Plus, what you can do to protect yourself.
This article was written by Markham Heid and provided by our partners at Prevention.
For middle-aged women, cancer and heart disease take the top spots on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s list of most-common causes of death. Depending on a woman’s age, those two diseases account for roughly 30 percent to 55 percent of all deaths, shows the data.
So yeah, you’re right to worry about them. Still, there are other common killers on the CDC’s list that claim hundreds of thousands of lives each year, but they may not be on your radar.
Here they are, plus their risk factors and what you can do to protect yourself.
1. Chronic Liver Disease
Your liver is responsible for a handful of vital biological functions, from flushing your system of waste and toxins to helping your body absorb vitamins, nutrients, and energy from the foods you eat, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Chronic liver disease—also known as cirrhosis—is the gradual breakdown of your liver function. Symptoms include feeling weak or tired, a loss of appetite, nausea, and bloating, says the NIH. (Heal your whole body with Rodale’s 12-day liver detox for total body health.)
Viruses like hepatitis, a heavy drinking habit, and some other disorders or infections can all lead to chronic liver disease, according to resources from Johns Hopkins Medicine. So can obesity and some blood diseases, says Sharonne Hayes, M.D., a professor of medicine at Mayo Clinic.
While you can’t do much to protect yourself from some of those risk factors, Hayes says watching your weight, eating right, exercising, and keeping your alcohol intake to one drink per day are all proven ways to protect your liver from disease.
2. Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease
Chronic lower respiratory disease often goes by another name you’ve probably heard before: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD.
COPD is an umbrella term for a handful of lung-related health issues, including emphysema and bronchitis. Roughly 5 percent of all American adults have been diagnosed with one of those two lung conditions, show CDC stats.
Since your lungs are the organs in the crosshairs, you can probably guess the biggest risk factor for COPD: smoking. “Smoking could cause or worsen all of these COPD conditions,” says Hayes. Working in construction, demolition, and some other building trades are also major risk factors for COPD, suggests research in BMJ. (The good news: Quitting smoking helps your health at any age.)
The most common symptom is a shortness of breath. (Here are more signs your lungs might be failing.) But because the disease progresses slowly, you may not notice any sudden changes in your breathing, says Hayes. That may be why the disease often goes undiagnosed until its late stages.
If you feel like you’re struggling to breathe at times—and especially if those struggles seem new—ask your doctor to screen you for COPD. It’s a simple test that involves breathing into a device for a few seconds, says Hayes.
Diabetes refers to the breakdown of your body’s ability to manage its bloodsugar levels. Over time, that breakdown could lead to heart disease, nerve damage, kidney disease, or other lethal health issues, according to the NIH.
Diabetes comes in two forms: Type 1 and Type 2. Only 5 percent of sufferers have Type 1 diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease that destroys your body’s ability to make insulin. Type 2 diabetes—the king 95 percent of diabetes sufferers have—means your body is no longer able to use the insulin your pancreas produces. Nearly 10 percent of Americans have one form of diabetes or the other. Even scarier: Roughly one in four people have the disease but don’t know it, says the NIH.
The American Diabetes Association says early symptoms of diabetes include urinating all the time, feeling thirsty, extreme fatigue, vision problems, and feeling hungry even when you’re eating.
While experts say Type 1 diabetes is likely caused by a combination of your genes and some early-life triggers, Type 2 diabetes is something you can prevent or head off by changing your lifestyle, says Hayes. “Eating a prudent diet and maintaining a healthy weight can lower your risk,” she says.
Even if you’re on the verge of a diabetes diagnoses—a condition known as “prediabetes”—there are steps you can take to dodge the disease.
4. Influenza and Pneumonia
Influenza—a.k.a., the flu—refers to a group of viruses that cause various respiratory illnesses, says the CDC.
For most healthy adults, catching the flu will land you in bed for a few days with a fever and chills. But for anyone with an underlying health condition—from kidney or blood disorders to heart disease—the flu can cause complications that quickly turn deadly, warns the CDC.
The flu can also lead to a lung infection called pneumonia, which can be lethal if you have a weakened immune system or any ongoing health issue, according to the American Lung Association.
“The best way to prevent all this is to get an annual flu shot,” says Hayes. People at high-risk for pneumonia—the sick and elderly—should also talk to their doctors about getting a one-time vaccination against the infection, she says.
5. Septicemia (Sepsis)
This is a form of blood infection, and it tends only to affect people who are already sick, says Hayes.
According to the NIH, septicemia usually starts as an infection in some other part of your body—like your lungs, urinary tract, skin, or kidneys. That infection eventually spreads to your bloodstream, where it triggers an “overwhelming” immune response that leads to blood clots and, potentially, organ failure, says the NIH.
People who have weakened immune systems or existing health issues are most at risk, explains Hayes. But septicemia can affect anyone if infections are left untreated.
“You can’t do much to prevent it,” says Hayes. But you CAN take certain symptoms seriously. A sudden fever, chills, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate are all early signs of septicemia. Or course, those symptoms are also associated with run-of-the-mill colds or flus—making it hard to spot septicemia early on.
Hayes says seniors or people with preexisting health issues can’t afford to ignore these symptoms. “You can get very sick very quickly, and hours count when it comes to treating this,” she says. If you know your immune system is week or compromised, head to your doctor’s office or a hospital to be on the safe side.