When it comes to your health, consulting with your doctor is absolutely the most important preventative step you can take. However, increasing your awareness about health issues that pose the greatest risk for women is also essential. To celebrate National Women’s Health Week (May 10 to 16), we spoke with several experts and rounded up a list of important (and likely surprising) facts that you may not have known about your health. Read on to find out the leading causes of death for women, and the smart healthy lifestyle strategies you can implement to protect against them.
Behind heart disease and cancer, stroke is the third leading cause of death for women, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A recent survey from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center revealed that most women don't know the risks or symptoms females face when it comes to having a stroke. The survey results found that only 11 percent could identify female-specific risk factors like pregnancy, lupus, migraines and oral contraception or hormone replacement therapy. “Women may have more headaches with their strokes,” said Dr. Diana Greene-Chandos, neurologist and director of neuroscience critical care at the OSU Wexner Medical Center. “They actually can have hiccups with a little bit of chest pain with their stroke symptoms, sometimes sending them down the pathway of looking for either heart disease or indigestion.” Greene-Chandos suggested that both women and men monitor their blood pressure to make sure it stays below 140/90. To measure your overall risk for stroke, you should consult your doctor, but there are also self-tests available online, like the one offered by the stroke experts at OSU.
It's becoming less common, but there are still many women who avoid resistance training (e.g. any type of strength training like lifting weights or bodyweight exercise), either because they think it will make them look "too muscular" or because they simply aren't aware that it's actually an essential part of maintaining overall good health. And it’s especially important for women when it comes to preventing osteoporosis, which causes bones to become weak and brittle, and therefore, more likely to break. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF), about 80 percent of the 10 million Americans who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis are women and it’s estimated that a women’s risk for breaking a hip is equal to her combined risk for breast, uterine and ovarian cancer. And that risk increases greatly after menopause, when a woman can lose up to 20 percent of her bone density in seven years. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests that practicing regular resistance training is an effective way to build and support bone mineral density, and research shows that high-impact exercises like gymnastics, basketball or plyometric exercises are also effective for building bone mass and protecting bone health.
In addition to exercise, it’s important to support your bone health with proper nutrition. Rene Ficek, a registered dietitian and the lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating, suggests consuming two to three servings of dairy per day to meet your calcium needs. “This is because dairy contains the highest concentration of calcium per serving,” she said. “Milk is also fortified with vitamin D, which plays a crucial role in maintaining bone health—possibly an even bigger one than calcium.” For those who don’t drink milk or eat dairy she suggests alternative dairy products (like almond or soy milk) that are high in protein, low in added sugar and are fortified with vitamins and minerals that you would find in cow's milk, like calcium and vitamin D. Ficek also said that foods like lactose-free dairy and leafy green vegetables such as collards, spinach and bok choy, beans, and calcium-fortified orange juice can serve as good sources of dietary calcium.
According to Dr. John P. Micha, founder of the Nancy Yeary Women's Cancer Research Foundation and head oncologist and researcher with Gynecological Oncology Associates in Newport Beach, Calif., two-thirds of cancers are thought to be due to random mutations, and most ovarian cancers are in that category. “The bottom line is that the vast majority of ovarian cancers are due to random mutations,” he said. “They are no one’s fault. They are an inevitable consequence of the numerous cell divisions our bodies go through daily.” He explained that currently, ovarian cancer is often diagnosed in its advanced stages because there are no reliable screening methods and women often assume that symptoms like severe bloating, abdominal pain and bleeding are only related to minor issues. “Early diagnosis and effective treatments are the key to improving ovarian cancer cure rates,” Micha said, so it's important not to ignore any possible symptoms. According to the National Cancer Institute, factors that can increase your risk for ovarian cancer include a family history of ovarian cancer, hormone replacement therapy, and your height and weight (being obese, gaining 40 or more pounds during adulthood and being 5’8’’ or taller can increase your risk). On the other hand, non-surgical preventative measures include taking oral contraceptives and breastfeeding.
According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, it’s estimated that just five to 15 percent of people with anorexia or bulimia are men, which means women are much more likely to develop an eating disorder. And as experts from Eating Recovery Center (ERC) point out, there are many myths surrounding the topic of eating disorders, including that they solely revolve around food. Many people don’t realize that they are complex illnesses, with biological, psychological and sociological underpinnings. According to ERC, anorexia has a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness and 90 percent of women who develop an eating disorder do so between the ages of 12 to 25. According to Mayo Clinic, in addition to being a young female, other eating disorder risk factors include your family history, mental health disorders, dieting habits, stress, and involvement in sports, work or artistic activities. Developing a healthy body image is an important part of prevention, but taking care of your mental health, establishing healthy eating habits and maintaining your awareness can all play a role in prevention.
According to the CDC, heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the U.S., but according to Amy Marturana a lifestyle expert for Youbeauty.com, women are often underdiagnosed. “Although more men die of heart disease than women, females tend to be underdiagnosed, often to the point that it's too late to help them once the condition is discovered,” she said. Luckily, simple lifestyle adjustments such as eating a healthy diet, walking briskly for 10 minutes three times a day, five days a week, not smoking and maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels are all cited as preventative measures you can take to reduce your risk.
According to Women’s Health magazine, a recent survey of 1,654 Canadian women, ages 25 and up found that fewer than half of the participants knew the major symptoms of heart disease and fewer than half could name smoking as a risk factor. Even more surprisingly, less than one quarter knew that high blood pressure and high cholesterol were “red flags.” Part of prevention includes making sure that you know your risk and the associated symptoms, which, according to Mayo Clinic, include shortness of breath; chest pain; pain, numbness, weakness or coldness in your legs or arms; and pain in the neck, jaw, throat, upper abdomen and back.
A separate report from Women’s Health magazine points to a study from the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, which found that compared to men, women were 1.5 times more likely to wait for cardiac symptoms to become more pronounced and more frequent before pursuing medical attention. The study’s authors found that all the patients surveyed went through the customary stages of experiencing heart pain— uncertainty, denial, seeking help from a friend or family member, recognition of the severity of symptoms, seeking medical attention, and finally, acceptance—but the difference for women was they spent more time in the denial period and “were more likely to wait for friends or family to notice they were unwell, instead of approaching them with the problem.” The study serves as a reminder for women (and everyone) to never ignore chest pains, or any other symptoms that could indicate something might be wrong.
“Early stage breast cancer is highly curable, which is why early diagnosis is so important,” said Dr. Dennis Citrin, medical oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® at Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion, Ill. He explained that this is why it’s so important for women to have regular screenings. “It’s important that you know your family history and check your breasts regularly,” Citrin said. “There are those who advocate starting mammograms at age 40, and others who recommend 50 as the starting age. The fact is that according to the American Cancer Society, over 50,000 women are diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at age 40 to 50.” For this reason he recommends women begin screenings at age 40. However, he noted that women with no recognized risk factors could reasonably delay their screening until age 50.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one person dies of melanoma every hour and it’s considered the most dangerous form of skin cancer. While men are more at risk for developing and dying from melanoma, women who are 39 years old or younger should take extra precautions when it comes to protecting their skin from the sun, as they’re more at risk for developing this form of cancer than any other except for breast cancer. Like with other diseases, being aware of the risk factors is also an important part of melanoma prevention. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, risk factors include sun exposure, moles, skin type, a weakened immune system, and both your family and personal skin health history.