(This article appeared previously on Grandparents.com.)
You knew that there were some illnesses that affect more women than men; breast cancer and osteoporosis, for example, are two diseases we hear about year in and year out.
But what about the other ones? What about the multitude of conditions that moms, sisters, daughters and grandmothers tend to develop more frequently than dads, brothers, sons and grandpas? Women are prone to everything from carpal tunnel syndrome to multiple sclerosis to stroke, and it’s about time we knew what to look out for.
We spoke to Dr. Nieca Goldberg, director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, about ailments that primarily target females — what they are, why women get them and what we can do about them.
1. Thyroid Disease
Odds are you’ve seen a woman with a smiley face-shaped scar at the base of her neck, a.k.a. the hallmark of thyroid surgery. You may even have one yourself, since, according to the American Thyroid Association, about 12 or 13 percent of women will be affected by a thyroid disorder at some point in their lives. “Women are seven times more likely to develop thyroid issues than men,” says Goldberg, “and women should understand that the treatment is very important because the thyroid is responsible for regulating metabolism.”
Heart disease is the leading killer of women, and only one in five women realizes she is at risk.
— Dr. Nieca Goldberg
Conditions like hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism come with a host of symptoms (such as weight gain for the former and weight loss for the latter) that can be easily dismissed or mistaken for other conditions, making thyroid disease easy to overlook. There’s good news, though, says Goldberg: “Because there’s more awareness, more women are being screened.” And that means treatment is more accessible than ever, as well. For many women, it involves simply taking a medication each day.
Learn more: American Thyroid Association
“Heart disease is the leading killer of women,” says Goldberg, “and only one in five women realizes she is at risk.” One chief risk factor is hypertension, a.k.a. high blood pressure, and before age 55, men are likelier to have it. “But as women get older,” she says, “their blood pressure goes up because their blood vessels aren’t as flexible.” By age 65, women overtake men. Ten years later, the gulf is sizable: About four of five U.S. women are hypertensive, versus two of three men.
While genetics play a role in your odds of developing the condition, your physical well-being is a big determinant. “There are things that improve blood vessel flexibility, such as eating right and exercising,” says Goldberg. The key is to start early: “Studies that say that women who go into menopause leading a healthy lifestyle — who maintain it through menopause — go to the hospital less.”
Learn more: American Heart Association
Until age 75, more men have strokes than women. Between ages 75 and 85, women catch up. Then, after age 85, far more women have strokes, making it the fourth-leading cause of death among American females, outranking diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease. And that’s not all: Across all ages, women who survive cerebrovascular accidents are likelier to have recurrent strokes and become disabled after an event.
A large part of the discrepancy in deaths is simply life expectancy; older people are more likely to suffer a stroke, and American women outlive men by five years on average, to age 81. That means, all told, 425,000 U.S. women will have a stroke this year, versus 380,000 men.
The silver lining in all this? Stroke deaths are declining overall. According to the American Heart Association, “From 2001 to 2011, the relative rate of stroke death fell by 35.1 percent and the actual number of stroke deaths declined by 21.2 percent.” And that’s a positive development for everybody.
Learn more: National Stroke Association
4. Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is a double whammy for women. Not only have studies found that our health declines faster, but the chances of women developing Alzheimer’s are much higher than in men — almost two to one. In fact, in 2013, Alzheimer’s killed around 59,000 women compared to about 26,000 men.
While some of it has to do with life expectancy — older people develop Alzheimer’s more, and women live longer — medical experts are still trying to piece together the gender divergence. “Right now we know that there is abnormal buildup of proteins [in women],” says Goldberg. Hormonal interactions and lifestyle differences are also being explored, but little can be declared definitively.
What is known, however, is that a healthy lifestyle could help ward off Alzheimer’s, and as a result, dementia: “There are emerging studies that show that people who are physically active help improve their brain function. It’s important to eat fewer processed foods for overall health, too — fruit, vegetables, and whole grains [are better choices],” she says. Good ol’ diet and exercise does it again.
Learn more: Alzheimer’s Association
Mysterious, awful headaches that can put a person out of commission for days at a time, migraines affect three women for every one man, and up to a quarter of all women, period. Hormonal changes are known to be involved, though the exact cause of the pain hasn’t been pinpointed yet. “Different people with migraines have different triggers,” says Goldberg. “It could be perfume, change in humidity, [or even] food, like red wine.”
Take heart, though: “Sometimes women are more likely to get their migraines around their menstrual periods,” says Goldberg. “So, as women get older and go through menopause, some women who tend to get migraines don’t tend to get them frequently.” Three cheers for menopause!
Learn more: The Migraine Trust
6. Autoimmune Diseases
“Autoimmune diseases” is an umbrella term for a group of more than 100 chronic illnesses — including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Graves’ disease — in which the body essentially turns on itself. About 75 percent of people affected are women, though for some illnesses, such as lupus, the numbers are more like 90 percent. Many autoimmune diseases do have a genetic component, but that doesn’t explain everything. “We don’t really understand the reason why women are disproportionately affected,” Goldberg says.
Beyond the often debilitating symptoms associated with each respective condition, autoimmune diseases have another nefarious side effect: “Those inflammatory conditions also increase a women’s risk for heart disease.”
Gallstones are hard particles that become stuck in the gall bladder, a tiny organ between your liver and intestines. Pregnant women and obese women over 40 are particularly prone to them — especially if they’ve had hormone replacement therapy — and almost half of all women are expected to develop gallstones by age 75, versus just 20 percent of men.
Usually, you don’t even notice a stone unless there’s pain involved, at which point you should see a doctor. “If you have pain in the right upper abdomen and you have those characteristics, you might need to get evaluated, because gallstones can cause inflammation of the gallbladder, which leads to infection, and you can get seriously ill,” Goldberg says. To help prevent gallstones, eat a diet sufficient in fiber and regulate your unhealthy fat intake.
As if that list weren’t enough, these conditions also tend to affect women more than men:
- Acne (in adulthood)
- Asthma (in adulthood)
- Carpal tunnel syndrome
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Restless legs syndrome
- Urinary tract infections
To stay on top of potential issues, “I recommend that women get a doctor with a family practice as their primary physician [as they age], because those doctors are trained in overall health,” says Goldberg. “They should connect at least yearly, but if they have medical issues going on, they would visit more frequently.” In the meantime, you can learn about these illnesses and more at WomensHealth.gov.
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