The ABCs of Women’s Health

Experts give us the rundown on some of the most common health issues women face and what can be done to prevent them.

by Maggie Tarwater
As children, we are taught that true beauty starts on the inside. The fundamentals of good health and nutrition follow: Eat your fruits and vegetables, drink your milk and get plenty of exercise. As adults, these ABCs might become easier to forget as our priorities change and time is seemingly at an increasing premium every day. But as adults, women become more at risk for certain health issues. The most common of these can easily be prevented by adhering to basic essentials and always remembering what we learned as a child: What really matters is on the inside.

Alcohol Consumption
According to Dr. Adil Choudhary with the Huguley Center for Digestive and Liver Disorders, women are more at risk when it comes to alcohol-related health issues. “There is a difference between how men and women metabolize alcohol,” Choudhary says. The stomach enzyme dehydrogenase, which helps to break down the alcohol, is present at a lesser level in women, resulting in a higher blood alcohol level than in men who drink the same amount. Women also have less water in their bodies, which dilutes the alcohol being consumed. “Alcohol consumption can lead to other health issues, like liver damage, heart damage and even breast cancer,” Choudhary says. “And because women are more at risk, they should be more careful.”

Alzheimer’s
As the most well-known form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease is also the most common and has a significant effect on women. “Because women generally live longer, they are more likely to contract it,” said Susan Farris, CEO and executive director of James L. West Alzheimer Center in Fort Worth. “Two-thirds of patients are women, and 62 percent of caregivers are women.” While there is no known direct cause, there are things women can do to prevent it. She suggests a healthy Mediterranean-style diet, along with regular exercise and a low-stress lifestyle. “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”

Anemia
Anemia, a condition directly related to a low red blood cell count, is most commonly caused by an iron deficiency stemming from blood loss. According to Dr. Kathleen Crowley with the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, most anemia cases are found in women due to menstruation. “As women menstruate, they lose a certain amount of red blood cells every month,” Crowley said. “They need to replace that iron with iron-rich foods or tablets.” Some of the most common symptoms of iron-deficient anemia are lethargy and a craving for ice. “If you know women who are constantly eating ice, tell them to go see a doctor,” Crowley said. “If untreated, it could lead to something more severe, especially if there are underlying health issues.” 

Breast Cancer
One of the most common misconceptions about breast cancer is that it’s purely genetic, when in fact, most reported cases are non-familial, according to Dr. Shanna Combs, OBGYN at the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth. “Just because it didn’t run in your family doesn’t mean you aren’t at risk,” Combs said. “Just being a woman puts you at risk.” There are certain things you can do to help decrease the risk, however. Having children before age 30 and breast-feeding help regulate estrogen levels. Being aware of family history and getting annual screenings can help catch abnormalities early on. “It’s important for women to know their bodies and take note of any changes,” Combs said. “The best thing a woman can do for herself is to be aware and get annual screenings.”  

Bone Health
The most important thing to know about bone health, according to Combs is that it starts young. “Bone structure is developed as a child,” Combs said. “So it’s important that kids have calcium-rich diets and exercise regularly to put pressure on their bones.” The main reason women are at risk, Combs says, is due to hormone loss associated with menopause. “You’re constantly breaking down and building new bone, but during menopause bones are breaking down faster than they are rebuilding.” While treatable, bone loss is not reversible, which is why Combs suggests taking preventative measures early on. “Exercise often, eat calcium-rich foods such as dairy, and make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin D.”

Blood Pressure
According to Dr. Joseph McWherter with the FEM Center in Fort Worth, some important things to know about blood pressure are that it can be fatal and is affected by many things in our daily lives. “High blood pressure is a chronic inflammatory condition meaning it is caused by inflammation,” McWherter said. “Hormones, diet, stress level, physical lifestyle – all these things play a part.” To help manage high blood pressure, McWherter suggests a predominantly vegetarian diet with non-tropical fruits like apples, oranges and berries, along with high protein, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. High levels of estrogen can also help control and even stop inflammation in women, along with an adequate does of Omega 3s and watching your intake of grains, sugar and salt. “I’ve seen several people get off their blood pressure medication just by doing these things,” McWherter said. “You’ll be surprised how good you feel.”

Cervical Dysplasia
A pre-cursor to cervical cancer, cervical dysplasia is a changing of the cells on the surface of the cervix. Caused by the sexually transmitted virus HPV, the abnormalities can be detected with a pap smear and examined more closely with a microscopic exam that will determine its level of severity. Most women with cervical dysplasia are able to fight it off, but if left untreated, it could lead to cervical cancer. To avoid this, Combs suggests getting vaccinated before sexual activity begins. Vaccinations are offered as young as age 10 and up to age 26. If sexual activity has already begun, the most important thing, she says, is to continue getting annual screenings.

Cervical Cancer
Something many women may not realize about cervical cancer is that only women who are HPV positive are at risk, and it’s relatively uncommon in the U.S., with about 12,000 cases reported annually, according to Dr. Lori Atkins-Williamson with Texas Health Care in Fort Worth. And thanks to advancements in research and screenings, there are now vaccines that protect against HPV and, therefore, against cervical cancer. “We really encourage young adults to get this vaccine before they become sexually active,” said Atkins-Williamson. “That way they won’t contract HPV or be at risk for cervical cancer in the future.” Because a woman can carry the HPV virus without ever showing any symptoms, annual screenings are important for early detection of abnormalities. But even then, says Atkins-Williamson, it’s still very treatable. “A woman with HPV means she’s at risk for cervical cancer,” she said. “It doesn’t mean she will get it.”

Colon Health
The most important reason to maintain good colon health, says Crowley, is to avoid colon cancer. “That’s the primary reason for colonoscopies,” she said. “We are screening for abnormalities that could lead to colon cancer.” One of these abnormalities is a polyp, or a growth on the inner surface of the colon. If not removed, it could grow in size and eventually turn into cancer. A few ways to maintain good colon health include a high fiber diet, knowing your family medical history, regular exercise and screenings when necessary. Some symptoms of bad colon health include rectal bleeding, severe cramping and blood in the stool. “Anytime you notice something unusual, talk to your doctor,” said Crowley. “Colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S., so if you can treat it and possibly prevent it, why wouldn’t you?”