Comprehensive guide to women’s health


In this article: 

  • Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women, but women may experience different signs of a heart attack than men.

  • As you go through menopause, you may experience challenges with your pelvic health.

  • Women are more likely than men to experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

Comprehensive guide to women’s health needs

While many women put the health of others before their own needs, it’s important that they take care of themselves, too. From Pap smears and pregnancy care to heart disease treatment and mental health care, women need providers to help them stay healthy. Learn how you can make your well-being a priority.

Understanding the gender difference in health care

Because women’s bodies are inherently different than men’s bodies, they have different needs.

“Naturally, the anatomic and biologic differences between men and women impact the types of conditions that need to be screened for and treated,” says Soumya Choudhury, M.D., a family medicine provider at Pacific Medical Centers Primary Care – Renton in Renton, Washington. “For example, women need cancer screenings for breast and cervical cancer, family planning and prenatal care, and treatment for symptoms associated with hormone changes such as menopause.”

But even with diseases that attack both genders, such as heart health, women need treatment and check-ups that are tailored to them.

Heart disease in women: A different picture

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women. Yet when people think of heart problems, they often picture men.

The truth is that hormones make women’s heart health a little different. Estrogen, a female hormone, has a protective effect on heart health. It helps keep your blood pressure and cholesterol low. However, as you approach menopause, you have less and less estrogen in your body. That means your risk for heart disease — including your risk for hypertension and high cholesterol — rises sharply in your 50s. You’ll need to have your blood pressure and cholesterol checked each year as you enter your 40s to keep an eye on your heart health.

You should also learn about the signs of heart attack in women. Because women often experience different heart attack symptoms than men, there can be some disparities in their health outcomes. Women may not receive care as quickly as men for heart attack or may not seek out care as soon.

Women’s heart attack symptoms include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Jaw pain
  • Nausea
  • Back pain
  • Cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention right away.

Pregnancy and heart health: What to know

Pregnancy can also pose cardiovascular risks for women. “Pregnancy itself is not a risk factor for heart health,” says Dr. Choudhury. “But those who develop a condition called pre-eclampsia can be at higher risk for having cardiovascular disease (like high blood pressure and heart disease) in the future. The opposite is also true — women who have pre-existing cardiovascular conditions are at a higher risk for adverse outcomes during pregnancy. Those who are considering pregnancy should ideally work with their doctors to optimize their health prior to conceiving.”

Prevention and management strategies

The best ways to prevent cardiovascular disease at every stage of your life are to:

  1. Manage any health conditions you might have, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
  2. Stay physically active and maintain a healthy weight.
  3. Make heart-healthy food choices, such as eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, choosing lean meats and avoiding saturated fat and added sugars.
  4. If you smoke, quit.

Pelvic health: A vital aspect of women’s wellness

Throughout your life, you may face different issues with pelvic health. When you’re younger, your biggest concern may be sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Your obstetrician and gynecologist (OB/GYN) or family medicine provider will help you find protection from STIs, such as the Gardasil vaccine and condoms. They can also perform screenings to catch any problems early.

As you grow older and after you have children, your pelvic health needs to change. You may begin to experience stress or urge incontinence (leaking urine). These incontinence issues happen in higher rates in women than in men. Again, your OB/GYN can help you find solutions such as pelvic floor physical therapy, certain medicines or, in severe cases, surgery.

Menopause and its impact on pelvic health

Menopause also affects your pelvic health. It can cause your pelvic floor muscles to weaken, contributing to incontinence and pelvic organ prolapse (when your uterus or other organs in your pelvis begin to bulge into your vagina).

“As we age and go through menopause,” says Dr. Choudhury, “the ovaries stop producing estrogen, which is a vital hormone in bone and pelvic health. Lack of estrogen can cause vaginal dryness, which can lead to pain with intercourse or more frequent urinary tract infections.”

Battling osteoporosis: A women’s health priority

As you age, you are also at a disproportionately higher risk for osteoporosis (weak or less dense bones) and broken bones than men. Women have a higher prevalence of osteoporosis for a few different reasons:

  • Low levels of estrogen after menopause lead to thinner bones.
  • Pregnancy and breastfeeding can remove nutrients from bones.
  • Women’s bones are smaller and lighter.
  • Women live longer, giving their bones more time to weaken.

You should get bone density scans (also called DEXA scans) starting at age 65 to watch for osteoporosis. You can also take care of your bone health by eating foods rich in calcium, such as low-fat dairy products, broccoli and other greens. Strength-building exercises, such as lifting weights, also help your bones stay strong and dense.

Women’s cancer prevention: Early detection and strategies

Men and women are both susceptible to cancer, though women are more likely to experience breast cancer. But with your recommended cancer screenings, you can catch cancer early or even prevent cancer.

Your screenings might include:

  • Yearly mammograms starting at age 40 or 45 to check for breast cancer.
  • A colonoscopy at age 45 to check for polyps or colon cancer.
  • Cervical cancer screenings (Pap smears) starting at age 21.
  • Lung cancer screenings if you currently smoke or have smoked in the last 15 years and are over age 50.
  • Genetic testing for breast, ovarian or other cancers if you have a family history of these cancers.

If you aren’t sure which screenings are right for you, your health care provider can help you find out what screenings you need. They can also share resources to help lower your risk for cancer, such as smoking cessation, nutrition advice and the Gardasil vaccine.

Mental health care for women

While both men and women can suffer from mental health disorders, anxiety, depression and eating disorders are more common among women. Women may also experience mental health challenges:

  • During or after pregnancy (perinatal and postnatal depression).
  • Around the time of their period.
  • While they are transitioning into menopause.

If you think you might need treatment for a mental health disorder, talk to your primary care provider first. They can either treat you in their office, or refer you to a psychiatrist or counselor who can help you.

Hormones, pregnancy and a number of other factors all make women’s health needs different than men’s. But with the right preventive care from your primary care provider, you can lower your risks for these conditions and enjoy better health well into your golden years.

Contributing caregiver

Soumya Choudhury, M.D., is a family medicine provider at Pacific Medical Centers Primary Care – Renton in Renton, Washington.

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Related resources

Endometriosis: Separating truth from misconceptions

The truth about heart health

Your physical and mental health go hand in hand

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.




About the Author

The Providence Women's Health team is committed to providing useful and actionable insights, tips and advice to ensure women of all types can live their healthiest lives.

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