By Qian Wang, MD
Women experience unique challenges when it comes to their health, and certain conditions, such as heart disease and cancer, can affect women differently than men.
That is why women need to pay attention to their symptoms and talk to their doctor when something doesn’t seem right.
At Penn Medicine Princeton Health, women receive customized care — from treatment and prevention to healthcare resources — to address their unique healthcare needs.
Heart Attack and Stroke
Although it is sometimes thought of as a man’s disease, almost as many women as men die each year of heart disease in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In fact, as the American Heart Association notes, heart disease and stroke cause 1 in 3 deaths among women each year — more than all cancers combined — making it the leading killer of women nationally.
Moreover, the symptoms of heart disease, particularly heart attack, can be different and subtler in women than in men, and may include:
• Chest pain, but not always
• Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen
• Jaw, neck or upper back pain
• Nausea or vomiting
• Shortness of breath
• Extreme fatigue
Signs and symptoms of stroke include:
• Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
• Sudden confusion, trouble speaking, or understanding
• Sudden trouble seeing or blurred vision in one or both eyes
• Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
• Sudden severe headache with no known cause
Women may also experience general weakness; disorientation and confusion or memory problems; fatigue; nausea and vomiting.
If you have symptoms of heart attack or stroke, call 9-1-1 and seek emergency care.
Because of their gender, women have a unique risk for certain cancers, including cervical and ovarian cancer, which together affect an estimated 36,000 women annually, according to the American Cancer Society.
While cervical cancer can typically be detected through routine Pap screening, there is no screening test for ovarian cancer, which often presents with vague symptoms including:
• Pelvic or abdominal (belly) pain
• Trouble eating or feeling full quickly
• Urinary symptoms such as urgency (always feeling like you have to go) or frequency (having to go often)
The American Cancer Society recommends that if you have these symptoms more than 12 times a month you should see your doctor to diagnosis and treat the problem.
In addition to cervical and ovarian cancer, women are also uniquely at risk for breast cancer, which is the second leading cause of cancer death in women in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society.
Mammograms can help detect breast cancer early, when it is small and has not spread, making it easier to treat successfully.
Regular visits with your doctor can help you understand your cancer risk and take the necessary steps — such as regular screening through mammogram — to guard against the disease.
Did you know that according to the National Institutes of Health, women are four times more likely to develop osteoporosis than men?
A silent disease, osteoporosis causes bones to become weak and brittle and increases the risk for fractures, most commonly in the hip, wrist or spine. In fact, the National Osteoporosis Foundation notes that approximately 1 in every 2 women will break a bone due to osteoporosis.
Fractures can cause serious complications. Consider that 20% of seniors who break a hip die within one year from complications.
Women are at greater risk for osteoporosis as they age in part because they lose the protective effects of estrogen, which decreases sharply when they reach menopause.
Routine bone density tests after menopause can help detect osteoporosis and can assist you and your doctor in creating a plan to address the disease and prevent fractures.
In addition to knowing your body and paying attention to any troubling symptoms, you can take charge of your health with the following tips:
• Know your numbers. Knowing your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels can help you understand and manage your risk for heart disease, stroke and other conditions.
• Go for regular check-ups and screenings. Annual physicals can help identify potential health risks before they become significant problems. Moreover, your doctor can recommend appropriate health screenings based on your age and risk factors.
• Get vaccinated. One of the best ways for women to protect against cervical cancer is to get vaccinated for HPV, which is a common sexually transmitted disease and the most common cause of cervical cancer.
• Exercise regularly. Regular physical activity can help you stay heart healthy and can keep your bones — and the rest of your body — strong.
• Eat a healthy diet. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats and sugar is good for your overall health and can help you maintain a healthy weight. If you are concerned about osteoporosis, talk with your doctor about calcium supplements.
• Don’t smoke. Smoking is a significant risk factor for many different health conditions, including heart attack, stroke, cancer and osteoporosis. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about how you can quit.
• Get enough sleep. Along with nutrition and exercise, sleep is one of the three pillars of a healthy lifestyle. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that most adults get seven hours of sleep per night.
To find a physician with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 888-742-7496 or visit www.princetonhcs.org.
Qian Wang, MD, is board certified in internal medicine and specializes in geriatric medicine. She is a member of the Medical Staff at Penn Medicine Princeton Health.