As Mother’s Day approaches, we also are entering National Women’s Health Week, so designated by the Office of Women’s Health, United States Department of Health and Human Services.
Women’s health conditions are often preventable or curable. Consider a limited list of specific conditions:
As many as one in seven women may be diagnosed with breast cancer, which is now the No. 1 cause of death of women between ages 20 and 40 in the United States. Genetic markers, such as the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, are garnering clinical attention as potentially valuable clinical tools. Mammography, however, remains a cornerstone to breast cancer screening.
Studies indicate that persons over age 50 often report inadequate screening for colon cancer, a condition that kills 50,000 Americans annually. Screening typically would include colonoscopy at age 50, or earlier in selected cases. A relatively high fiber diet, along with regular exercise and maintenance of ideal body weight, may also ward off colon cancer.
We now know that cervical cancer is generally caused by human papilloma virus, although epidemiological associations with cigarette smoking have also been described. A Pap smear can detect early premalignant changes in female reproductive tissues, saving lives by allowing early curative interventions. Sadly, we still see 15,000 deaths a year in our country due to cervical cancer. With the advent of specific vaccination against papilloma viruses, there are grounds for cautious optimism in this ongoing battle.
The U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging routinely recognizes chronic arthritis as a leading cause of chronic disability among the elderly. By age 60, about 80 percent of people will have radiographic evidence of arthritic joint changes, although not all will be symptomatic. Most arthritis is the “wear and tear” type that we refer to as osteoarthritis. Rheumatoid disease, a systemic and inflammatory condition, may afflict up to 1 percent of the population, and is common in women of child-bearing years. A team approach to arthritis management may involve a rheumatologist, physical therapist and possibly referral to an orthopedic surgeon. Total-joint replacements often improve the quality of life of arthritis suffers significantly.
Depression is the No. 1 psychiatric disorder in America, although half of sufferers may not be diagnosed or treated. Beyond impacting quality of life, depression can also increase the risk of suicide. Treatments are available, and may include therapy, pharmaceutical interventions and even aerobic exercise. A primary care provider who diagnoses depression may refer a patient for mental health services. Although many patients report mood disturbances, others seek care due to so-called “vegetative” signs of depression, including poor appetite, altered sleep habits or decreased level of energy. Some medical conditions, such as an underactive thyroid gland, can cause depression.
Heart attack rates have fallen in recent decades with the advent of anti-hypertensive and cholesterol-lowering therapy. Nonetheless, cardiovascular disease, including coronary artery disease, stroke, and peripheral vascular disease, are the No. 1 cause of death in our country today. Among the nearly one million people who die annually from heart disease, about half present to medical attention with a life-threatening irregular heart rate, a scenario often referred to as “sudden death.” Aggressive primary care screening for risk factors is putting a dent in these figures, however. Specifically, smoking cessation, treatment of high cholesterol and management of high blood pressure all are critical in lowering the risk of heart disease. Heart disease may be under-recognized in women due to a tendency for women to develop “atypical” symptoms, such as fatigue or nausea.
National Women’s Health Week empowers women, whether mothers or not, to take care of themselves. I guess that message applies to men as well.
Scott T Anderson, MD (email [email protected]), is Clinical Professor at UC Davis Medical School. This article is informational, and does not constitute medical advice.