WOMEN’S LIVES: Don’t leave it to chance

Finola Brennan


Finola Brennan

WOMEN’S LIVES: Don’t leave it to chance
Would you believe that up to 20 years ago there was hardly any data on women’s health beyond that of the functions of women’s reproductive organs?

Would you believe that up to 20 years ago there was hardly any data on women’s health beyond that of the functions of women’s reproductive organs?

In this article I share the views of Women’s health expert, Dr. Paula Johnson, a pioneering doctor in the USA. Paula was very close to her grandmother, but at the age of 60, Paula’s grandmother developed a deep life-altering depression from which she never recovered. It was this illness which led Paula to study medicine and follow a lifelong quest to improve the health of women.

“All over the world women are 70% more likely to experience depression over their lifetimes compared with men,” Paula said.

“Even with this prevalence women are misdiagnosed 30-50% of the time.”

We know that women are more likely to experience the symptoms of fatigue, sleep disturbance pain and anxiety compared with men and these symptoms are overlooked as symptoms of depression. And it isn’t only just in depression that these gender differences occur, it is found in many other diseases as well.

Today we know that every cell in the human body has a sex, which means that men and women are different right down to the cellular and molecular levels. This means men and women are different from our brains, our hearts, and our lungs right down to our joints . . . . we are different.

And yes, I can see many a man nodding at this statement and saying to himself: “Don’t I know it”, but the question is what do we do with this knowledge?

In 1993 the National Institute of Health (NIH )Revitalisation Act was signed into law in the USA which mandated that women and minorities be included in clinical trials that were funded by the NIH. As a result of this research, it is now known that men and women experience disease differently. However, what is learnt is very often overlooked, which begs the question, ‘Why leave women’s health to chance?’

Dr. Paula believes firstly that there is much more to learn and to know about the extent of the differences between men and women’s health, and secondly that what is known is not routinely included in clinical care.

She cites three examples where sex differences have impacted on the health of women. Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the USA. Her research has shown that the plaque is more likely to be throughout the veins of the heart in a woman and therefore women’s heart disease must be treated differently.

Lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer in the USA. Today what is known is that women who have never smoked are three times more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than men who have never smoked. However, when women are diagnosed with lung cancer their survival is better than men, especially in young women as they have more oestrogen in their body. This finding may provide hope and an opportunity to save lives.

Depression is the number one cause of disability in women in the world today. Differences in the brains of men and women can be clearly seen in a functional MRI where men and women are exposed to the same stress yet brain research to date is been carried out on 66% of male animals or on animals where the sex is not identified.

Dr. Paula Johnson and many other scientists believe they are on the verge of dramatically helping the health of women. “We know that every cell has a sex, we know that this is often overlooked and we know that women are not getting the full benefit of modern science and medicine. We have the tools, but we lack the collective will and momentum.

“Women’s health is an equal rights issue as important as is equal pay.”