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 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.
- High blood cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Physical inactivity
- Obesity and overweight
"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.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. It is second to lung cancer as the leading cause of death for women.
Experts say the fear of breast cancer can sometimes be exaggerated, stopping women from going to their doctors for screening, or pushing women to make rash decisions about mastectomy, when it may it may not be necessary.
"There's a lot of treatment for breast cancer," assures Diane Helentjaris, MD, immediate past president of the American Medical Women's Association. "It's not a death sentence."
She urges women to keep their emotions in perspective and to educate themselves about the issues.
The American Cancer Society lists the following as risk factors for breast cancer:
- Increasing age
- Genes. Nearly 5% to 10% of breast cancer is linked to mutations in certain genes (most commonly, the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes).
- Family history of the disease
- Personal history of the disease
- Race. White women have a slightly greater risk of getting breast cancer compared with African-American women. Yet African-Americans have a greater chance of dying from this disease.
- Earlier abnormal breast biopsy
- Earlier chest radiation
- Early onset of menstruation (before age 12) or menopause after age 55
- Not having children
- Medication use, such as diethylstilbestrol (DES)
- Too much alcohol
Stephen F. Sener, MD, president of the American Cancer Society, recommends controlling your weight, exercising, quitting smoking, and talking to your doctor about your risk and appropriate screening for breast cancer. He also says to keep risk factors in perspective.
"Just because your mother didn't have breast cancer, it does not mean you are immune to this problem," says Sener. At the same time, it's also important to note that some women who have one or more risk factors never get breast cancer.
Hunched backs, back pain, and frailty used to be things older women had to accept before doctors knew anything more about osteoporosis. Now, there are steps women and girls can take to avoid such problems.
Osteoporosis threatens 44 million Americans, of which 68% are women, reports the National Osteoporosis Foundation.
"Osteoporosis is largely preventable," says Mark. "The behaviors that women develop in their childhood, in their adolescence, and in their early adult years really play a significant role in the development of the disease."
That's because bodies build up most of bone mass until age 30. Then new bone stops forming and the focus is on maintenance of old bone.
It is never too late to keep bones strong and avoid fractures.
"Your body will do what it can to repair bone damage, but you have to provide the tools for it, such as adequate calcium consumption and weight-bearing physical activity," says Mark.
Risk factors for osteoporosis include:
- Female sex
- Increasing age
- Small, thin-boned frame
- Ethnicity. White and Asian women have the greatest risk.
- Family history
- Sex hormones. Infrequent menstrual cycles and estrogen loss due to menopause may increase risk.
- Diet low in calcium and vitamin D
- Medication use, particularly glucocorticoids or some anticonvulsants
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Excessive alcohol
Talk to your doctor about your possible risk of osteoporosis, and what you can do to prevent problems.
Depression appears to affect more women than men. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 12 million women are affected by a depressive disorder each year compared to about 6 million men.
Dorree Lynn, PhD, a psychologist and author of Getting Sane Without Going Crazy, says women need a connection with others in their lives.
"They need that sustenance," says Lynn. "If they don't have it, they tend to get depressed."
Sometimes, hormonal changes can also trigger the condition, particularly after pregnancy (postpartum) or around menopause.
Other risk factors for depression include:
- A previous depressive episode
- Family history of depression
- History of heart problems
- Serious chronic illness
- Marital problems
- Substance abuse
- Use of drugs that could trigger depression, such as medicines for high blood pressure or seizures
- A stressful life event, such as job loss or death
- Diseases that could trigger depression, such as vitamin deficiency and thyroid disease
- Recent serious illness or surgery
- Childhood history of physical or sexual abuse
- Being a worrier or being overly anxious
- Having an eating disorder or an anxiety disorder
To help reduce risk of depression, Lynn recommends finding a reason to get up in the morning. She says things such as work, community, love, pets, and volunteering can be good reasons.
"Statistically, the healthiest adults, both in women and men, are people in significant caring relationships," says Lynn. She says adults not in nurturing relationships can reduce their risk of depression by making efforts to reach out into the community.
Autoimmune diseases are a group of disorders in which the immune system attacks the body and destroys or alters tissues. There are more than 80 serious chronic illnesses in this category, including lupus, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes.
According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), about 75% of autoimmune diseases occur in women. By themselves, each disease appears to be uncommon -- except for diabetes, thyroid disease, and lupus -- but as a group, the disorders make up the fourth-largest cause of disability among American women.
It is not known what causes the body to turn on itself, but genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors are suspects.
"That's such a major area of needed research," says Helentjaris.
Since autoimmune diseases are not very well understood, pinpointing specific risk factors is difficult. Symptoms can also be nonspecific, hampering proper diagnosis. However, if you know something is wrong with you or a loved one, it's important to become an active health advocate.
"It's very common for women to make multiple visits to multiple doctors to finally get a diagnosis," she says. "Insist that someone take your symptoms seriously."
If you don't feel like your doctor is taking your complaints seriously, Pearson advises finding another doctor that will take the time to investigate your symptoms.