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TOP 15 HEALTH CONCERNS IN WOMEN

May 20, 2024

Women face some unique health issues related to their sex. These concerns are often rooted in innate biology; others stem from societal factors. Some of these health concerns include: 

Heart Disease

Heart disease remains the number one killer of women in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) over 60 million women (44%) in the United States live with some form of heart disease. Heart disease is responsible for approximately one out of every five deaths in women. Risks of developing heart disease include smoking, excessive alcohol use, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and stress and depression. Fortunately, some of these risk factors can be changed through lifestyle changes and appropriate support and treatment. Other sex-specific risk factors, including early first period, early menopause, gestational diabetes, hypertensive disorders during pregnancy, and polycystic ovarian syndrome, also contribute to a higher incidence of heart disease in women compared to men.

Depression

Women are two to three times more likely to experience depression at some point in their lives than men. One in eight women in the United States will experience depression and approximately 12 million women experience clinical depression each year. Depression is a multi-faceted disorder that can be caused by genetic predisposition, hormone changes, and life circumstances. Hormonal fluctuations beginning in puberty and lasting until post-menopause can significantly contribute to depression. The sex hormone estrogen helps the brain cope with stress and negative emotions. When estrogen levels naturally ebb during a woman’s reproductive cycle, stress increases, and she might feel less emotionally resilient and be at greater risk of becoming depressed. When estrogen permanently drops in perimenopause and menopause, women are up to five times more likely to develop major depressive disorder (MDD) than at other times in their lives. Depression is treatable with the help of a mental health professional and other healthcare providers trained in effective management strategies.

Obesity

About 43% of women in the U.S. are considered obese, and 11.5% are severely obese. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, and severe obesity is having a BMI over 40. Obesity rates are similar for men and women, but women are more likely than men to be severely obese. Some health risks associated with obesity include diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, gallbladder disease, body pain, different types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. Women with obesity are also more likely to feel depressed or anxious and have a lower reported quality of life. Lifestyle modification, such as a healthy diet and exercise, can help with the prevention and management of obesity.

Domestic Violence

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 15 and 70% of women will be sexually or physically assaulted by an intimate partner at least once during their lifetime. This sort of abuse can lead to both acute and chronic health conditions. Victims of domestic violence are at increased risk of traumatic injury, mental health disorders, unwanted pregnancy, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, low self-esteem, fear of intimacy, emotional detachment, sleep disturbances, and a variety of physical illnesses triggered by chronic traumatic stress. Increases in awareness and support services are essential in preventing domestic violence.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. and is the second most common cancer in women (after skin cancer). The American Cancer Society estimates that one out of every eight women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. The risk of breast cancer increases with age; however, some women are at a greater risk for breast cancer because of genetic mutations or family history. Monthly self-exams and regular mammograms are essential to early detection. When detected early and still localized, breast cancer has a 99% five-year survival rate.

Cervical Cancer

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cervical cancer is the fourth most common cancer seen in women globally. Cervical cancer is caused by persistent infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). About 0.7% of women will be diagnosed with cervical cancer in their lifetimes, and over 4,000 women die from it every year. While rates tend to increase for women over age 30, rates are decreasing for younger women. This decrease is likely because of the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV-vaccine) that became FDA-approved in 2006. Screening and treatment of pre-cancer lesions can help reduce the incidence of cervical cancer.

Reproductive Healthcare

Reproductive healthcare includes contraception, sexually transmitted illness testing and prevention, family planning, perinatal care, and menopause management. Access to reproductive healthcare is vital to a woman’s health and well-being; however, women in the U.S. often experience barriers to receiving the care they need. In the last few years, women have been finding it more challenging to locate clinics offering needed reproductive health services. People also report increased logistical challenges in getting time off work, finding childcare, or accessing transportation to appointments.

High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension (HTN), was once known as a man’s disease, but a whopping 44% of women in the U.S. have HTN. Approximately 15% of pregnant women will develop high blood pressure during pregnancy. Unfortunately, women who experience gestational HTN or preeclampsia are more likely to have high blood pressure in subsequent pregnancies and are at greater risk of developing chronic high blood pressure later in life. It is essential to monitor blood pressure, particularly during pregnancy, to prevent complications before and after delivery.

Osteoporosis

Anybody can develop osteoporosis, but it is much more common in women who have undergone menopause. The low estrogen levels associated with this life change interfere with the remineralization of bone and can weaken bone structure. Pregnancy can also impact bone strength; the more pregnancies a woman has, the greater her risk of developing osteoporosis. Increasing calcium intake and weight-bearing exercises can help reduce the risk of osteoporotic fractures.

Sleep Disorders

Adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep every night for optimal health. Pregnant women will likely need even more. Unfortunately, many women suffer from sleep disorders including insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea. Hormonal changes that occur in women who are pregnant, women who have polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and women in menopause can exacerbate sleep disturbances.

 More than one out of every four women has insomnia, the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. By midlife, almost half of all women will experience insomnia. More women than men also have restless leg syndrome, an irritating neurologic condition that creates an urge to move the legs, usually at night, causing interruptions in the sleep cycle. Sleep apnea, a disorder where breathing is interrupted many times a night while sleeping and significantly lowers sleep quality, is generally thought to be underdiagnosed in women, with female rates hovering around 5% and rates going up to 67% in menopausal women.

Sexually Transmitted Disease

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can significantly impact a woman’s health and cause symptoms throughout her reproductive system. Pelvic inflammatory disease, genital ulcers, vaginitis, and infertility are all possible effects of STIs. Overall, reported STIs showed an 11% increase between 2016 and 2020. Women account for 18% of all HIV infections. Regular testing and access to prevention methods can reduce STI transmissions and its consequences. If a woman is pregnant while HIV positive, she can take medications to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to their baby. Women at high risk of contracting HIV through sexual activity or IV drug use can take pre-exposure prophylaxis medication to lower their risk.

Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

UTIs are the most common bacterial infections experienced by women. Up to 60% of women experience UTIs, and an estimated 30 to 44% of them will experience two infections within six months or three or more within twelve months. Because of the female anatomy, urinary tract infections (UTIs) are much more common in women than in men. Women have a short urethra, allowing bacteria a simple route inside where it can grow and cause an infection. Sexual activity can also drive bacteria into the urethral opening, and the urinary tract and reproductive organs are often colonized by bacterial contamination from the rectum. Escherichia coli (E.coli) is the most common pathogen to blame for developing a UTI. If left untreated, UTIs can lead to serious health complications such as kidney infections and even sepsis. Most UTIs are treated effectively with oral antibiotics.

COVID-19

Although the Covid pandemic has affected the entire world, research shows that women have been disproportionately affected. Approximately 72% of healthcare workers who contracted COVID-19 while caring for Covid patients were women.  Women are diagnosed later and die sooner after diagnosis than men, suggesting that women are not receiving timely health care. Women also have to worry about contracting Covid while pregnant. Thousands of pregnant women have died due to the pandemic, and women who have Covid while pregnant are at greater risk of having a miscarriage or a preterm or stillbirth. Domestic violence rates increased during lockdown, possibly because of the social and economic stressors caused by the restrictions of the pandemic.

Stroke

Stroke is the third most common cause of death for women and kills more women every year than men. One out of every five women will have a stroke. Some risks of having a stroke include preeclampsia, atrial fibrillation, smoking, high blood pressure, and pregnancy. Taking birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy slightly increases the risk of some kinds of stroke.

Anxiety

Women are more than twice as likely to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder than men. Generalized anxiety, panic disorder, panic attack, separation anxiety, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias all fall under the umbrella of anxiety disorders. Although effective treatments for anxiety are available, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that only about 27% of people with anxiety are receiving medical care. This can be due to a lack of access to mental healthcare, social stigmas about mental illness, or a lack of knowledge about what treatments are available.

 Women are more prone to certain health issues because of gender differences, reproductive factors, hormonal factors, physiological characteristics, and life circumstances. Access to healthcare and awareness of the most common medical issues facing women is important for reducing the risk of preventable health complications.

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