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5 health conditions every woman should know about
There are a slew of diseases that impact more women than men. We asked experts why — and what you can do to protect yourself.
Women are amazing. The female body can grow, birth and feed tiny humans. Their immune systems are thought to be stronger than men's. They tend to have longer lifespans. And some research even suggests that women have more physical stamina than men. (Take that, muscleheads.)
But that uniqueness can also put women’s health at risk. While men are more at risk for certain life-threatening conditions, such as heart disease and pancreatic cancer, women are more prone to many other chronic illnesses. And since they tend to live longer, they’re more likely to have those illnesses for longer, too.
Scientists think there are many factors behind this gender gap. These may include lifestyle and environmental factors, as well as roller-coaster estrogen levels and genetics.
Here are some of the health conditions that impact women at a higher rate than men — and the most common warning signs.
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1. Women are 5 to 8 times more likely than men to have thyroid problems.
The thyroid is a gland in your neck that makes hormones. Those chemical messengers regulate your metabolism and affect many vital functions, including your heart rate. Problems happen when the thyroid makes too much of its hormones (called hyperthyroidism) or too little (called hypothyroidism).
Why women are at greater risk: It may have to do with the female hormone estrogen. “Women are at a much greater risk of thyroid disease when estrogen amounts drop,” says Rebecca Jackson, MD. She’s an internist, endocrinologist and a professor of internal medicine and endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at the Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus. “This can happen during the postpartum period, perimenopause or menopause,” she adds.
The dip in estrogen seems to cause thyroid inflammation, says Dr. Jackson. And that can change how it functions.
What to look for: Common thyroid disease symptoms may include:
- Fatigue or sluggishness
- Weight gain or unexplained weight loss
- An enlarged or swollen neck (called a goiter)
- Sleep troubles
- Menstrual cycle changes
- Hair loss
- Sensitivity to hot or cold temperatures
These indicators can be slow to develop, so you might not realize there’s a problem right away, says Dr. Jackson. “It’s not like getting a high fever or an infection — symptoms can come on slowly and even take years.” That’s why it’s so important to see your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms. This way, you can get treatment and help your thyroid get back to its status quo.
Related reading: Could your depression be linked to your thyroid?
2. About 90% of people living with lupus are women.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks itself. It can cause pain and inflammation in any part of the body, especially the skin, joints and internal organs such as the heart and kidneys.
Why women are at greater risk: Experts aren’t sure what causes lupus. There is likely a combination of factors, including:
- The environment. It’s thought that exposure to certain medications, ultraviolet rays, stress and some viral infections can trigger lupus.
- Hormones such as estrogen. Many women experience more lupus symptoms before their periods and during pregnancy, when estrogen levels are highest.
- Genetics. According to the Johns Hopkins Lupus Center, your risk of developing lupus is about 20 times higher if you have a brother or sister with the condition.
What to look out for: Lupus symptoms can be similar to a lot of other health conditions. And they can change or flare up from time to time. So it can be tough to diagnose. If you have any of these signs, see your health care provider:
- Muscle and joint pain (with possible swelling)
- Low-grade fevers
- Hair loss
- Sensitivity to sunlight
- Mouth sores or rashes (one telltale sign is a face rash that resembles the wings of a butterfly unfolding across both cheeks)
There’s no known cure for lupus. But it can be managed with prescription medication and even healthy habits. In fact, a 2021 study in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology found that women who engaged in healthy behaviors (such as regular exercise and not smoking) had a nearly 50% lower chance of developing lupus than those who didn’t.
3. Women are 2 to 3 times more likely to have celiac disease than men.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. And when people with celiac disease eat it, their immune system rejects it. That gluten triggers a response that damages the lining of the small intestine, preventing nutrients from being absorbed.
Why women are at greater risk: Like lupus, celiac disease is an autoimmune condition. For unknown reasons, women are diagnosed with these immune-related illnesses more often than men.
Celiac disease also tends to run in families. “There are at least 30 genes linked with celiac disease in different populations,” says Peter H.R. Green, MD. He’s the director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “But we can only look at 2 specific genes in clinical practice.” Having those genes doesn’t mean you have celiac disease — but it is important to know your risk, says Dr. Green.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, people with an immediate relative (parent, child or sibling) with celiac disease have a 1 in 10 risk of developing it themselves. If that’s you, it may be a smart idea to get genetic screening via a blood test just to be sure.
What to look out for: Children with celiac disease are more likely to have digestive symptoms such as stomach pain, diarrhea or vomiting. But it can be less clear in adults. “Many people are surprised when it’s discovered because they don’t appear to have any symptoms,” explains Dr. Green.
Adults can have digestive symptoms similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome. But Dr. Green adds that seemingly unrelated issues can crop up, too. “We see a lot of people with numbness and tingling in their hands and feet, as well as fatigue and depression.” Other symptoms can include:
- Iron-deficiency anemia
- Joint pain or arthritis
- Canker sores inside the mouth
- Missed menstrual periods or recurrent miscarriages
- Itchy skin rashes
If left untreated, celiac disease is not kind to your health. It increases your chances of other autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes. And it can lead to osteoporosis, infertility and even heart disease.
Celiac disease won’t go away on its own. As of right now, the only treatment is adopting a 100% gluten-free diet. Avoiding all foods containing gluten will most likely put the disease into remission.
4. In the United States, women make up nearly two-thirds of Alzheimer’s disease cases.
Dementia is a condition in older adults that affects thinking, memory and reasoning. It happens when nerve cells in the brain stop working properly. And it can become so severe that it interferes with daily life and one’s ability to care for oneself.
The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. Abnormal structures in the brain, called amyloid plaques and tau tangles, are thought to play a role in damaging and killing nerve cells.
Women make up nearly two-thirds of the more than 6 million Americans living with the disease. And once they’re in their 60s, women are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as breast cancer, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Why women are at greater risk: It’s not because they tend to live longer than men, says Romie Mushtaq, MD. She’s an Orlando, Florida-based neurologist who lectures on brain health to corporations across the country. More research suggests that the structure of women’s brains may play a role.
For example, a 2020 Swedish study found that the brain protein tau builds up faster in the brains of women than men (a whopping 75% faster, to be exact). Why? Well, some scientists think that women have more “bridging regions” that link different parts of the brain. And this may make it easier for tau to spread.
What to look out for: It’s easy to feel a twinge of concern if you have a so-called senior moment. Maybe you forgot where you put your car keys or why you just walked into a room. Forgetfulness can be — and often is — a natural part of aging.
That said, it’s probably a good idea to see a neurologist if you or a loved one notices any of these signs, says Dr. Mushtaq:
- Losing track of the date or time of year
- Having difficulty learning new information or finding words
- Struggling with following instructions
- Being unable to determine where you are and how you got there
Other Alzheimer’s warning symptoms include taking longer to complete normal tasks, personality or behavior changes, trouble handling money, and impaired reasoning or judgment. (Learn more about the early signs of dementia.)
There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. But there are Alzheimer's medications that may help slow its progression.
5. Around 75% of all Americans with rheumatoid arthritis are women.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that affects the lining of your joints. It can cause painful swelling, most often in the hands, wrists and knees. And it can damage other parts of the body, too, such as the lungs and heart.
Why women are at greater risk: Experts think it may have something to do with hormonal changes. In particular, it seems to be linked with declining estrogen levels.
A study in Rheumatology looked at both pre- and post-menopausal women with RA. Researchers found that the latter group had worse symptoms and a quicker decline in physical health than those who hadn’t gone through menopause. And according to the American College of Rheumatology, RA symptoms often improve during pregnancy, but they can flare up postpartum.
What to look for: RA can start at any age. But in women, it often develops between ages 30 and 60. Common symptoms include pain, swelling, tenderness or stiffness in your joints.
If you’ve had this discomfort for 6 weeks or longer, talk to your doctor. There’s no cure for RA, but it can be treated with medication and self-care strategies. (You can read our handy rheumatoid arthritis guide here.) Those strategies may include regular physical activity, learning how to cope with stress and giving your body rest when it needs it.
This is just a snapshot of the conditions that affect more women than men. When it comes to protecting your health, know that your concerns deserve to be heard. Don’t wait to bring up any of these signs or symptoms to your health care team.
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The causes of lupus: Johns Hopkins Lupus Center
Study on healthy habits and the risk of developing lupus: Arthritis & Rheumatology (2021). “Association of a combination of healthy lifestyle behaviors with reduced risk of incident systemic lupus erythematosus”
Who is at risk for celiac disease: Celiac Disease Foundation
Overview of Alzheimer’s disease: Alzheimer’s Association
Study on how Alzheimer’s may impact women differently than men: Brain (2020). “The accumulation rate of tau aggregates is higher in females and younger amyloid-positive subjects”
Study on estrogen levels and risk for rheumatoid arthritis: Rheumatology (2018). “The impact of menopause on functional status in women with rheumatoid arthritis”
How pregnancy impacts rheumatoid arthritis: American College of Rheumatology