Jan 12th, 2023

One source defines women's health as "the branch of medicine that focuses on the treatment and diagnosis of diseases and conditions that affect a woman's physical and emotional wellbeing" (MedlinePlus). What might often come to mind are gynecological concerns, such as infertility, menopause, pregnancy and childbirth, or breast health. But women's health is a lot more than that.

Many health issues affect women differently from men, and in ways that have an impact on diagnosis and care. In all health matters, an informed patient or caregiver can advocate more effectively. To that end, let's dive here into some important women's health topics.

Who Matters

That's right—it's women. It's not to say the health of every other individual doesn't. The point is that there are many reasons why women should be informed about a variety of health concerns, not just gynecological and reproductive health. According to Harvard Business School:

  • Women are 76% more likely than men to have visited a doctor within the past year.
  • Women control 80% of healthcare decisions at the family level.
  • Women pickup 70% of prescriptions at the drugstore.

Looking at the leading causes of death helps to break down some of the more prevalent health issues impacting women. The following are the top 5 leading causes of death in women, across all races and ages in 2018 (CDC):

  1. Heart Disease
  2. Cancer
  3. Stroke
  4. Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease
  5. Alzheimer's Disease

Health Concerns

Heart Disease

It's the #1 cause of death in women and according to the CDC, was responsible for 1 in 5 female deaths in 2019. Symptoms can include chest pain, shortness of breath and weakness in arms. Sound familiar? Women may not recognize their symptoms as a heart attack, and dismiss it as working out too hard or having heartburn.

Further, most women between the ages of 40 and 60 have at least one or more risk factors for heart disease and may not even realize it.

Post-menopause as well as early menstruation are uncontrollable risk factors for heart disease that are specific to women. Other risk factors that contribute to heart disease include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Diabetes

Diabetes increases the risk for heart disease by four times in women.

Healthy Tip! Thankfully, you can reduce your risk for heart disease by up to 82% by adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle. This includes picking up these healthy habits:

  • Healthy diet. Try to fill 50% of your overall diet from fruits and vegetables.
  • Regular physical activity. Try to fit 2.5 hours of moderate physical activity each week.
  • Stop (or never start) smoking. Consider a lung screening if you have a heavy smoking history.
  • Make time to relax. Anger and stress can damage the heart. Be kind to yourself every day.

The most common type of cancer in women in the U.S. is breast cancer. Ovarian cancer can affect any of the complex cells within the ovaries which is found only in women. Similarly related to women, cervical cancer is the occurrence of abnormal growth of the cells of the cervix, the lower end of the uterus that connects the uterus to the vagina.

There are approximately 240,000 new cases of invasive breast cancer as well as 50,000 new cases of noninvasive breast cancer diagnosed each year in the U.S.

Diagnosing cancer starts with having a conversation with your healthcare provider. There are numerous tests that can help with early detection and include:

  • Breast exam
  • Pelvic exam
  • Pap and HPV test
  • Colposcopy
  • Biopsy

One of the most important preventative measure women can take is to have their annual well-woman's visit with their healthcare provider. Since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, the law requires coverage of well-woman visits at no cost to women. Other preventative services like mammograms, breastfeeding support, and FDA-approved birth control are also covered at no cost to women.

The Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center offers Well-Women's Care that consist of annual visits with pelvic exam, cancer screenings, testing for sexually transmitted infections and discussions about birth control, vaccinations, menstrual cycle concerns, and preconception counseling. Through our Rural Health Clinic and Show Me Healthy Women program women's healthcare is more accessible in our community. To schedule a visit, contact us.


Alzheimer’s disease is a form of brain degeneration in which abnormal particles called neurofibrillary tangles and plaques form in the brain and destroy healthy brain cells. While this has historically been thought to be a result of women living longer, scientists are studying whether it could also be related to genetic variations.

Of the 5 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, more than two-thirds are women.

Warning signs of Alzheimer's disease or dementia include:

  • Memory loss that affects job skills
  • Difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems with language
  • Disorientation of time and place
  • Poor or impaired judgment
  • Problems with abstract thinking

For a full list, visit Ten Warning Symptoms of Alzheimer's from Northwestern Medicine.

Healthy Tip! Healthy lifestyle choices, like staying active, challenging the mind, and eating a healthy diet, can help promote optimal brain health. See 4 Habits of "SuperAgers" for more ways to protect yourself from Alzheimer's and other dementias.

Other Health Factors

Depression & Anxiety

According to Jyoti Sachdeva, MD, director of women's mental health at UC Health’s West Chester Hospital and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the UC College of Medicine, women have one-and-a-half to three times higher rates of depression.

This means women are about twice as likely to have depression than men.

Anxiety is a natural part of the body’s defense system. In fact, normal anxiety can be helpful as it works to alert your body of a threat. However, when an individual has an anxiety disorder, this response can happen at inappropriate times when there is no apparent threat.

Healthy Tip! There are several things you can do to better cope with stress and anxiety. Treatment for depression can include counseling, medication or a combination of both. If you or your loved one is experiencing signs of depression or extreme anxiety, seek professional help starting with your primary care physician. Meanwhile, these are a few habits to protect your mental health:

  • Exercise
  • Stay away from caffeine and nicotine
  • Stay sober
  • Talk with others
  • Learn about stress management (e.g. take deep breaths, stretch, meditate)
Reproductive & Sexual Health Issues

Sexual and reproductive health problems are responsible for one third of health issues for women between the ages of 15 and 44 years (WHO).

From contraception (birth control) and hysterectomy, to infertility and menopause; all matters impacting women's reproductive health are a critical part of improving women's health.

About 10% of women (6.1 million) in the United States aged 15–44 years have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant.

Addressing the complex maternal and child health needs during pregnancy is important because it provides an opportunity to end preventable deaths among all women and newborn while greatly improving their health and well-being.

Sexual health is equally paramount. The CDC estimates there are millions of new sexually transmitted disease (STD) infections in the U.S. each year. There are more than 30 types of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). One of the most common, for example, is human papillomavirus (HPV).

About 80 percent of sexually active men and women will be infected with HPV at some point in their lives (can be prevented with the HPV vaccine).

Healthy Tip! Reproductive health can be protected by reducing your risk factors. Ways to do that include: maintaining a healthy diet and weight, stopping (or never starting) smoking or excessive alcohol and drug use, early detection and management of STDs, and limiting exposure to toxic chemicals or treatments.

While age is a leading cause of infertility, options for fertility preservation (called egg freezing or “oocyte cryopreservation”) at a younger age prior to desiring children can be considered to counter age-related fertility decline.

The good news is that STDs are preventable. You can avoid giving or getting an STD by (CDC):

  • Practicing abstinence
  • Using condoms
  • Having fewer partners
  • Talking with your partner
  • Getting vaccinated
  • Getting tested

One of the most important preventative measure women can take is to have their annual well-woman's visit with their healthcare provider. Since the Affordable Care Act was enacted, the law requires coverage of well-woman visits at no cost to women. Other preventative services like FDA-approved birth control are also covered at no cost to women.

The Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center offers an STD Clinic to help our community prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections. Its services include confidential testing, treatment, and counseling for Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis, HIV, and Hepatitis C. To schedule a visit, contact us.

Finally, in all matters related to women's health, it’s also important to be inclusive of people who have female reproductive organs, but don’t identify as women, as well as those who may not have female sex organs, but experience healthcare issues due to their gender identity.

Ultimately, clear communication with health care providers is crucial to help ensure that women’s unique health needs are recognized and met. Understanding leading health issues and ways to stay healthy is important information for all women to know.

Sources: Northwestern Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and UC Health.