It’s true that men and women share numerous similarities and are affected by many of the same health challenges, but they often have different experiences of the same disease. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have found that sex and gender can make a big difference when it comes to your risk for disease, how well you respond to medications and how often you seek medical care.
Health Care for Women Veterans
Now that women serve in most military roles, understanding how their health needs differ is key to providing women Veterans with appropriate, high-quality care. Over the past two decades, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ resources, services and culture have transformed to meet the unique health care needs of women. Here’s a rundown of some common medical conditions and lifestyle behaviors, and how they can affect men and women differently.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Women are more likely to die following a heart attack than men are. In addition, women are more likely than men to delay getting emergency care and to have treatment to control their cholesterol levels. The blood vessels in a woman’s heart are smaller and more intricately branched than those of a man. This may explain why women’s vessels may become blocked in a different pattern.
Women’s most common heart attack symptom, as with men, is chest pain or discomfort. But women are more likely to have shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, fatigue and pain in the back, shoulders and jaw. Sometimes women have early symptoms during the weeks prior to a heart attack, like unusual fatigue and sleep disturbance, but not always chest pain or discomfort. Heart disease develops 7 to 10 years later in women than in men. Research indicates that estrogen provides some heart disease protection for younger women by helping to keep cholesterol low. However, once a woman hits menopause, her heart disease risk increases.
More women than men suffer a stroke each year due to their longer life expectancy. Although men and women share many of the same risk factors for stroke, such as family history, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, some risk factors are unique to women. These include taking birth control pills, being pregnant, hormone replacement therapy, migraine headaches and having a waist measurement larger than 35.2 inches along with high triglyceride levels. After having a stroke, women have poorer functional outcomes, more depression and a lower quality of life than do men, perhaps because women have strokes at older ages than men.
Today’s medical researchers understand there are distinct biological and social differences between women and men that play an important role in how health and diseases affect individuals.
When it comes to mental health, the sexes are definitely different. According to the American Psychological Association, women are more likely than men to seek treatment for mental health issues and are more often diagnosed with anxiety or depression, while men tend toward substance abuse or antisocial disorders. Women with anxiety disorders have a tendency to internalize emotions, which typically results in withdrawal, loneliness and depression, whereas men are more likely to do just the opposite: they externalize emotions, which can lead to aggressive, coercive and noncompliant behavior. Women can experience unique mood symptoms related to their hormonal changes during puberty, pregnancy, postpartum and perimenopause.
Urinary Tract Health
Half of all women will experience at least one urinary tract infection (UTI) during their lifetime. Women are more likely than men to experience UTIs and urinary incontinence. This is due in part to how the female urinary tract is structured. While the urethra is an exit for urine, it is also an entrance for bacteria to get into the urinary tract. The female urethra is much shorter in length than in males, which means bacteria has a shorter distance to travel to potentially infect the bladder. Women are more likely than men to have stress incontinence, which is when urine leaks from the bladder when pressure is exerted by coughing, sneezing, laughing, exercising or lifting something heavy. Pregnancy, childbirth, menopause and normal female anatomy account for this difference.
Both men and women are vulnerable to serious health conditions as a result of drinking alcohol, including cancer and liver disease. Although men are more likely to drink alcohol than are women—and consume larger amounts—biological differences in body structure and chemistry cause women to absorb more alcohol and take longer to metabolize it, and therefore, are more vulnerable to alcohol’s harmful effects. Women are more susceptible than men to alcohol-related heart disease and are more likely than men who drink the same amount to develop alcoholic hepatitis, a potentially fatal alcohol-related liver condition. Women’s alcohol use is also linked to many other physical and psychosocial health issues, such as unprotected sex, illicit drug use and intimate partner violence.
Cigarette smoking continues to be a leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death in the U.S. The risk of dying from smoking-related lung cancer, oral cancer and cardiovascular disease is greater for women than men. When it comes to quitting smoking, women have a harder time than men do. Women metabolize nicotine faster than men. This difference in metabolism may help explain why nicotine replacement therapies, like patches and gum, tend to work better in men than in women. Although men are more sensitive to nicotine’s pharmacologic effects, women may be more susceptible to non-nicotine factors associated with smoking, such as the sensory and social experience.
Osteoporosis causes bones to thin and weaken over time, making them vulnerable to fractures. In people age 50 and older, osteoporosis is four times more common in women compared to men of the same age. Women have less bone tissue than men, and they start losing it earlier due to hormonal changes at menopause. As they age, women tend to have fractures five to ten years earlier compared with men.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases
The effect of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and infections on women can be more serious than on men. STDs often go untreated in women because their symptoms are less obvious or are more likely to be confused with another condition. If left untreated, STDs can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can result in infertility or ectopic pregnancy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year untreated STDs cause infertility in at least 24,000 women in the U.S., and untreated syphilis in pregnant women results in infant death in up to 40% of cases. Women who are pregnant can pass STDs to their babies. Human papillomavirus is the most common STD in women and men and is the main cause of cervical cancer for women, while most men do not develop serious health problems from the virus.
Medical Research Improvements
There was a time when medical research only focused on men and applied those findings to women too. Thankfully, today’s researchers understand there are distinct biological and social differences between women and men that play an important role in how health and diseases affect individuals, including medications and treatments. You can improve your health and the health of your loved ones by being more aware. Women Veterans who qualify for care can check out this overview of health services to learn how to get started with preventative care or available treatments. You can also contact the Women Veterans Call Center (WVCC) at 855-829-6636 to get help and find available resources and services in your area.