What Makes Women’s Health Different?

You’re watching a TV show. On screen, a woman goes pale, clutches her left arm, and collapses to the ground, unconscious. She’ll be taken to the hospital and diagnosed with a heart attack, and she’ll probably survive.

We’ve likely all seen it at one point or another, whether depicted on screen or described in text, so what’s wrong with this story?

A lot, actually. For one thing, that’s not how most women experience heart attacks – those symptoms are classic for men, not for everyone. For another, a significant number of women who do experience heart attacks are not immediately treated for them.

Many people don’t realize that not everyone has the same health problems, or even the same way of experiencing those health problems. These differences in diseases and symptoms appear across many groups of people, but it’s particularly concerning that women (who currently make up more than half of the world’s population) are often given inaccurate information about their health.

In an attempt to remedy that, here are some lesser-known facts about women’s health.

  1. On average, women have longer lives than men, but they’re not necessarily healthier.

At the moment, a woman’s life expectancy is about five years longer than her male counterpart’s, but she is more likely to suffer from chronic, non-fatal conditions such as arthritis, thyroid problems, and anemia (Weiss 49). You might live longer, but that’s not the same as living better. So the next time someone goes, “we don’t need feminism because women live longer than men,” hit them with this.

  1. Women do not always display the same symptoms as men.

A classic example of this is the heart attack I mentioned earlier. The well-publicized image of chest and left arm pain, pallor, and sweating followed by sudden collapse is almost exclusively based on male presentation. In other words, a woman who’s having a heart attack might not have any of those symptoms. Instead, women tend to experience jaw pain, back pain, and fatigue, and many have reported feeling a sense of inexplicable dread. Unfortunately, many women who go to an ER and describe these symptoms will not be diagnosed with a heart attack; they are likely to be told that it’s the flu, overexertion, or something similarly innocuous. In that sense, knowing how women’s symptoms differ from men’s can be a literal life-saver.

  1. The treatments that work for men do not always work for women.

There is a well-documented underrepresentation of women and ethnic/racial minorities in biomedical studies. What does that mean? It means that when researchers study possible methods of disease treatment and prevention, their subjects are almost always primarily white men. That, in turn, means that when they claim to have found a treatment with a 99% effectiveness rate, their treatment has only been proven to be 99% effective in white men. Prevention studies for cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, and migraines are almost always conducted on majority male sample populations, despite the fact that women are more likely to suffer from those conditions (Weiss 71). So if a “proven” treatment isn’t working for you, it’s not your fault – it might just be worth doing some research into what treatments have been proven to work in women.

  1. Women are much more likely than men to suffer from anxiety and depression – and no, it’s not “just in your head.”

Overall, men and women tend to experience mental illness at about the same rates, but they don’t experience the same problems. While men are more likely to suffer from personality disorders, women are more likely to suffer from mood disorders such as depression or anxiety (Weiss 89). The problem with this – beyond the obvious – is that symptoms of these illnesses are easy to wave away into the all-encompassing category of ‘hormones.’

A variety of theories have been offered in an attempt to explain this imbalance, but a 15-year study by the University of Tennessee titled “Women’s anger, aggression, and violence”  showed that women are socially encouraged to use less effective coping techniques when experiencing emotional distress, which can make them more susceptible to mental illness. Women are generally expected to internalize their problems in order to avoid inconveniencing others by asking for help, and a lifetime of internalization can actually make it harder to recognize and address your emotions later on. In particular, girls and women who have been discouraged from displaying anger in conventional ways are often unable to identify feelings of anger at all, and instead experience them as anxiety, helplessness, or depression.

  1. Childbirth is not a picnic.

I know this seems like a weird one to include, given that the general response would be, “well, yeah, of course it’s hard,” but that response is the understatement of the year. Most women aren’t taught what complications and dangers pregnancy and childbirth actually involve, and so many women are unprepared and unsupported when those complications arise. My intent isn’t to encourage women not to have children, but I do hope that in the future more women will be better informed when they make that choice. So, without further ado, three things you probably never learned about childbirth in your health/anatomy classes:

Postpartum bleeding – after you deliver, your uterus will continue to shed its lining for two to four weeks. Kind of like your period, but it lasts for a month, and it may or may not involve passing blood clots, as well. This is mainly an inconvenience, but women who don’t know better may attempt to alleviate the associated discomfort with heating pads (like you might for your period) and unintentionally speed up the bleeding to dangerous levels.

Postpartum depression – depression is a very common clinical observation after childbirth, experienced in up to 1 in 7 women . Your hormones are doing a lot of rebalancing, but that doesn’t mean that any depression you experience will not be real and potentially debilitating. PPD is often confused with “baby blues,” a much more common and much less serious emotional imbalance following childbirth. PPD, however, isn’t something you can just wait out – it can last for months if left untreated, and the effects can be debilitating.

Postpartum hemorrhage – while this occurs relatively infrequently in the United States, it is still a leading cause of maternal death worldwide (Friis), especially in cases when birth isn’t adequately supervised by medical attendants. A hemorrhage is any potentially deadly loss of blood, so while many hemorrhages can be stopped, not all of them are. You can greatly reduce your risk of this problem by delivering in a healthcare facility, but hemorrhages can occur during miscarriages as well, which makes it particularly dangerous for women in medically underserved areas.

Unfortunately, the world is still very male-centric, and many of our ideas of health come from studies conducted by and performed on men. Under the circumstances, our medical knowledge is not complete. There are things we haven’t discovered yet, treatments we haven’t found and symptoms we haven’t identified, at least partially because we exclude women from our research. What this means for you is that you need to own your body, your symptoms, and your health. You are the best judge of when something is wrong, and you are your own best advocate. You will, at some point, encounter a shitty doctor – one who insists that your unbearable cramps are normal, that your depression is seasonal, that your migraines are only headaches, that your chronic exhaustion is just hormonal – and it will be awful and infuriating, but you won’t be forced to accept their authority if you have your own.

If you have an understanding of your own body and your own health, then you won’t have to rely solely on their knowledge. You might not change their mind, but at least they won’t be able to convince you that your only disease is having two X chromosomes instead of one.

To learn more about women’s health, head over to www.womenshealth.gov, www.cdc.gov/women/, or www.healthywomen.org. There are countless resources out there, but these are credible and well-managed sites that should be able to direct you to other credible resources.

Happy hunting, and remember: you have a right to be healthy, and no one gets to take that away from you.

-Anna Burns

Friss, Robert H., and Thomas A. Sellers. Epidemiology for Public Health Practice. 5th ed. Burlington, MA:

Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2014. 137. Print.

Weiss, Gregory L., and Lynne E. Lonnquist. “Social Epidemiology.” The Sociology of Health, Healing, and Illness. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2009. 49. Print.

Weiss, Gregory L., and Lynne E. Lonnquist. “Society, Disease, and Illness.” The Sociology of Health, Healing, and Illness. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2009. 71. Print.

Weiss, Gregory L., and Lynne E. Lonnquist. “Society, Disease, and Illness.” The Sociology of Health, Healing, and Illness. 8th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2009. 89. Print.

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