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Today in Health & Wellness
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Five Common Illnesses Affecting Women

By: Gwen Y. Reyes-Amurao, MDFive Common Illnesses Affecting Women

There are hundreds of diseases that can affect a person and lead to serious health problems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the most number of mortalities, regardless of gender, can be attributed to cardiovascular disease or diseases of the heart.

Cardiovascular Disease

According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cardiovascular disease accounts for approximately 29% of all female mortalities and includes heart disease, stroke, heart failure, arrhythmias, and anything that affects the normal function of the heart and the vascular system that it supplies. Currently, hypertensive heart disease or hypertension is the most common type of cardiovascular disease that affects one in every five Filipino women. Although hypertension affects more men than women, mortalities seem to be higher in women mainly because it is often left undetected until severe signs and symptoms are already present.

Hypertension

Hypertension or high blood pressure is defined as having a systolic blood pressure of 130 mmHg and a diastolic pressure of 80 mmHg or having a BP of 130 mmHg/80 mmHg. For most women, high blood pressure develops through time with no identifiable cause. This type of hypertension is called primary or essential hypertension. Secondary hypertension, on the other hand, is associated with an underlying medical condition and is often associated with more severe symptoms of hypertension. Common conditions that lead to this type of hypertension include kidney diseases, thyroid conditions, obstructive sleep apnea, and congenital vascular problems.

Some individuals may also be predisposed to having hypertension, including increasing age, being overweight or obese, having a high-fat or high-salt diet, and practicing unhealthy lifestyle habits like smoking and drinking alcohol. Stress has also been identified as a strong predisposing factor that leads to hypertension.

Signs and symptoms

Common non-specific signs and symptoms include dizziness or light-headedness, pain in the neck, back or shoulders, and even something as simple as frequent headaches. More severe symptoms include chest pain or chest heaviness, shortness of breath, fatigue, and swelling on lower extremities.

Complications

Heart attack, stroke, and aneurysms are common especially when the arteries or blood vessels are already affected by long-standing hypertension. Heart failure and enlargement of the heart are also commonly associated with it. The kidneys are also often affected aside from the heart.

Management

The goal of managing hypertension is to keep the blood pressure within normal limits to prevent complications. Although medical management is imperative, it must always go hand in hand with lifestyle changes that will promote the lowering of one’s blood pressure. Diet and lifestyle play an important role in treatment and should include:

  • Maintaining a low-salt, low-fat diet;
  • Exercising regularly;
  • Maintaining a healthy weight;
  • Limiting alcohol intake;
  • Smoking cessation; and
  • Taking of supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids.

Consulting a specialist or a cardiologist would require some tests in order to determine the severity of hypertension, its cause, and if other important functions have already been affected.

Cancer

According to the Mayo Clinic, cancer is the second most dangerous threat to a woman’s health and accounts for 22% of female mortalities. Among all the types of malignancies, breast cancer is the most common type found in women, second to the lungs. The American Cancer Society mentions the following risk factors for breast cancer:

  • Advancing age;
  • Family history of breast cancer;
  • Early onset of menstruation;
  • Medication use such as diethylstilbestrol or DES;
  • Exposure to radiation;
  • History of smoking; and
  • Nulliparity or not having children.

Screening

Although these risk factors are more commonly associated with its occurrence, screening for breast cancer should be something every woman should do. When it comes to screening recommendations, experts recommend these cancer screening guidelines for adults:

  • Women ages 40 to 44 should have their annual mammogram or ultrasound especially if they are at risk. Once there are incidental findings, a specialist or OB-Gynecologist may recommend more frequent screening tests.
  • Women ages 45 to 54 are advised to get yearly mammograms or ultrasound of the breasts with or without findings in earlier mammograms or sonograms.

Women are also advised to perform self-breast examinations as soon as they enter adulthood.

Signs and symptoms

The most common sign of breast cancer is a new lump or mass on the breast. A painless, hard mass that has irregular edges is more likely to be malignant compared to those that are tender, soft, and round. The American Cancer Society mentions the following possible symptoms of breast cancer such as:

  • Swelling of all or part of the breast;
  • Skin irritation or dimpling (with an orange peel-like appearance);
  • Breast pain or nipple pain;
  • Nipple retraction (or turning inward of the nipple);
  • Redness or thickening of the nipple or skin over the breast; and
  • Presence of nipple discharge.

Management

Chemotherapy, surgery, and immune therapy are just some of the choices when it comes to addressing malignancy. Before deciding on any, it is best to learn as much information as possible and seek the advice of specialists in order to make an informed decision.

Diabetes

With the three different types of diabetes ­– Type I, Type II, and Gestational – Type II is the most common in women and accounts for 90 to 95% of all diabetes cases worldwide. An estimated 3% of all female deaths can be attributed to diabetes and its complications.

Signs and symptoms

Individuals with diabetes or high blood sugar will typically experience frequent urination (polyuria), increased thirst (polydipsia), and hunger (polyphagia). Other symptoms include weight gain or unusual weight loss, fatigue, poor wound healing, and numbness or tingling on hands and feet. A strong family history combined with a diet rich in sugar and complex carbohydrates will increase one’s likelihood of having diabetes, as well as being overweight and physically inactive.

Complications

Complications often arise when blood sugar levels are poorly controlled. Ischemic heart disease, glaucoma, cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, neuropathy, diabetic foot leading to ulcers and gangrene, recurrent infections, nephropathy, and peripheral arterial disease are some common complications of diabetes, with eye complications and neuropathy occurring more frequently in women.

Management

All types of diabetes are treatable and can be addressed especially when detected early. Although type I usually requires lifelong treatment of insulin, there have been cases of type II diabetic women that were managed with just exercise, diet, and control or maintenance of body weight who were eventually taken off their maintenance medications. In the obese, diabetic population, surgery through gastric bypass can reverse type II diabetes in a high proportion of female patients.

Depression

Depression is defined as a state of low mood and aversion to activity that can affect a person’s thoughts, behavior, feelings, and sense of well-being. It affects 12 million women all over the world, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of depression vary from mild to severe and can manifest as:

  • Feeling of sadness or having a depressed mood;
  • Lack of interest or pleasure in activities formerly enjoyed;
  • Changes in appetite which can either lead to weight loss or weight gain;
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue;
  • Feeling of worthlessness or guilt;
  • Difficulty in concentrating or decision making; and
  • Presence of suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation.

According to psychiatrists, symptoms must be present or observable for at least two weeks for it to be classified as clinical depression. One should be careful in differentiating depression from grief or sadness since natural hormonal fluctuations in women can lead to depression and anxiety.

Management

Clinical depression can be treated, with 80 to 90% of patients responding well to treatment. Antidepressants, psychotherapy, and cognitive therapy are all methods of treatment that help address this condition after careful assessment and evaluation by a trained psychiatrist.

Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases are a group of disorders wherein the immune system attacks the body and destroys it. Currently, there are more than 50 chronic autoimmune illnesses detected in women, with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) or lupus being at the top of the list, closely followed by multiple sclerosis, type I diabetes, thyroid diseases namely Grave’s and Hashimoto’s, rheumatoid arthritis, and antiphospholipid antibody syndrome.

Signs and symptoms

Autoimmune diseases often have non-specific symptoms which have made it more of a diagnosis of exclusion than a primary consideration. Common symptoms reported by those who suffer from it include exhaustion, recurrent or persistent fever with no underlying cause, unexplained pain, skin irritation, and sometimes vertigo. Although difficult, early detection can dictate prognosis especially when treated or addressed early.

Women and Disease

More often than not, women’s health conditions go undetected or undiagnosed until the late stages of the disease. By identifying the diseases more commonly found in women, one can be more vigilant and proactive when it comes to one’s health and wellness. Presently, more and more women have become advocates of good health, leading to healthier lifestyle habits and more regular visits to their personal physicians for disease prevention, early detection, and overall health promotion.

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