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Women's Top 5 Health Concerns

From heart disease to breast cancer to depression, WebMD gives you the inside info on why women are at high risk for these problems but may not know it.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Imagine living without illness to slow you down. While there are no lifetime guarantees, enough scientific research has been done to make long, healthy living a possibility.

To help women boost health, WebMD examined five medical conditions that are of great concern to them: heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis, depression, and autoimmune diseases.

We looked at the risk factors for each disease and asked the experts what women could do to prevent such ailments.

In order to make full use of this information, Saralyn Mark, MD, encourages women to take charge of their health. She says women need to work in partnership with their doctors by finding out their family medical history, educating themselves on health issues, and paying attention to their bodies.

"You know what makes you feel good, you know when you don't feel well. Understanding your body is key," says Mark, senior medical adviser for the Office on Women's Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Heart Disease

Heart disease is the leading killer of both men and women. In women, the condition is responsible for about 29% of deaths, reports the CDC.

Yet death in itself isn't the biggest problem for women with heart disease. The real trouble is in premature death and disability, says Cindy Pearson, executive director of the National Women's Health Network.

"There are far too many women dying of heart disease in their 60s, when no one expects to die because that's too young in this country," says Pearson. "There are (also) women, who, for many years, are really ill with heart disease -- being out of breath, not being able to walk up one flight of stairs … because heart disease impairs their ability to get around."

Although more men die of heart disease than women, females tend to be underdiagnosed, often to the point that it's too late to help them once the condition is discovered.

"The symptoms for women are typical for women, and they are often missed by doctors and the patient themselves," Mark explains. "We often think of symptoms … like chest pain. Some people may have that, but others may just have a little bit of jaw pain, shoulder ache, nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath."

The American Heart Association lists risk factors for heart disease as:

  • Increasing age
  • Male sex (men typically develop heart disease at a younger age)
  • Heredity (including race). People with family history of the disease have greater risk. So do African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and some Asian-Americans.
  • Smoking
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity and overweight
  • Diabetes

"The burden of heart disease in women is very great," says Gregory Burke, MD, professor and chairman of the department of public health sciences at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine. "The earlier folks adapt healthier behaviors, the lower their overall risk for heart disease or stroke outcomes."

Burke says people can reduce their risk of heart disease by modifying lifestyle to include a well-balanced diet and exercise.

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