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Top 5 Women’s Health Issues

Top 5 Women’s Health Issues

Written by Jonathan Bailor, CEO SANESolution & Reviewed by Dr. Matthew Olesiak, MD Chief Medical Director, SANESolution

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Women often have unique health challenges. Some of them are gender-specific, i.e., they involve pregnancy, menopause, etc. Others affect women differently and more frequently than they do men.

Here are 5 top issues that affect women’s health.

Heart Disease

There was a time when most people considered heart disease a man’s issue, and some still do. We now know this isn’t true.

In the U.S., heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women. But there are gender differences. For example, while men are at higher risk of heart attack, women are more likely to die from this disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 1 in every five female deaths is attributed to heart disease. (1)

Why Are Women More Likely to Die from Heart Disease?

There are a few reasons.

  • Many women and their doctors still think it’s a man’s disease, leading to misdiagnoses and delayed treatment.
  • Women’s heart attack symptoms can differ significantly from a man’s. For example, while the main sign for men is chest pain/pressure, women are more likely to experience jaw pain, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath.
  • Women have more untreated risk factors like diabetes and high blood pressure than men, increasing the likelihood of death.

Women’s Heart Disease Risk Factors

Though most of the risk factors below are the same for both sexes, most of them increase a woman’s risk more than a man’s.

  • Diabetes. Women with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease as their male counterparts.  (2)
  • High blood pressure. Research suggests that women with just slightly elevated blood pressure in their early 40s may have a significantly higher risk of heart disease and death later in life. (3) Researchers did not find the same risk for men.
  • Abnormal cholesterol levels. For many women, cholesterol levels change after menopause due to reduced estrogen. Specifically, total and LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) rise, and HDL cholesterol (the good kind) falls. (4) This may be one of the reasons why women have increased heart disease risk after menopause. 
  • Obesity and belly fat.
  • Inactivity.
  • Smoking. Research suggests that women who smoke have a 25% increased risk of heart disease compared with their male counterparts. 
  • Family history of heart disease.
  • MenopauseResearch shows that women develop heart disease later than men, with a significant increase in risk seen around menopause. (6) The reason for this is likely a combination of the risk factors above. But also, estrogen has been shown to have a heart-protective effect, so when levels fall in menopause, it could make women more vulnerable to heart disease. (7)

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among U.S. women, excluding skin cancer. It usually develops in the lining of the milk ducts, but it can spread to other organs. 

According to the CDC, about 40,000 women die of breast cancer each year in the U.S.  (7a) The chances of survival depend upon early diagnosis, so you must conduct regular breast self-exams and have regular breast cancer screenings, especially if you have a family history of this disease.

Risk Factors

  • Age 50+.
  • Family history of breast cancer, i.e., mother, grandmother, daughter.
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Personal history of breast cancer or noncancerous breast lumps
  • Lack of exercise
  • Smoking

 

Cervical Cancer

Cervical cancer originates in the cells lining the lower part of the uterus. Before the invention of the pap smear test, it was the number one cancer killer among women.

The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2021, 14,480 new cases will be diagnosed, and 4,290 women will die from this disease. Fortunately, cervical pre-cancers are diagnosed significantly more often than cervical cancer due to the Pap smear test, saving lives.

The human papillomavirus causes most cervical cancers. It spreads through sexual contact with someone who has this virus.

Risk Factors

Several lifestyle factors may increase the risk of cervical cancer. They include:

  • Becoming sexually active before the age of 18
  • A history of sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia
  • A large number of sexual partners
  • Having a partner who has a high number of sexual partners
  • Smoking, as researchers believe it may damage the DNA of the cervix, making cancer more likely.

 

Having regular pap smear screening tests is your best bet for preventing cervical cancer.

Stroke

A stroke occurs when blood supply to the brain is reduced or blocked, preventing oxygen and nutrients from getting to the brain.

Though it is a leading cause of death in the U.S. for both sexes, women have a higher chance of stroke. They also are more likely to die from this condition. According to the American Stroke Association, “Stroke is the No. 4 cause of death in women.” Additionally, stroke affects one in five women. It also kills more women than men. (7)

Women’s Stroke Risk Factors

Numerous factors may be responsible for the higher stroke risk in women.

  • Pregnancy. Pregnant women have an increased risk of stroke, especially in the third trimester and postpartum periods. (8)
  • Preeclampsia. This is a potentially deadly complication of pregnancy. It is characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine. It often has few noticeable symptoms, but if you have preeclampsia, your risk of heart disease and stroke doubles in your later years. (9)
  • Birth control pills. Though contraceptive pills have become safer, they can still increase your risk of stroke. This is especially true if you have a history of high blood pressure or smoking. 
  • Hormone replacement therapy. Sometimes used to treat symptoms associated with menopause, hormone replacement therapy may increase the risk of fatal stroke. (10)

 

Most of the above are due to hypertension. So, if you have any of these risk factors, you must monitor your blood pressure carefully.

Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a progressive bone disease. It decreases bone density, causing bones to become weak and brittle. Consequently, a fall or even something as minor as coughing may cause a bone fracture.

The prevalence of osteoporosis increases with age for both sexes, but postmenopausal women have higher rates than similar-aged men. (11) They are also more prone to osteoporosis-related bone fractures than men. Researchers theorize that this may be due to females’ smaller bone structure and the sudden drop in estrogen levels with menopause. (12)

Women’s Osteoporosis Risk Factors

Here are a few factors that may increase your risk of osteoporosis.

  • Age 60 years and older
  • Family history of osteoporosis
  • Menopause or Hysterectomy due to reduced estrogen levels.  
  • Medications. Certain medications to treat diabetes, depression, thyroid issues, and others may increase your risk of this bone disease. Always check with your doctor to see if any of your medications fall within this category.
  • Smoking. Research suggests that, on average, women who smoke have an earlier menopause than nonsmokers.  (13)
  • Inactivity. Research shows that inactivity weakens bones even in younger people. For example, researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered that inactive teens had weaker bones than their physically active counterparts. (14)  Numerous studies suggest that weight-bearing exercise may slow bone loss and may even build bone. (15)

 

Tips For Preventing these Conditions

Though these five health issues are varied, they can be prevented or improved by making lifestyle modifications.

Enjoy a High-Quality Diet.

Eat more high-fiber foods, nonstarchy vegetables, nutrient-dense proteins, and whole-food fats, which support health. Reduce or eliminate heavily processed foods, fast foods, sugars, and trans fats.

Remember to make these dietary changes gradually. Overhauling your entire diet overnight is an unpleasant experience for your brain and body, as they are in the habit of eating certain types of foods. To prevent inner rebellion, you’ll need to introduce certain foods and gradually remove others. 

Get Regular Exercise.

Research shows that “Participants engaging in regular physical activity display more desirable health outcomes across a variety of physical conditions.” (16) It also improves the quality of life and boosts mood.

How much exercise do you need?

The CDC recommends that healthy adults get at least 150 minutes a week of physical activity, which equals 30 minutes a day, 5 five days a week. (17)

Any amount of physical activity is better than none at all. Still, you should incorporate a mix of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic exercises with muscle-strengthening ones into your daily routine for the best health results.

Drink More Water

Staying well-hydrated is critical for your health. After all, as much as 60% of the adult human body is composed of water.

Water cleanses the body of toxins and waste products, regulates body temperature, lubricates joints, aids digestion, boosts cognitive function, and so much more.

How much water should you drink?

The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that women’s adequate daily fluid intake is about 11.5 cups, 15.5 for men. (18)

If this seems like a lot, keep in mind that this includes fluids you get from foods and other beverages, which typically represent 20% of your total fluid intake.


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References

1- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2017 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released December 2018. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 1999-2017, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed on Feb. 18, 2019.

2- American Heart Association News. Why are women with diabetes at greater risk for poor heart health? American Heart Association. May 14, 2019. Accessed Sep 7, 2021. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2019/05/14/why-are-women-with-diabetes-at-greater-risk-for-poor-heart-health

3- Bakalar N. Women with even mild high BP in early 40s may be at risk of heart disease and death. The Economic Times. Jun 18, 2021. Accessed Sep 7, 2021. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/women-with-even-mild-high-bp-in-early-40s-may-be-at-risk-of-heart-disease-and-death/articleshow/83627637.cms

4- Johns Hopkins Medicine. Why Cholesterol Matters for Women. Accessed Sep 7, 2021. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/why-cholesterol-matters-for-women

5- Kannel WB, Hjortland MC, McNamara PM, Gordon T. Menopause and risk of cardiovascular disease: the Framingham study.Ann Intern Med. 1976; 85:447–452. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-85-4-447

6- Velez A. It’s Complicated: The Relationship Between Your Heart and Hormones. Endocrinweb. Accessed Sep 7, 2021. https://www.endocrineweb.com/conditions/heart-disease/heart-hormones

7- American Heart Association Editorial Staff. Women Have a Higher Risk of Stroke. American Stroke Association. Last Reviewed: Jun 17, 2021. Accessed Sep 8, 2021. https://www.stroke.org/en/about-stroke/stroke-risk-factors/women-have-a-higher-risk-of-stroke

7a- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breast Cancer. CDC Vital Signs. Nov 2012. Accessed Sep 8, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/mobile-test/BreastCancer/index.html

8- Swartz RH, Cayley ML, Foley N, Ladhani NNN, Leffert L, Bushnell C, McClure JA, Lindsay MP. The incidence of pregnancy-related stroke: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Stroke. 2017 Oct;12(7):687-697. doi: 10.1177/1747493017723271. PMID: 28884652.

9- Wu P, Haththotuwa R, Kwok CS, Babu A, Kotronias RA, Rushton C, Zaman A, Fryer AA, Kadam U, Chew-Graham CA, Mamas MA. Preeclampsia and Future Cardiovascular Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Circ Cardiovasc Qual Outcomes. 2017 Feb;10(2):e003497. doi: 10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.116.003497. Epub 2017 Feb 22. PMID: 28228456.

10- Brass LM. Hormone Replacement Therapy and Stroke. Stroke Vol. 35, No. 11_suppl_1. Nov 1  2004; Pages 2644-2647. https://doi.org/10.1161/01.STR.0000143218.20061.ac

11- Tian L, Yang R, Wei L, et al. Prevalence of osteoporosis and related lifestyle and metabolic factors of postmenopausal women and elderly men: A cross-sectional study in Gansu province, Northwestern of China. Medicine (Baltimore). 2017;96(43):e8294. doi:10.1097/MD.0000000000008294

12- Guggenbuhl P. Osteoporosis in males and females: Is there really a difference? Joint Bone Spine. 2009 Dec;76(6):595-601. doi: 10.1016/j.jbspin.2009.10.001. PMID: 19926512.

13- National Institute of Health. Smoking and Bone Health. Last Reviewed Dec 2018. Accessed Sep 8, 2021. https://www.bones.nih.gov/health-info/bone/osteoporosis/conditions-behaviors/bone-smoking

14- Gabel L, Macdonald HM, Nettlefold L, McKay HA. Physical Activity, Sedentary Time, and Bone Strength From Childhood to Early Adulthood: A Mixed Longitudinal HR-pQCT study. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 2017; DOI: 10.1002/jbmr.3115

15- Schoutens, A., Laurent, E. & Poortmans, J.R. Effects of Inactivity and Exercise on Bone. Sports Med 7, 71–81 (1989). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-198907020-00001

16- Penedo FJ, Dahn JR. Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Curr Opin Psychiatry. 2005 Mar;18(2):189-93. doi: 10.1097/00001504-200503000-00013. PMID: 16639173.

17- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much physical activity do adults need? CDC. Page last reviewed: Oct 7, 2020. Accessed Sep 8, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm

18- The National Academies of Science Engineering Medicine. Report Sets Dietary Intake Levels for Water, Salt, and Potassium To Maintain Health and Reduce Chronic Disease Risk. News Release. Feb 11, 2004. Accessed Sep 8, 2021. https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2004/02/report-sets-dietary-intake-levels-for-water-salt-and-potassium-to-maintain-health-and-reduce-chronic-disease-risk