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Women's Health Introduction

Ann Witt, M.D., and Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D.

You don't need an M.D. Degree to know that men and women are different. But do these gender differences impact physical and mental health? The answer is a resounding yes! One of the most striking differences occurs with life expectancy data: on average, women will live until they are 80 years old (compared to men, who can expect to live approximately 74 years). Other differences, thought a bit more subtle, are also important: many women are unaware that they can react differently to medication, are more vulnerable to certain diseases, and may experience different symptoms than men with similar conditions.

There are additional health-related differences between the two genders. For instance, women are more likely to visit the doctor than men. In 1998, the average number of health care dollars spent annually on females was $2,712 (vs. $2,132 for men). This higher health care expenditure rate for women is the result of more visits for conditions of the reproductive system (e.g., menopause, cervical cancer screening, pregnancy).

Women are also more likely to deal with health-related stressors than men. Women usually take the lead with regard to medical situations (e.g, deciding whether to take someone to a doctor, transporting them to the appointment, picking up medications) for their families as well as themselves. Women also provide the bulk of the care for ill or disabled family members (often in combination with caring for their own children).

Because of their fragmented work histories (e.g., many take time off to raise children or care for relatives), women must often rely on other people (such as their spouse) for their health insurance coverage, or go without coverage altogether. As a result, not all women are adequately covered. The proportion of uninsured women under age 65 rose from 14 percent in 1993 to 18 percent in 1998. In 2001, 19.5 million women did not have insurance.

Some of the medical conditions that women must face are unique, such as breast cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in females. Others are shared with men, such as heart disease, which is the number one killer of women, accounting for about 28% of deaths in women in 2002 (a rate similar to that of men).

With this information in mind, we have designed a women's health topic center that summarizes some of the most important medical conditions that can affect women. This review focuses on potentially life-threatening diseases commonly affecting women like heart disease and cancer, as well as autoimmune disease and some conditions of the reproductive tract. Whatever the disease, medicine changes frequently. By understanding health conditions and keeping current on relevant information, women can maximize their chances for having a healthy life and minimize the negative impact of diseases.

 




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