast as possible, fall, and instantly pick themselves back up without even flinching. As you get older, this feat becomes nearly impossible. “In middle age and after menopause, women naturally lose bone density, which leads to an increased risk of fracture,” explained Dweck. “Getting adequate calcium and vitamin D in addition to engaging in weight bearing exercise can help combat this change.”
7. Your sex drive may wax and wane
Your reproductive system goes through a lot of changes: preparing to carrying a child, having one, and then losing its ability to carry a child altogether. And with these shifts, you can also expect to experience some big changes as far as your sex drive is concerned.
“Libido is complicated in women,” said Dweck. “Sex drive can vary based on hormone status, age, medical issues, stress levels and relationship issues, but the most important sex organ for women may actually be the brain!” Some women, may even experience a sudden increase in sexual desire. One study, out of the University of Texas, found women have increased libidos as they approach 40. The bottom line: As your hormones fluctuate through the decades, so will your sex drive.
8. Your labia will thin
A decrease in estrogen production naturally leads to skin changes down there, including thinner vaginal and vulvar tissue. This means the “lips” that enclose your real private areas will start to visibly disappear. But don’t worry — they’re not going anywhere, only losing fat as you age, just as your face may start to thin out. “Trauma from childbirth or excessive horseback riding or cycling may further exacerbate skin and pigment changes,” added Dweck.
9. Your breasts will change
“The architecture of the breasts is commonly altered by a history of breastfeeding,” Dweck said. “Some women complain of ‘having the life sucked out of them’ literally, while others note a change in nipple and areolar shape or pigmentation changes that are lasting.” Birth control pills, significant weight gain or loss, and menopause can also impact the physical appearance of your breasts.
The biggest changes a woman’s body will go through are related to giving birth. “In pregnancy, aside from the obvious increase in the size of a woman’s abdomen, many women will get swelling in other parts of their body,” Dr. Catherine Goodstein, an OB/GYN, told us. “The last trimester, specifically, can be accompanied by significant swelling in the lower legs, a process we call edema, which patients think it will go away immediately following delivery, but in reality it often takes two full weeks after delivery to resolve.”
Additionally, skin pigmentation is common during pregnancy, especially when a woman is not using sunscreen. “Others get what’s called a ‘linea nigra,’ which is literally a dark line running down the center of the abdomen,” added Goodstein. “Lastly, many women who have never had varicose veins prior to pregnancy will discover they are now the not-so-proud owners of varicose veins.”
Postpartum, even though a woman’s size is dramatically reduced, the uterus will still take six weeks to go back to its pre-pregnancy size. Goodstein also says some women see their breast cup size increase more than two sizes.
[Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 23, 2017.]