Why women need different health care than men
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Women have different health needs than men due to different hormones, pregnancy, smaller size and other factors.
During this National Women’s Health Week, learn how to make your health a priority.
Work with your health care provider to monitor your individual health needs through regular screenings and preventive care.
When you think of women’s health, you might think of Pap smears and pregnancy check-ups. But women’s health really encompasses all of your health and well-being, right down to your bones. Compared to men, women have different health issues that you should care for throughout your life.
You, your primary care physician and other clinicians can work together to care for these different needs. As part of National Women’s Health Week, learn how you can make your health a priority.
Gender differences in heart health
Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women. Yet when people think of heart problems, they often picture men.
The truth is that hormones make women’s heart health a little different. Estrogen, a female hormone, has a protective effect on heart health. It helps keep your blood pressure and cholesterol low. However, as you approach menopause, you have less and less estrogen in your body. That means your risk for heart disease, including your risk for hypertension and high cholesterol, goes up sharply in your 50s. You’ll need to have your blood pressure and cholesterol checked each year as you enter your 40s to keep an eye on your heart health.
You should also learn about the signs of heart attack in women. Because women often experience different heart attack symptoms than men, there can be some disparities in their health outcomes Women may not receive care as quickly as men for heart attack or may not seek out care as soon. Women’s heart attack symptoms include:
- Chest pain or pressure
- Shortness of breath
- Jaw pain
- Back pain
- Cold sweat
If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention right away.
Pregnancy can also pose cardiovascular risks for women. Preeclampsia, or high blood pressure during pregnancy, can put you at risk for stroke, seizures and bleeding problems. If you have preeclampsia during pregnancy, you are also at a higher risk for heart disease and kidney disease later in life.
The best way to prevent cardiovascular disease at every stage of your life is to go to your annual wellness appointments, get 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week and eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats.
Pelvic health throughout womanhood
Throughout your life, you may face different issues with pelvic health. When you’re younger, your biggest concern may be sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Your OB/GYN will help you find protection from STIs, such as the Gardasil vaccine and condoms. They can also perform screenings to catch any problems early.
As you grow older and after you have children, your pelvic health needs change. You may begin to experience stress or urge incontinence (leaking urine). These incontinence issues happen in higher rates in women than in men. Again, your OB/GYN can help you find solutions such as pelvic floor physical therapy, certain medicines or, in severe cases, surgery.
Menopause also affects your pelvic health. It can cause your pelvic floor muscles to weaken, contributing to incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse (when your uterus or other organs in your pelvis begin to bulge into your vagina). It can also make your vagina feel dry and painful during sex.
Your OB/GYN is your partner in treating all of these pelvic conditions throughout your life.
Bone health as you age
As you age, you are also at a disproportionately higher risk for osteoporosis (weak or less dense bones) and broken bones than men. Women have a higher prevalence of osteoporosis for a few different reasons:
- Low levels of estrogen after menopause lead to thinner bones
- Pregnancy and breastfeeding can remove nutrients from bones
- Women’s bones are smaller and lighter
- Women live longer, giving their bones more time to weaken
You should get bone density scans (also called DEXA scans) starting at age 65 to watch for osteoporosis. You can also take care of your bone health by eating foods rich in calcium, such as low-fat dairy products, broccoli and other greens. Strength building exercise, such as lifting weights, also helps your bones stay strong and dense.
Cancer prevention strategies for women
Men and women are both susceptible to cancer, though women are more likely to experience breast cancer. But with your recommended cancer screenings, you can catch cancer early or even prevent cancer.
Your screenings might include:
- Yearly mammograms starting at age 40 or 45 to check for breast cancer
- A colonoscopy at age 45 to check for polyps or colon cancer
- Cervical cancer screenings (Pap smears) starting at age 25
- Lung cancer screenings if you currently smoke or have smoked in the last 15 years and are over age 50
- Genetic testing for breast, ovarian or other cancers if you have a family history of these cancers
If you aren’t sure which screenings are right for you, your health care provider can help you find out what screenings you need. They can also share resources to help lower your risk for cancer, such as smoking cessation, nutrition advice and the Gardasil vaccine.
Hormones, pregnancy and a number of other factors all make women’s health needs different than men’s. But with the right preventive care from your primary care provider, you can lower your risks for these conditions and enjoy better health well into your golden years.
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How heart disease affects women
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.