Top 5 Women’s Health Concerns

HRH Dr Jay Littlefield HeadshotThe old adage of, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is as true today as it was when Benjamin Franklin said it. Each of the top 5 health issues leading to premature death in women are mostly preventable with the assistance of screening and the adoption of healthy lifestyle choices.

Cardiovascular Disease: Heart disease is the number one killer of women, killing 1 out of every 5 women in the U.S. Heart disease is often asymptomatic, meaning by the time symptoms occur, the damage has already occurred. Symptoms may include heart attacks, chest pain, shortness of breath, neck pain, indigestion, acid reflux, or palpitations aka fluttering of the chest.

It is easier to treat heart disease by preventing it from starting. Regular follow-up with your primary care provider can help detect heart disease with routine screenings. A healthy diet, maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI), cardiovascular exercise, managing stress levels, controlling blood pressure, and stopping smoking are the best ways to prevent and treat heart disease in women.

Cancer: Breast, cervical, and colorectal cancers are the top cancer killers in women, and each can be screened with routine medical care.

Breast cancer. Yearly clinical breast exams and mammograms starting at the age of 40 can help detect early breast cancers that then can be managed with conservative therapy.

Cervical cancer can be detected with routine pap smears and HPV testing which can be done by any primary care provider or gynecologist. Pap smears start at the age of 21 and are performed routinely every 3-5 years depending on the test and your age, typically cervical cancer screening stops at the age of 65.

Colorectal cancer. Consultation for colonoscopy with a general surgeon is the gold standard screening method to detect and diagnose colon cancer starting at age 45 or 50, depending on the patient. There is another colon cancer test that can be done with a stool sample as well; further discussion with your primary care provider can help determine if this is a good option for you.

Stroke: Each year in the U.S., stroke kills 1 in 5 women aged 55-75, and yet, 4 out of 5 could have been prevented. Like heart disease, many women do not recognize its seriousness. A stroke happens when blood flow to an area of the brain is blocked with a blood clot, or a vessel bursts causing a bleed, this stops the areas downstream of the damage from receiving blood. Risk factors for a stroke include age, high blood pressure, smoking, certain contraceptives or menopausal hormone treatments, and depression.

Obesity and Diabetes: Obesity increases the risk of a woman developing heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, specifically breast and uterine cancer. These are among the leading causes of preventable, premature death.

Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease (the most common diabetes complication) by about 4x in women, compared to only about 2x in men, and women have worse outcomes after a heart attack. Women are also at higher risk of other diabetes-related complications such as blindness, kidney disease, and depression. Uncontrolled diabetes also increases the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) and yeast infections, menstrual cycle irregularities and changes, decrease in sexual desire, infertility, increased pregnancy risks, and it can increase menopausal symptoms and increase their severity.

Diabetes is easier to prevent than treat. Enrollment in a diabetes education group, such as the Holy Rosary Healthcare Healthy Lifestyles program, has also proven to be successful.

Osteoporosis: Osteoporosis is more common in women than men. It affects almost 20% (1 in 5) of women aged 50 and over and almost 5% (1 in 20) of men aged 50 and over. Many people with osteoporosis do not know they have it until they break a bone. Currently, screening for osteoporosis is recommended for women who are 65 years old or older and for women who are 50 to 64 with certain risk factors, which include having a parent who has broken a hip.
Talk to your provider if you have concerns about osteoporosis. Screening also can show if you have low bone mass, meaning your bones are weaker than normal, and are likely to develop osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is easier to prevent than treat. Prevention includes:

  • Take medications to strengthen your bones and avoid medications that can make your bones weaker.
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes adequate amounts of calcium and vitamin D.
  • Perform weight-bearing exercises regularly.
  • Do not smoke.
  • Limit alcohol use.

Each of the above leading causes of premature death in women can be mostly prevented with healthy lifestyle choices and screenings. Schedule an appointment with your provider today to be screened for these conditions and to discuss how you can incorporate healthy lifestyle activities that can help prevent these conditions.

Dr. Jay Littlefied, MD is an obstetrics and gynecology physician at SCL Health - Holy Rosary Healthcare Clinic. To schedule an appointment today, call 406-233-2500 or book online at

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