Just as prostate cancer can affect anyone with a prostate, ovarian and cervical cancers can affect anyone with ovaries and a cervix. People with these reproductive organs may identify as any gender and can include men, women, transgender people and non-binary people.
While some conditions affect all genders equally, some illnesses – for reasons both known and unknown – are more likely to occur in women than in men.
“Some conditions are sex-biased, meaning they are more common in one sex versus another, but there are several factors at work like genetics, hormonal factors, physiology or behavior,” said April Rosalez, DO, a family medicine specialist at Banner Health.
Among the conditions that present more often in women, here are five illnesses that pose the most health risk.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, and this is because diagnosis is often missed or delayed. After all, women present differently. Although it is considered a common issue in men, the condition affects males and females nearly equally.
“When looking at the factors most commonly used in the medical field to calculate heart disease risk, gender puts men at a higher risk percentage, which may be part of why our guard is lowered,” Dr. Rosalez said. “Women are also likely to have symptoms not typically associated with a heart attack.”
As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptoms include chest pain or discomfort. Women may also experience shortness of breath, fatigue, belly, back, and jaw pain, nausea, sweating and difficulty sleeping.
To learn more about your risk for heart disease, take our free Heart Age Test.
Strokes kill more women than men each year. Some stroke risk factors apply to everyone, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, family history and smoking. But there are other specific reasons why stroke is higher in women than men, including:
- Taking birth control pills
- Using hormone replacement therapy
- Frequent migraines
To learn more about your stroke risk, take our free Stroke Risk Profiler.
Women make up 75% of people with one or more autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system goes into overdrive and mistakenly attacks its healthy cells.
“It is believed the reason women are more impacted by autoimmune illnesses than men are due to a mixture of sex hormones, environmental factors and having two X chromosomes, but the answer is still being explored,” Dr. Rosalez said. “However, we do know estrogen, progesterone and other pregnancy hormones directly affect the development and worsening of certain autoimmune diseases. Men are thought to be less susceptible because testosterone has suppressive properties.”
Women start with thinner, smaller bones and less bone tissue than men.
“Through most of their lives, women’s bones are protected by estrogen, which may block a substance that kills bone cells,” Dr. Rosalez said. “However, as women begin to lose estrogen during menopause, it causes loss of bone mass.”
Other risk factors include certain medications, cancer treatment and genetics.
To offset these risks, it’s important to increase calcium intake, stay physically active with weight-bearing exercise and avoid smoking and excessive alcohol use.
Women are nearly twice as likely as men to develop Alzheimer’s disease. At first glance, the answer may be that women generally live longer, but some research suggests there may be unique biological reasons that contribute to changes in the brain and how it progresses.
Takeaway: Protecting your health is gender neutral
You can’t control the genetic code given to you, but you can control your health and well-being.
- Lower stress levels: Participate in stress-relieving activities like yoga and meditation and get plenty of sleep each night.
- Boost your immunity: Eat a healthy diet and supplement with vitamins and minerals when necessary.
- Get regular exercise: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a minimum amount of exercise – 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise per week, plus muscle-strengthening activities two days per week.
- See your health care provider: Get annual well checks to manage your health and screen for potential health issues.