The more you know about women’s health, the better you can prevent or treat things as they happen. If you’re a woman (or you know and care about them), learn the signs and symptoms of some of today’s most pressing female health issues. Not everything on this list affects women exclusively, but all of these problems affect women at much higher rates than they do men. In recognition of Women’s History Month, here are six major health problems for women.
1. Heart Disease
Often thought of as a men’s health issue, heart disease can be just as devastating for women. In fact, a quarter of women die of heart disease, making it the #1 killer of both men and women — a fact that too often gets overshadowed when talking about women’s health.
As in men, chest pain or pressure is a common sign of a heart attack. But women may also experience additional or alternative symptoms, including:
- Jaw pain
- Back pain
- Shortness of breath
Because women may experience different symptoms, they don’t always seek help, and they can be misdiagnosed when they do head to the ER, making heart disease even tougher to treat in women. If you experience heart attack symptoms or aren’t sure if that lingering nausea and chest tightness mean anything, seek medical attention right away.
Of course, prevention is just as important. According to the American Heart Association, prevention could reduce the number of cardiac events by 80%. Prevention tips include bringing down your blood pressure and cholesterol, staying active, keeping your weight in check and giving up cigarettes if you smoke.
2. Breast Cancer
About 12 percent of women will get breast cancer during their lifetimes. It’s one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers among women and is about 100 times more prevalent in women than men.
Early detection can improve outcomes. If you notice changes in your breast, talk to your doctor. “Changes” may include unusual redness, discharge or pain. Perform regular self-exams (about once a month) and see your doctor if you detect a lump.
Breast cancer risk depends in part on your genetics. If you have family history of the disease, you may need additional screenings and closer monitoring than someone who doesn’t. In some cases, you may decide to take medication or undergo preventive surgery to lower your risk.
Whether or not you have a hereditary risk, you may be able to reduce the likelihood of developing breast cancer. For example, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting alcohol could mitigate your risk. Breastfeeding a baby may lower your chances as well. On the other hand, hormone replacement therapy may elevate your cancer risk, so weigh the pros and cons with your doctor before choosing HRT.
Studies show that depression occurs at higher rates among women than men. The jury’s still out as to why, but hormonal fluctuations may play a role. Regardless of the why, over 12% of women experience depression during their lifetimes. And symptoms of depression differ. You might feel:
- Lethargic and/or restless
- Fatigued to the point of lying in bed all day
- Tired but unable to sleep
- Anxious or ill at ease, even angry
- Hopeless or listless
Symptoms vary because people vary, but one indicator may be a persistent mental fog, as if your thoughts are cloudy and you can’t think straight or make decisions readily. While your depression might not look like someone else’s, treatments can help everybody.
Treatment makes a marked difference for women experiencing depression, though it’s not a one-size-fits-all deal. Treatment may include regular check-ins with your primary care doctor, therapy with a mental health professional and medication, or some combination thereof. Lifestyle adjustments, such as exercising regularly and building a good support system, can help alleviate symptoms.
You don’t have to wait for a major depressive episode to hit before you address this issue. Talk to a therapist to help you deal with everyday stress and develop effective coping strategies for life’s unexpected twists. Fresh air, exercise and plenty of good sleep can make a big difference, too.
Four-fifths of people with osteoporosis — that’s 80% — are women. Your risk increases as you age: Around half of women over age 50 experience bone fractures related to osteoporosis.
When you’re young, you can bolster your future bone health by consuming calcium, getting plenty of vitamin D and exercising regularly. Some women get osteoporosis early in life, so ask your doctor about testing if you experience frequent or unusual broken bones.
By age 65, all women should ask their doctors about a bone mineral density test. This exam measures the bone mass in various parts of your body. If the results show that you have osteoporosis, you may need to begin taking bone-strengthening medication.
You could also be diagnosed with osteopenia, which can be thought of as pre-osteoporosis. If you have osteopenia, you may need to up your vitamin and mineral intake and perform weight-bearing exercises in an attempt to ward off full osteoporosis.
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Unlike many of the top health issues facing women, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) isn’t fatal. That said, it can cause heartbreaking side effects. It may also increase your risk of developing diabetes, cancer or other alarming diseases. But one of the biggest concerns with PCOS is that it can contribute to infertility. If you have PCOS, you might experience:
- Weight gain
- Excess body hair growth
- Hair loss (from your head)
Menstrual irregularity is a key indicator of PCOS. If your cycles aren’t regular, ask your doctor about it. Lifestyle management and medications can help you keep your symptoms in check. Treatment may also make it easier to get pregnant.
Even if you aren’t bothered by the symptoms of PCOS, it’s a good idea to seek medical advice. The more your doctor knows about your full health history, the better able she’ll be to help you monitor and treat other problems, like diabetes, depression, high blood pressure and other conditions that may be related to PCOS.
Over 60,000 women are diagnosed with uterine cancer each year. It’s the most prevalent of the gynecological cancers, a group that also includes cervical and ovarian cancers. Although the 5-year survival rate for uterine cancer is 81%, the death rate seems to be on the rise. Among both black and white women, the number of deaths went up by about 2% every year from 2007 to 2016.
Early detection is key. The 5-year survival rate for those whose uterine cancer is caught before it spreads is 95%. Talking to your doctor about pelvic pain or unusual vaginal bleeding is one possible way to catch this disease early. Getting regular Pap exams can help as well.
Most uterine cancer is found in the endometrium, so it’s also known as endometrial cancer. One of the best ways to prevent endometrial cancer is to keep your weight in check. Both obesity and diabetes are risk factors for this disease.