Nine health issues every woman should understand

Scientists are increasing their understanding of the difference between the health needs of men and women. The truth is your biological make-up impacts your predisposition to certain health concerns.

Here are some of the most prevalent health concerns impacting women, and what you can do to manage your risk:

  1. Heart disease. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death for women. Symptomsof a heart attack include chest pain, shortness of breath and weakness in arms. Women are also likely to experience shortness of breath, and nausea or vomiting. However, women may not recognize their symptoms as a heart attack and dismiss it as working out too hard or having heartburn. And while menopause does not cause heart disease, certain risk factors are more common after menopause, such as higher blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower estrogen.
  2. Stroke. Each year stroke affects 55,000 more women than men. There are two types of stroke: hemorrhagic, or bleeding in the brain, and ischemic, or the blockage of a blood vessel that causes impaired blood flow. Although symptoms may vary depending on the underlying cause of stroke, hallmark symptoms include difficulty with speech and numbness of extremities. There is also a link between pregnancy and stroke. Preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure during pregnancy, can increase your risk for stroke. Neurologic events in which blood clot disorders are more likely to happen because of hypercoagulation, or excessive blood clotting, which can also occur during pregnancy. These blood clots can then restrict blood flow to your brain.
  3. Diabetes. Although diabetes is certainly not exclusive to women, it does increase the risk for heart disease by four times in women. Women are also more susceptible to diabetes-related complications, such as blindness, kidney disease and depression. Gestational diabetes is a condition that can occur during pregnancy in which your glucose level goes up and other complications develop. This occurs in at least 3 in 100 women, and treatment may include a careful diet, exercise, blood glucose monitoring, insulin injections and oral medication. Diabetes can also cause difficulties during pregnancy, including miscarriage and birth defects. Special testing and monitoring may be needed for pregnant women who have diabetes, particularly those dependent on insulin. To lower your risk for type 2 diabetes, try to maintain a healthy weight, exercise frequently and quit smoking.
  4. Maternal health issues. From iron-deficiency anemia to high blood pressure, the changes a woman experiences during pregnancy can impact a woman’s health. “Preconception care is really important,” says Jessica W. Kiley, MD, obstetrician and gynecologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Women with diabetes or high blood pressure should have these conditions under the best control possible when they plan to conceive.” Those with high-risk conditions, like major cardiac disorders and neurological issues, should discuss their care plan with their physician. And, women should not conceive immediately after having weight loss surgery. During pregnancy, Dr. Kiley suggests making sure women have adequate nutrition and take preventive measures by getting the appropriate immunizations. You may continue to exercise as normal, but consult your physician if you have any questions. “There’s a notion that you shouldn’t take medication during pregnancy,” says Dr. Kiley. “Many conditions require appropriate medical treatment. It’s an important conversation you should have with your physician.”
  5. Urinary tract infections. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) occur when germs get into the urethra and start to multiply. They are particularly common in women, as they have a shorter urethra than a man does. This decreases the length bacteria has to travel in order to reach the bladder. Symptoms of a UTI include frequent urination, pain or burning when urinating, and cloudy urine. While a UTI can go away on its own, a physician can prescribe antibiotics if necessary. If UTIs become a recurring problem, other tests can reveal if the urinary tract is normal.
  6. Sexual health. There are more than 30 types of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). One of the most common, human papillomavirus (HPV), can be prevented with the HPV vaccine. About 80 percent of sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives. “HPV is incredibly common. There are more than 100 types, with at least 14 linked to cancer,” says Dr. Kiley. The most high-risk types in the United States are types 16 and 18, both of which are associated with precancer of the cervix. Cervical cancer was once one of the most common causes of death in women. Now, with the invention of the Pap smear, providers can detect precancerous cells and deliver treatment to eliminate them, dramatically reducing the rate of cervical cancer. Dr. Kiley adds, “The whole purpose is to detect an abnormality before it becomes cancerous.” If significant precancer is detected, a loop electrosurgical excision procedure (LEEP) can eliminate precancerous cells from the cervix.
  7. Breast cancer. Second only to skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women. In fact, American women have a 12 percentchance of developing breast cancer in their lifetime. Monthly self-examinations can help you identify any changes in your breasts to share with your primary provider. This is in addition to following your yearly scheduled mammogram, which should start at age 40. For those who carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which increase the risk for breast cancer, your physician might recommend 3D mammography, which produces highly detailed images. You can manage risks by making healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising and quitting smoking.
  8. Osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a disease that causes your bones to weaken, making them susceptible to fractures. Postmenopausal women are at higher risk for fractures associated with osteoporosis. Other risk factors can include certain medications, early menopause, a low body mass index (BMI), cancer treatment and genetics. You can offset these risks by increasing your calcium intake, staying active with appropriate weight-bearing exercises, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol use.
  9. Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is a form of brain degeneration in which abnormal particles called neurofibrillary tangles and plaques form in the brain and destroy healthy brain cells. Of the 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, more than two-thirds are women. While this has historically been thought to be a result of women living longer, scientists are studying whether it could also be related to genetic variations. Healthy lifestyle choices, like staying active and eating a healthy diet, can help promote optimal brain health. If you’re looking for more ways to stay on top of your health, check out our infographic on health screenings for every age.