A Man's Guide to Women's Health

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Caring Men Help Women

By Gina Shaw
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

You've seen the cough medicine ads that brag, "recommended by Dr. Mom." No doubt about it -- in most households, Mom still handles the doctors' appointments, prescription refills, and late-night symptoms.

"Women are the health CEOs of the family," says Amy Niles, executive director of the National Women's Health Resource Center, "and it's not easy!" What happens when Dr. Mom or Dr. Wife gets sick? And how does she stay healthy?

There's a lot that today's men should know about the unique health concerns facing the women in their life. Busy women often put the health needs of their husbands, kids, and parents ahead of their own. A caring husband, father, or boyfriend can educate himself, says Niles, to help the woman he loves make time for her own health.

What She's Worried About

Quick -- name some of the diseases and health problems that solely or disproportionately affect women. If you had to stop after "breast cancer," you're probably not alone. Most guys don't realize just how many medical threats home in on women as their primary targets. Among them, in addition to breast cancer:

  • cervical, ovarian, and uterine cancers;
  • endometriosis (a condition in which pieces of the uterine lining grow outside the uterus, often causing painful periods and bleeding);
  • osteoporosis;
  • lupus and other autoimmune disorders (they affect women much more frequently than men);
  • depression (affects women at two to three times the rate of men);
  • multiple sclerosis (affects twice as many women as men); and
  • migraine.

What's more, many men -- and women -- aren't aware that heart disease, the leading killer of men, is also the leading killer of women in the U.S., outpacing breast cancer and killing more women than men every year since 1984.

But even conditions like heart disease, which affect both men and women, affect women differently. A woman's heart attack symptoms, for example, may be markedly different from -- and subtler than -- those men are familiar with. Instead of sharp chest pains or pain radiating up the arm, she may notice shortness of breath without chest pain, unexplained fatigue, pain in her back, shoulders, neck, or jaw, or flu-like symptoms of nausea and clamminess.

Prevention Matters

For many of these conditions -- like cancers, heart disease, and osteoporosis -- we know a great deal about the kind of healthy lifestyles that can help to prevent them. But often, "Dr. Mom" is so busy caring for the health of everyone else in the family that she doesn't have time to take care of her own. Support and encouragement (not nagging or criticism) from a husband or boyfriend can provide the incentive, and most important, the time a woman needs to get to checkups, make sure she eats right, and focus on exercise.

Good nutrition, for example, is essential to preventing health problems that trouble women. That means a balanced diet focused on staying healthy, not on getting skinny -- radical diets can lead to other health problems, such as difficulty getting pregnant.

"Some women don't get enough iron in their diet, so they might tend towards anemia," says Judy Norsigian, head of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, which publishes the renowned Our Bodies, Ourselves. "Other women don't get enough calcium. At a young age, women need to ensure that their calcium intake is sufficient, because we start losing bone density in our thirties and onward."

Exercise -- something else many busy women don't feel they have time for -- goes hand in hand with nutrition as the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise keeps the heart healthy, has a protective role against many cancers -- including breast cancer -- and has been found to alleviate many forms of depression. More specifically, weight-bearing exercise, like walking or running, plays a key role in preventing osteoporosis.

Despite public education, smoking is rising among young women, and studies show women may find it more difficult to quit than men do. If a woman you love smokes, backing up her efforts to quit is the best health gift you can give her--quitting smoking now will reduce her risk of pregnancy complications, early menopause, and many cancers.

It's also vital to help her make time for regular medical checkups and screening tests, such as:

  • Pap smear with pelvic exam: The Pap test has been proven to prevent cervical cancer by detecting early cellular changes. It can also detect some infections. A gynecologist usually does a pelvic exam at the same time. Annual Pap smears and pelvic exams should start at age 18 (or when she becomes sexually active, if that's sooner) and continue for the rest of her life.

  • Bone density test: This simple, painless test determines the bone mineral density in key regions such as the spine, hip, or wrist, to assess whether a woman's rate of bone loss puts her at risk for osteoporosis. Annual bone density tests are recommended for all women over 65, and for women under 65 with at least one risk factor, like family history or cigarette smoking.

  • Breast exam: Controversy surrounds two common screening exams for breast cancer, the mammogram and the monthly breast self-exam, as recent studies have indicated that both examinations don't reduce the rate of death from breast cancer. "That doesn't mean, however, that in a particular situation a woman might not be benefited from having had a mammogram," says Norsigian. Get informed and talk about the issue with your partner.

"Offer the time and the support she needs," says Niles. "Help make sure that just as a woman is giving so much of herself to see that her husband gets to the doctor and her children get to the doctor, she gets to the doctor and doesn't ignore symptoms. Don't forget that she is important too."

Published Dec. 16, 2002.

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