Women and men have unique health needs. They develop different health conditions at different rates, age differently, and respond differently to treatments. Women are more likely to be proactive and to get preventative care while also considering healthy lifestyle habits. Women are more likely than men to reach out for help, especially with respect to mental health.
Women also face unique periods in their lives, such as menopause and pregnancy, and are at risk for different health problems than men. When it comes to prescription medications, women are underrepresented in studies and this can be problematic. There are a number of drugs and medical devices on the market that can be harmful to women. By understanding the risks, knowing what preventative steps to take, and educating oneself about medications, any woman can live a healthy and happy life.
Women’s Health Facts
Men and women face many of the same health concerns and risks, but there are also unique differences that must be taken into account when considering health care, lifestyle choices, doctor visits, and medications. Women, for instance, are more likely to die after having a heart attack than mean are. Women are more likely to have symptoms of depression and anxiety, and are more likely to reach out for help when they do.
Sexual health issues can manifest in different ways in men and women. For example, sexually transmitted diseases typically develop more severely in women and have more serious consequences. Women are more likely to experience urinary tract problems, like infections, and are more often affected by osteoporosis and osteoarthritis. There are several medications and medical devices, including those for birth control, that cause unique health problems for women.
Leading Causes of Death
For women, the top cause of death is cardiovascular disease, which is something men and women have in common. Although each experiences this disease in different ways, it kills nearly one quarter of the population. Cardiovascular disease risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, high blood sugar and diabetes, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and smoking.
The second and third causes of death for women are cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases, which may include bronchitis or emphysema. Stroke and Alzheimer’s disease are the fourth and fifth leading causes of death for women. Rounding out the top ten are unintentional injuries, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and septicemia, or blood poisoning.
Women and Aging
There are many ways in which men and women age that are similar. For both men and women, the heart tends to slow down and the blood vessels harden, making cardiovascular disease more common with age. Both lose bone density and mass, as well as muscle strength and flexibility. Both men and women may experience brain changes like memory loss. For both men and women, vision and hearing may become impaired, and skin becomes less elastic and thinner with age.
Women also have unique ways in which they age, much of it related to hormonal changes that men do not experience. Hormonal changes begin around puberty and when a young woman begins menstruating. During an adult woman’s reproductive years, the hormones estrogen and progesterone cycle every month. As menopause begins a woman experiences another shift in hormones that ultimately leads to the end of menstruation and fertility.
These hormonal changes that occur as a woman ages can cause symptoms and affects that are unique to women, from hot flashes to a lower libido to changes in urination to painful intercourse to the mental health consequences of being no longer able to have children. Women also tend to outlive men, so as they age they may lose a spouse, family members, and friends, which can lead to more mental health issues, including loneliness and isolation.
Important Screenings and Checkups
As with men, women need to visit the doctor regularly for checkups and to be screened for certain common illnesses or health problems. Women should see a gynecologist once a year as well as a general care doctor and any other specialists that are needed based on individual risk factors. Regular health care is especially important for women trying to get pregnant and who are pregnant.
As women get older they should be screened for certain diseases to which they may be susceptible. Simple screening tests can catch diseases, like cancer, early and provide better opportunities for successful treatment. The Office on Women’s Health suggests several regular screening tests for women at different ages, including blood pressure, blood cholesterol and sugar levels, and cervical cancer screening at all ages. Tests for gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, and HIV are recommended for women who are sexually active. Older women are encouraged to be screened for breast cancer, osteoporosis and colon cancer.
Healthy Lifestyle Habits
In addition to regular checkups and screenings, women should make health lifestyle choices a habit throughout their lives. This means maintaining a healthy weight, eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, avoiding excessive alcohol, and avoiding smoking. It also means avoiding risky behaviors like driving recklessly, using drugs, or having unprotected sex.
Menopause is a period of time in a woman’s life during which her hormone levels change and her menstrual cycle stops. This often begins with perimenopause, which can last for years before the cycle actually stops. During perimenopause a woman may experience irregular periods, more frequently and then missed periods. She may also have periods that are longer or shorter than normal and that vary in intensity. Eventually periods will become less frequent until they stop entirely. This is menopause.
During this process the natural levels of estrogen and progesterone that a woman produces starts to decline. This change in hormone levels can cause a number of symptoms. Hot flashes, sudden periods of feeling overwhelmingly too warm, are common, as is vaginal dryness which can make intercourse painful. Women going through menopause may have difficulty sleeping or with memory, and shifting hormones are also likely to cause mood swings.
To combat the symptoms of menopause, women can get active and eat a healthier diet, avoid alcohol and smoking, manage weight, use over the counter products to make intercourse more comfortable, and to dress in layers for when hot flashes strike. Some women may also speak to their doctors about hormone replacement therapy, but this can cause issues. Hormone supplements are only recommended for short-term use, not as a permanent fix. These medications can increase the risk of dying of heart disease.
Pregnancy is also a unique time in a woman’s life and health, although it is not one that all women will experience. This is another time in which hormones change and can cause a range of symptoms. Health considerations before and during pregnancy are important for both the mother and the baby. Expectant mothers should avoid smoking, alcohol, and caffeine, should eat a healthy diet and get adequate folic acid, and stay active. Women should also talk to their doctors about medications that may cause birth defects, like Accutane, Celexa, Clomid, Effexor, and others.
Postpartum depression is a very serious health condition associated with pregnancy. One in every seven women who get pregnant and give birth will experience postpartum depression, so it is more common than many women realize. It can feel like extreme sadness and may make a mother feel like she cannot connect with her baby. Treatment is essential to help the mother and the child.
Cardiovascular disease is the top killer of women across the U.S. For too long it was neglected, as heart disease was thought to be primarily a concern for men. Heart disease can be even more serious for men than for women. For instance, women are more likely than men to die a year or less after having a heart attack. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include genetic factors, but also those that can be controlled like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and obesity.
All people are at some risk for cancer, and not all types of cancer can be prevented. However, women are at a greater risk for some types and preventative care and healthy lifestyles can prevent them to some degree. The most common cancers in women are skin cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer.
Skin cancer can be avoided by avoiding sun exposure and tanning beds. Lung cancer is almost always caused by smoking, so not smoking can prevent many cases of this disease. Other types of cancer may be less straightforward to prevent, but early screenings can help give women a better chance of surviving and beating the cancer with treatment.
Women are more likely than men to report symptoms of depression and anxiety and to be diagnosed with these mental health conditions. Part of the reason for this may be that there is less stigma for women and that they are more likely than men to seek help and treatment. Feelings of anxiety and depression that are tough to shake may indicate a diagnosable condition and it is important to ask for help and to get professional treatment.
Medications are common for treating depression and anxiety and they can be helpful, but they also come with risks. Antidepressants like Lexapro, Effexor, Paxil, and others may cause side effects such as withdrawal, serotonin syndrome, and in young women and teens, suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Women are also more vulnerable to eating disorders. These include anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Women may be more susceptible to these because of societal and individual pressures to be thin or because of a lack of control over one’s life. Anorexia is characterized by starvation, bulimia means binging on food and then purging, through vomiting or exercise, and binge eating disorder is binging without purging. All of these require professional support and can be very dangerous if left untreated.
Reproductive Health and Birth Control
Both sexual and reproductive health are important components of women’s health. Sexually transmitted diseases manifest with serious symptoms and consequences for women, so prevention that includes making smart choices about sexual partners and using protection are important, as is screening for these diseases. For women hoping to have children, fertility may be an issue. Many women struggle with fertility and working with a doctor and specialist can be a big help. Techniques like in vitro fertilization can help women realize the dream of getting pregnant.
For those who do not want to get pregnant, birth control is crucial. Women have a lot of options from oral contraceptives to temporary inserted devices, to permanent birth control. Hormonal birth control is by far the most common method for preventing pregnancy. Either a pill taken daily or a device implanted in the uterus, fallopian tube, or arm, releases hormones that mimic the early stages of pregnancy so that the ovaries will not release an egg.
Implantable birth control has become popular because it negates the need to remember a pill every day. Some devices, called IUDs, or intrauterine devices, are implanted in the uterus and can be used for up to five years. Essure, a device implanted in the fallopian tubes is supposed to provide permanent birth control, but has been found to cause serious problems. Some women have experienced organ perforation, bleeding, and serious harm from these devices. Another permanent alternative is a tubal ligation, in which the fallopian tubes are surgically closed.
Men and women may use many of the same drugs and medical devices, but there are also those that are unique to women or used by women more often. Birth control, for instance, is unique to women and certain types have caused serious health issues, like Essure. Some oral contraceptives, like Yaz, have caused women to develop dangerous blood clots, and in some instances those clots led to fatalities.
Surgical devices like power morcellators have also been used almost exclusively on women. This is a device that is used to cut up the uterus during a hysterectomy. The problem is that if a woman has undetected uterine cancer, this procedure can spread it and cause metastatic cancer.
Some medications, like antidepressants, but most famously the acne medication Accutane, have been shown to increase the risk that pregnant women will give birth to babies with birth defects. The maker of Accutane pulled it from the market voluntarily, but the generic version can still be used, putting women and children at risk. Clomid, a fertility drug that is supposed to help women get pregnant may also cause birth defects. It has also been shown to increase the risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Some devices and medications are used by both men and women but may affect them differently. Lipitor, a very popular cholesterol-lowering drug has been seen to cause type 2 diabetes in women. Certain hip implants have been found to have high failure rates causing damage, pain, and a need for more surgery. These failures are more common in women than in men.
Women’s health is an important part of medicine, but one that has not always been a priority for the medical and research community. For a long time women have been underrepresented in studies, but now we know that women have unique health needs and concerns, different from men’s. Women, like men, can take control of their health by making good lifestyle choices, going to regular doctor’s visits for screenings, and being aware of health concerns and medications that can help or harm.