Be proactive: Women should be informed about these common medical issues
Women disproportionately suffer from some health problems that the other half of the population rarely has to consider.
Here are a few conditions for females of all ages to watch:
The thyroid, a gland at the front of the neck that produces hormones that regulate metabolism, affects lots of other body parts. It can be a miserable experience when something goes haywire.
When it doesn’t release enough endocrine, a sufferer can experience fatigue, weight gain, dry skin, sluggish thinking, muscle weakness, constipation and depression.
When it releases too much of the hormone, it causes weight loss, diarrhea, trouble concentrating and a racing heart. The telltale signs are bulging eyes and swelling in the neck resulting from an enlarged thyroid gland.
Unfortunately for women, they are five to eight times more likely to have a malfunctioning thyroid than men, said Dr. Laura Ryan, an endocrinologist at the Center for Women’s Health at Ohio State University. About 4 percent to 10 percent of women older than 60 have a thyroid disorder, but younger women can have problems, too.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do to head it off,” Ryan said. But it’s relatively easy to treat, she said, by replacing the hormones that the body would make naturally.
Once women reach menopause, at an average age of 51, estrogen drops off precipitously. Sometimes that leads to the loss of bone density, called osteoporosis.
It’s a silent disorder, Ryan said. You might not know it until you fall and inexplicably break a bone.
The time for real prevention is decades earlier, in the preteen and teenage years, when the skeleton is being set up. The calcium from dairy products and leafy green vegetables are vital then.
Acid-blocking medications such as Nexium and Prilosec for people with digestive issues have been implicated in increased risk of osteoporosis.
If a person can tolerate it, three robust servings of calcium-rich foods a day is recommended, Ryan said. If not, a calcium citrate supplement is the best option for people.
Resistance training and walking are good exercises to keep the bones strong. Not smoking makes a big difference. And osteoporosis medications, which got a bad rap in the past, actually can do wonders for stopping that bone loss and even reestablishing the bone structure, Ryan said.
About 5.2 million people in the United States and 44 million worldwide have Alzheimer’s disease. Women make up two-thirds of those cases.
“I think for a long time, the reason was (thought to be) that women live longer,” said Dr. Meredith Mucha, an OhioHealth geriatrician. “Now, more research has shown that there’s more to it than that.”
There could be hormonal causes, such as the use of or lack of hormone replacement therapy. There’s also a genetic tie to the APOE4 (Apolipoprotein E) gene, often called the Alzheimer’s gene, but that isn’t a guarantee.
Overall, only 1 in 4 people is diagnosed. “So many people just brush it off as old age and never get evaluated,” she said.
But that’s a problem because it ends up being the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. People die from complications of no longer being able to function. They can’t eat, bathe or even sit properly. They also get more infections. And the lack of physical fitness leads to heart problems.
Once symptoms appear, Mucha said, “you can maybe slow it down a little bit,” but there’s no stopping it.
All hope is not lost, though. Research shows that about 1 in 3 cases is lifestyle-related, brought on by drinking, smoking, not eating well and being out of shape in youth and middle age. Along with working on those things, mental calisthenics are good prevention. So challenge your brain by learning a new language or picking up a challenging game like chess.
Multiple sclerosis, in which the body’s immune system turns on the nervous system, can be a scary diagnosis, but treatment has come a long way. A sufferer can live a nearly normal, active life, unlike 30 years ago or longer, when they might have been relegated to a bed or wheelchair.
About 70 percent to 80 percent of cases afflict women, said Dr. DeRen Huang, a Mount Carmel Health neurologist.
“We don’t exactly know the reason,” Huang said. Some of it might traced back to genetics, he said, but that can’t be all. In studies of identical twins, whose genes are the same, when one has MS the other gets it only about 30 percent to 40 percent of the time.
The timing of its arrival suggests that hormones play a role, said Dr. Jacqueline Nicholas, an OhioHealth neurologist trained in neuro-immunology.
Evidence also suggests that Vitamin D, which the body manufactures from sun exposure, is vitally important, both to warding it off and mitigating damage after onset. Sometimes an over-the-counter supplement isn’t enough to make up for that, Huang said, and patients need to get a prescription for heavy-duty Vitamin D.
Because healthy nerve tissue is being attacked, MS starts to cause problems such as numbness, slurred speech, vision problems, poor hand-eye coordination and trouble with balance and gait. That’s when it’s important to see a physician quickly or see a specialist to start on what’s known as disease-modifying therapy.
“How they do in the first five years predicts how they do in the rest of their lives,” Nicholas said.
— Shannon Gilchrist writes for The Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @shangilchrist on Twitter.