As a woman, taking steps to maintain your health is one of the most important things you can do to ensure a long and healthy life. The best way to do that is to make sure you understand the medical problems you might face. Below, we’ve outlined four of the most frequent health concerns that present in women and how they can be prevented and addressed.
Osteoporosis and Bone Health
Osteoporosis, which is the thinning or loss of bones, increases risk for fracture and is extremely common among postmenopausal women because their female hormones (estrogen) are much lower. "Women are much more prone to osteoporosis," says Summit Health endocrinologist Dr. Tess Jacob. “Because genetics and other factors affect osteoporosis risk, it may not be totally preventable.”
Fractures can affect elderly women more, putting them at higher risk for complications,” Dr. Jacob notes. “Additionally, other existing medical problems can complicate healing and general recovery, significantly impairing quality of life." However, there are steps that can be taken to help prevent fractures.
Stroke and Heart Disease
Many people think heart disease is much more common in men, but Summit Health cardiologist Dr. Liana Spano-Brennan points out that it also affects quite a lot of women. "They are often a little bit older—postmenopausal—and present with heart attacks differently," she says. While men tend to have "classic" symptoms, such as chest tightness and discomfort, women's symptoms are more often shortness of breath, heart palpitations and arrhythmias.
Dr. Spano-Brennan says that strokes and heart disease share a common denominator—lack of blood flow to organs. For strokes, it's a lack of blood flow to the brain, while for heart disease it's to the heart. Genetic history, high cholesterol, and obesity are all contributing factors to these ailments. Although some risk factors are non-modifiable such as family history, it is important to identify and address common risk factors such as hyperlipidemia, prediabetes or diabetes, obesity, and tobacco use to reduce risk of heart attacks and strokes.
It’s not uncommon to feel a little stressed. However, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many individuals, including women, are dealing with more stress and anxiety than ever before says Summit Health therapist Julie Schehr. "Women have always had to multi-task and remain active in a number of different roles in life, but this has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic," she says. "Many have taken on the role of ‘teacher’ while working from home. Balancing those responsibilities is difficult, and it has added an incredible amount of stress.”
It's important to not ignore these struggles as such changes can lead to anxiety and depression, which can lead to physical problems. "If you don’t address the underlying issue, symptoms will persist" says Schehr.
Breast and Gynecological Health
Many women visit their gynecologist once a year for their annual checkup. But don't ignore gynecological health if you notice any problems. "If you are experiencing irregular menstrual bleeding, vaginal discharge, itching, odor, or abdominal or pelvic pain, then you should go to the doctor," says Dr. Christine Masterson, chief of Women and Children service line at Summit Health. "You should also go more regularly if you have a history of abnormal pap smears or cancers."
Family history plays an important role in breast and gynecological cancers, such as ovarian and uterine cancer, so make sure you're aware of yours. "A lot of times patients will focus on their mother's history," Dr. Masterson notes, “but it can be on the paternal side as well."
What Steps Can I Take to Stay Healthy?
These health risks can feel overwhelming, especially when genetics come into play, but there are many life choices that can help you maintain your health for years to come.
- Talk to your doctor. "If you have a family history of certain disorders, you may need to visit the doctor more frequently." says Dr. Masterson. "Talk to your provider about getting screenings for what you're at risk for."
- Eat a balanced diet. "The Mediterranean diet—which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean meats—has been the most studied and well-validated diet," says Dr. Spano-Brennan. "I'm not a big fan of the high-fat, low-carb diets because they also come with a lot of cholesterol."
- Consider your mental health. You may not realize it, but stress, anxiety or depression cause physical problems. "When someone isn't sleeping, for example, their doctor refers them to me," says Schehr. "I come up with strategies that can immediately make a difference."
- Self-care is critical. "It is extremely helpful to engage in exercises that trigger your body to relax," says Schehr. "Deep breathing, meditation and yoga can be very helpful to practice on a daily basis."
- Take your supplements for healthy bones. Your doctor can advise you on what works best for your personal health. To prevent osteoporosis, Dr. Jacob recommends calcium and Vitamin D. "Calcium helps your bones stay strong," she says. "Vitamin D helps your bones absorb that calcium."
- Exercise often. Regular exercise is key to overall health, be it physical or mental. And it doesn't need to be a hard-core workout every day. "I recommend 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise four or five days a week," says Dr. Spano-Brennan. "If your workout is less intense, then aim for every day."