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.
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 Dr. Goldberg, "and women should understand that the treatment is very important because the thyroid is responsible for regulating metabolism."
Conditions like hypothyroidism (fatigue, weight gain, etc.) and hyperthyroidism (fatigue, weight loss, etc.) come with a host of symptoms that can be easily dismissed or mistaken for other conditions, making thyroid disease easy to overlook. There’s good news, though, says Dr. Goldberg: "Because there’s more awareness, more women are being screened." And that means treatment is more accessible than ever, as well.
"Heart disease is the leading killer of women," says Dr. Goldberg, "and only 1 in 5 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 4 of 5 U.S. women are hypertensive, versus 2 of 3 men.
While genetics play a role in your odds of developing the condition, your physical wellbeing is a big determinant. "There are things that improve blood vessel flexibility, such as eating right and exercising," says Dr. 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."
Until age 75, more men have strokes than women. Between 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, outrankingdiabetes 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 simple 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% and the actual number of stroke deaths declined by 21.2%." And that's a positive development for everybody.
Alzheimer's Disease is a double whammy for women. Not only have studies found that our health declines faster, but our chances of developing AD are much higher than men—almost 2 to 1. 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 Dr. 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 less processed foods for overall health, too—fruit, vegetables, and whole grains." Good ol’ diet and exercise does it again.
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 Dr. 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 Dr. 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!
- American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association
- National Multiple Sclerosis Society
- Lupus Foundation of America
- Arthritis Foundation
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," says Dr. Goldberg. To help prevent gallstones, eat a diet sufficient in fiber and regulate your unhealthy fat intake.
As if that list wasn’t enough, these conditions also tend to affect women more than men:
- Acne (in adulthood)
- Asthma (in adulthood)
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Restless Leg 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 Dr. 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 atWomensHealth.gov.
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