Women Aren't "Small Men": Women's Health Issues Are Different Than Men's and Need to Be Addressed Specifically

By Ruskamp-Hatz, Jody | State Legislatures, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Women Aren't "Small Men": Women's Health Issues Are Different Than Men's and Need to Be Addressed Specifically


Ruskamp-Hatz, Jody, State Legislatures


The goal is to die young, but at a very old age--active and enjoying life up to the very end," says Dr. Wanda Jones, director of the federal Office on Women's Health, who touts the triumphs of public health and modern medicine in helping people live longer and healthier.

Her message applies equally to women and men. But for women to live longer, healthier lives they must pay attention to what scientists have been discovering the last two dozen years when they started researching women's health.

Predominately, men have been medical research subjects and it was believed that except for reproductive organs, women were biologically the same. Doctors looked at women as "small men." By the 1980s, according to the Society for Women's Health Research, it was clear that the exclusion of women from clinical research trials compromised the health care they received.

Compared to men, women have different reactions and side effects to certain drugs. Women come out of anesthesia earlier. Women have different symptoms before a heart attack. Women are 2.7 times more likely to acquire an autoimmune disease, such as sclerosis, lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. Adolescent and young adult women are more apt to have eating disorders that lead to death. Women who smoke are far more likely to develop lung cancer at a younger age. Women experience depression at nearly twice the rate as men.

"Women's health issues are different than men's, and if we care about overall health we have to look at gender-specific issues," says Indiana Senator Gary Dillon, a physician and chair of NCSL's Standing Committee on Health.

In the early 1900s, women in the United States were most likely to die from infectious disease and complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Once women started to live longer, researchers found they have their own versions of chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer and stroke, which now account for 63 percent of American women's deaths.

Heart disease is the biggest killer, responsible for more deaths in women than all forms of cancer combined. The condition kills 50,000 more women than men every year. It continues to be the most significant health concern for women in the United States today with nearly 489,000 deaths per year. Cancer is the second major threat to women, with lung cancer being the most common cause of cancer death.

"When a woman's health is bad, it affects the whole family," says Oregon Representative Carolyn Tomei. "We have to spend a lot of time with our male counterparts explaining why these women's health issues are important, not only to them, but to their entire family. Women tend to be the ones who decide when to seek medical advice for other family members." Tomei is the chair of the Human Services and Women's Wellness committee and has made women's health one of her top priorities in the legislature.

[GRAPHIC OMITTED]

A NEW DIRECTION

Lawmakers, doctors and scientists are starting to pay more attention to women's health, but progress has been slow. Women and minorities are still not included in research studies in large enough numbers to allow for accurate analysis by sex and ethnicity. Advocates for women's health want to improve access for women to services such as cancer screenings, reproductive health care, prenatal care, mental health care, smoking cessation classes, and appropriate treatment for their health problems.

"Women's health is often a bellwether for what's happening with overall health in a state," says Michelle Berlin with the Oregon Health & Science University and co-author of the third "Making the Grade on Women's Health: A National and State-by-State Report Card."

Based on the criteria outlined in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Healthy People 2010 agenda, Berlin's report gives the nation an overall grade of "unsatisfactory." The two goals met by the nation--the percentage of women age 40 and older getting regular mammograms and the number of dental visits--represent progress, but many of the measures fall far short of the goals. …

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