Women who make small changes in their health and habits can experience a multitude of lifelong benefits.

August 1, 2012
By Amanda Bedgood

When people say women are like spaghetti and men are like waffles, they’re talking about how the fairer sex connects the dots from one area of life to another. Women, it seems, aren’t big on compartmentalizing. It’s an analogy aimed at how women live their lives but is just as accurate when it comes to women’s health. The dots, in many cases, connect in ways most women never realize.

It’s certainly a truth among the top five issues in women’s health: heart disease, breast cancer, osteoporosis, depression and autoimmune diseases. As we listened to the risk factors and lifestyle changes from experts for these varying ailments, it became clear that there are few silos when it comes to women’s health.

Read on to learn how easy, cheap and quickly you can turn around your health. And just how much taking care of one part of you benefits so many others.

Have Heart

OneADay1Heart disease isn’t your daddy’s problem. It is the No. 1 killer of women, claiming nearly one life every minute (that’s more than the next three causes of death for women combined). And in the vast majority of cases, more than 80 percent, it can be prevented.

“I think the biggest thing is that we are so busy as women taking care of others that we don’t take care of ourselves,” says Laura Broussard of the local chapter of American Heart Association.

Women in Louisiana are at a higher risk for heart disease than the national average, attributable to the state’s 30 percent obesity rate. Yet Broussard says it’s important to have your cholesterol and blood pressure checked no matter your weight and family history.

“Just because you’re skinny or exercise doesn’t mean you don’t have high blood pressure or high cholesterol,” she says.

Family history does play a role (if you have it, head to a cardio doc at 40). But outside of your weight, there are other primary risk factors for heart disease no matter your family history: not enough exercise, smoking, poor diet, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar.

Easily Broken

OneADay2Hunched backs and frail bones have long been the hallmark of what many call an old woman’s disease — osteoporosis (which affects 30 million a year). But the truth is that prevention begins before most women ever see their first grey hair.

“After 35, women experience bone loss,” says Mary Reed, director of the Women’s Imaging Center at Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

While bone mass can be increased later in life, it’s far better to prevent osteoporosis, and it requires more than drinking your milk (not to mention the controversy about whether this even does your body good). Weight-bearing exercise is crucial.

Exercise like Pilates, yoga and core strengthening are good choices, according to occupational therapist Jason M. Guidry of Acadian Comprehensive Therapy Services.

“Women between 20 and 40 should work on core strengthening and flexibility training to allow them to have good posture,” Guidry says.

The other two measures to prevent osteoporosis are banishing tobacco and limiting alcohol. And it’s important to remember there’s a reason osteoporosis is named the “silent threat.”

“It doesn’t hurt until you start breaking things,” says Dr. Kemp Coreil of Lafayette Internal Medicine Clinic.

Self, Examined

Breast cancer treatment has come a long way, baby. While statistics still show a staggering 226,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer each year in the U.S., women are living longer and better with the condition, on average. The sobering truth is that they aren’t doing so around here.

In Acadiana, the incident rate remains in the national average while the mortality rate is the second in the country. A new medical council from the Acadiana Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure is investigating why, and the organization’s new mission director, Michelle Voss, says it suspects it’s a matter of women detecting too late.

Women must do a better job of self-examination, along with routine mammograms.  

“The earlier it’s detected the better response to treatment usually, and there’s a significantly better chance to fight it,” Voss says.

In fact, Rebecca Donohue, a nurse practitioner at The Cancer Center at Lafayette General Medical Center, says as breast cancer treatments improve, the disease that was once a death sentence has become something people live with for years.

“It’s becoming more chronic than terminal,” she says, noting new drugs that help battle the agonizing nausea and side effects that have become the hallmark of cancer treatment in many people’s eyes.

“Most people have a preconceived idea of how horrible treatment is … supportive care drugs are phenomenal,” she says.

And thanks to new facilities throughout Acadiana, treatment is possible close to home.

Into the Light

Women face depression at twice the rate of men. And, no, it’s not all in your head. The reasons women experience the downs of depressions are as complicated as women themselves, explains Amy E. Cavanaugh, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist at The Center for Psychiatric Solutions.

Those reasons range “from reproductive hormones to social pressures … to the female response to stress,” Cavanaugh says.

Women face body image pressures more frequently than men and also produce more stress hormones. In fact, women don’t have the off switch for stress hormones like men do because of progesterone. And women are simply more likely to identify and report depression than men.

The good news is that while genetics does predispose some women to depression, there are measures that can prevent the risk of developing depression (none are costly or complicated), and it’s a very treatable condition. Exercise, social support, stress management, good sleep hygiene, healthy relationships (especially avoiding domestic violence); moderation in alcohol and good nutrition are all a great foundation for prevention as well as knowing your family history of mood disorders.

In the short term, a few simple steps can help battle depression. Talk about how you feel and keep up with social activities.

“Get up and moving,” Cavanaugh says. “Studies show that regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication at increasing energy levels and decreasing feelings of fatigue. You don’t have to hit the gym. A 30-minute walk each day will give you a much-needed boost.”

Long term, it’s important to seek treatment because the more depressive episodes you have now put you at risk for more later.

Anti-body

More than 23.5 million Americans live with autoimmune disease, according to the country’s Office on Women’s Health. And at least 75 percent of those occur in women. And no one seems to know why.

“There is no clear explanation,” says internist Kemp Coreil of Lafayette Internal Medicine Clinic.

The diseases falling under the umbrella of autoimmune are as varied as diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease to multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. And the ability to live with and treat these diseases is just as varied. Combined these diseases make up the fourth-largest cause of disability among American women.

When it comes to risk factors, explains Coreil, “It’s a case of bad luck in many cases.”

He says there is often a genetic predisposition and for whatever reason the disease becomes active because of something viral or something as minor as a cold.

“It turns on antibodies and it turns into a ravenous disease that can be dealt with for the rest of their life,” he says.

Treatment for autoimmune diseases can be varied and include medication and therapy for symptoms.

“You have these problems and don’t want to move because it hurts. But, a low level of activity is better than inactivity,” says Jason M. Guidry, an occupational therapist at Acadian Comprehensive Therapy Services.

The key is to give patients a tool to use long term.

“Get them to be able to play with their grandkids on the floor and go shopping with their friends and cook a meal for their family on Sunday,” Guidry says. “These things are taken from them. It really alters their state of mind to not be able to do these things and they are at their wits’ end.”


Resources

For heart health, head to the American Heart Association at www.heart.org. It offers a myriad of resources online, from local walking paths — great for those who shy away from a traditional gym — to a fitness and diet program called Better U that can be downloaded free and customized for you.

Walking Paths www.mystartonline.org

Better U - 12 week makeover www.goredforwomen.org/betteru

Heart Match connects people across the country with other survivors of the same heart condition at www.goredforwomen.org/heartmatch

For the local Go Red Challenge, call Personally Fit to sign up for a screening and application (10 women are chosen) 989-9952

To learn more about osteoporosis risks and prevention go to the National Osteoporosis Foundation website at www.nof.org.

The National Institute of Health also provides information on bone health and testing at www.bones.nih.gov.

For an online assessment for depression check out the Mayo Clinic’s website www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression/MH00103_D/ (which doesn’t replace a sit down with a professional). And go to the American Psychological Association’s site for in depth looks at depression www.apa.org.

Information about local events to raise money for breast cancer research can be found at www.komenacadiana.org, along with ways to get involved and how to decrease your risk. The American Cancer Society at www.cancer.org has patient support and prevention options. And Miles Perret Cancer Services Center www.milesperretcenter.org has a host of options for supporting those with breast cancer and their families.

The Office of Women’s Health at www.womenshealth.gov produces a host of information about women and autoimmune diseases from the symptoms to look for to the doctors best suited for different diseases.

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