McFarland Clinic

Preventive Health: Avoiding the Top Threats to Women's Health

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May 18, 2012

Heart Disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory diseases, and Alzheimer’s disease are the leading causes of death among women in the United States – 64% of deaths among females in 2009 were attributed to one of these causes according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Yet there’s much women can do to lower their risk of being impacted by these threats. Take charge by clicking on "prevention tips" under any of the top causes to learn tips to implement in your life.    

Cause #1: Heart Disease

As the leading cause of death in women in the United States, heart disease isn’t something that women can ignore. True, men suffer from more heart attacks, but the risk of death from heart disease is higher for women, cautions Dr. Stuart Christenson, McFarland Clinic cardiologist. Fortunately, prevention plays a significant role for women hoping to avoid heart disease. “Risk factors such as age, smoking, and abnormal cholesterol appear to be particularly important in women,” says Dr. Christenson.

Prevention Tips

  • Refrain from Smoking  “Smoking has been associated with a large proportion of cardiac events in women,and heart risk is elevated even with minimal use of tobacco,” says Dr.Christenson. If you currently smoke, quitting can have a significant impact on your heart health. “Cessation of smoking in women is associated with a rapid reduction in the risk of heart attack,” he adds.  
  • Manage Your Weight  Shoot to maintain a body mass index (BMI) of 19-25 and a waist circumference less than 35inches.
  • Maintain a Heart-Healthy Diet Consider adding omega-3 fatty acids into your heart healthy diet as well.
  • Exercise Regularly Aim for moderate intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week. If you’re working on losing weight, increase the amount to 60-90 minutes.
  • Keep Chronic Illnesses Under Control Diabetes,high blood pressure, and abnormal cholesterol levels are all risk factors for heart disease, so working with your provider to keep these conditions under control is highly beneficial.
  • Take the Appropriate Medication  Have a conversation with your provider regarding which medications are beneficial for you and what you should avoid. For instance, women who smoke should avoid oral contraceptives.Likewise, an OTC medication may be helpful for some women hoping to lower their risk of heart disease: “Aspirin (81 mg) may be considered in women over 65years of age if there is not an increased risk of bleeding,” says Dr. Christenson.

There are a few prevention tips that aren’t supported by research, however – learn more about heart disease prevention myths.


Cause #2: Cancer

Deaths from cancer comprise nearly a quarter (22.1%) of deaths among women in the United States, and although we haven’t determined all of the risk factors associated with different types of cancer, there are many prevention steps we know lower a woman’s risk for developing cancer. Dr. Larry Otteman, McFarland Clinic oncologist, discusses prevention tips for three of the top cancers among women. “You have the means to reduce your risks of developing common cancers such as breast, colon and lung. Avoidance of or limiting hormone replacement therapy, colonoscopy and cigarette smoking avoidance or cessation can all have a meaningful impact on your risks,” he says.

Prevention Tips

  • Refrain from Smoking “Lung cancer risk is largely a function of older age combined with extensive cigarette smoking history,” says Dr. Otteman, adding that exposure to secondhand smoke is also a significant risk factor. “Eighty-five percent of all lung cancer deaths are attributable to cigarette smoking.” Refraining from smoking and limiting your exposure to secondhand smoke are the most important prevention steps to avoid lung cancer.
  • Manage Your Weight  Obesity has been established as a factor that increases a woman’s risk for both breast and colon cancer, as well as various other cancers and conditions.
  • Limit Your Alcohol Intake Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to an increased risk of colon cancer and other types of cancer as well.
  • Get Regular Screenings Although regular breast screenings and colonoscopies cannot prevent breast or colon cancer, it is worthy of noting the role these screenings can have on catching cancer early and lowering a woman’s chance of death from the cancer. Removal of potentially precancerous polyps while getting a colonoscopy, however, can greatly decrease a woman’s chance of developing colon cancer.


Cause #3: Stroke

There are certain risk factors for a stroke (e.g., family history, age) that a woman can’t control, but there are still several prevention tips that will lower your likelihood of having a stroke. And, although medical treatment at the onset of a stroke isn’t about preventing it, getting treatment quickly can prevent death – learn more about stroke symptoms.

Prevention Tips

  • Keep Chronic Illnesses Under Control As with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and abnormal cholesterol levels increase your risk of having a stroke. Maintaining a healthy weight is recommended to help keep these conditions under control or lower your risk for developing them altogether.
  • Exercise Regularly Aim for moderate intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week. If you’re working on losing weight, increase the amount to 60-90 minutes.
  • Limit Your Alcohol Intake If you drink alcohol, moderate consumption – one a day for women – is recommended.
  • Refrain from Smoking Smoking impacts your body in several ways that may make a stroke more likely, including causing your blood vessels to thin and inhibiting your body’s ability to circulate blood properly.
  • Eat a Balanced, Healthy Diet Work with your provider on establishing specific dietary limits, especially if you are trying to manage several chronic conditions. In general, avoiding foods high in saturated fats, cholesterol and salt are beneficial when trying to prevent a stroke.


Cause #4: Chronic lower respiratory diseases

Chronic lung conditions like bronchitis and emphysema (as well as COPD, which is often a combination of these two diseases) are not curable, but a lot can be done to prevent them. No surprise, the primary prevention tip to prevent these diseases is to refrain from smoking, and while older women who have been smoking or exposed to secondhand smoke for a long period are more likely to be afflicted, younger women have to realize they can be impacted as well. “[COPD] is not a disease just for the elderly – it is very important if you are experiencing any symptoms of increased shortness of breath, or increased coughing with or without phlegm, you need to see your doctor and have this evaluated,” says Rhonda Rotert, physician’s assistant in Pulmonology, who notes seeing patients with COPD as young as their thirties.

Prevention Tips

  • Refrain from Smoking The best way for a woman to lower her chance of being impacted by a lung condition is to not smoke and to avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible. Breathing tobacco smoke irritates your airways and destroys the stretchy fibers in the lungs with long-term exposure, making your lungs less effective at breathing.
  • Avoid Chemical Exposures and Pollution Although tobacco smoke is the primary cause of chronic lung conditions, limiting your exposure to hazardous air pollution and wearing the appropriate protective gear while exposed to chemical fumes are also recommended.  

Helping a loved one quit smoking can be beneficial for their lung health and potentially yours as well.


Cause #5: Alzheimer’s disease

Unfortunately, at this point , there is no definitive way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, but you may be less likely to be impacted by it by following a few tips.

Prevention Tips

  • Refrain from Smoking Although there is no definite link, some research has suggested a correlation between smoking and an increased likeliness of getting Alzheimer’s disease
  • Exercise your Body and Mind Moderate physical activity, as well as activities that stimulate you mentally, may make you less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia.
  • Eat a Balanced, Healthy Diet  Diets high in fruits and vegetables and lower in red meat and dairy may impact your likeliness to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Keep Chronic Illnesses Under Control High blood pressure, diabetes, and abnormal cholesterol levels may make you more likely to be afflicted with dementia.

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