Disease risk factors are different for men and women. Know what yours are so you can take charge of your health as you age.
Historically, most health research has not been designed for women, but the Women’s Brain Health Initiative (WBHI) is striving to change that.
Nearly 70 percent of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers are women . To help spread awareness about how women can take charge of their health, and, hopefully, make an impact on this devastating statistic, WBHI hosted Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, a Vancouver-based event sponsored by RBC Wealth Management.
The event brought together a panel of experts who shared their knowledge of women’s brain and heart health, stroke and cancer risks and provided guidance on how they can best safeguard their wellness.
Cara Tannenbaum, MD, professor in the Faculty of Medicine at the Université de Montréal and former scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research’s (CIHR) Institute of Gender and Health, moderated the panel.
“Historically, only male cells, tissues, animals and humans were studied,” explains Tannenbaum. “Although scientists’ intentions came from a desire to keep things simple and safeguard women who might be pregnant, excluding women from research has resulted in a lack of knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work for women.”
Tannenbaum describes “a greater need and movement” to empower women with education, facts and agency to take care of their health.
Since the 1990s, there has been a greater demand to understand women’s unique health experiences, how disease conditions affect women and how they might respond to treatments differently, says Tannenbaum. She describes a need for scientific research that examines both the differences and similarities in women’s and men’s brains.
“Down to every cell, women generally have XX chromosomes, while men have XY. Hormone levels, gene expression and molecular pathways are proving to be different because of that reality,” she says.
For instance, she notes discoveries are being made showing molecular pathways for depression may be completely different in male and female animals. The next step is to extrapolate that research and see if it holds true in humans.
Another example is the way neurons transmit chronic pain signals to the brain. “We’ve learned from research that completely different immune cells in the spinal cord may be responsible for this function based on sex,” explains Tannenbaum.
“We’ve also seen the correct dose of a medication may be impacted by sex. Some sleeping pills have been shown to persist longer in women than men, because women don’t excrete the medication as fast as men. Therefore, prescription drug dosing may need to consider sex.”
Women experience heart disease and stroke—two of the most common causes of death in women—differently than men. Research suggests that women who suffer from migraines with aura (e.g., flashes of light in front of the eyes or loss of vision in one eye during a migraine) may have a slightly higher risk of getting a stroke or mistaking a stroke for a migraine, notes Tannenbaum.
Symptoms of heart disease can also take longer to diagnose. “A woman who was experiencing shortness of breath and fatigue,” she says, “had no chest pain, and initial tests did not pick up any discernible issue with her heart. Six months later, an angiogram revealed three blocked arteries.”
Tannenbaum says the cognitive way women are diagnosed needs to change. Doctors should always consider a person’s biological sex as well as their gender identity. Symptoms of stroke, heart disease and even things like anemia may present differently.
It’s important for women to keep their brain constantly stimulated . Playing sudoku, learning a language, reading the news, talking with friends and socializing regularly are all ways women can protect their cognitive vitality.
Other practical things women can do to prevent cancer and promote heart and overall health include:
Tannenbaum encourages women to ask your doctor about other screening tests you should undergo because you are a woman. And if you’re taking a prescription drug, ask if there are particular risk factors for women or if the dosage needs to be different.