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Four common women’s health conditions and how to reduce your risk

16 November, 2016
Womens common health problems
  1. 1. Coronary heart disease

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in 2017 in Australia. Coronary heart disease and ischaemic heart disease are terms that describe what happens in the body when a build-up of fatty substances in the coronary arteries blocks the blood supply to the heart.

Understand your risk

There are certain risk factors that raise a person’s likelihood of developing coronary heart disease.

If you smoke or have uncontrolled diabetes, it could increase the risk of heart disease. Gestational diabetes and preeclampsia during pregnancy can also increase a woman’s risk of heart disease later in life. If you’ve had any of these conditions, you should tell your doctor so they can monitor your heart health.

You can reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by making healthy lifestyle choices such as:

  • avoiding smoke or smoking
  • eating a healthy diet
  • exercising and staying active
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • managing stress levels

It’s best to visit your doctor to discuss lifestyle choices to reduce your risk of coronary heart disease. You can also ask for advice about regular check-ups to look for signs of the following:

  • high blood cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes

Heart health checks

If you have concerns about your heart health, see your doctor. If your doctor thinks you’re risk of developing coronary heart disease, they can assess your heart health. This can include checking your medical and family history, lifestyle factors and requesting a blood test.

If you’re 45 or older (or over 35 years for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people), you should have a heart health check up every two years.

To find out more, read heart health checks at the Heart Foundation.

Know the signs and symptoms

It’s important to remember that not everyone experiences the same symptoms with coronary heart disease, and some people don’t experience any symptoms at all.

Chest pain (angina)

If your arteries have a partial block, you could experience chest pain. This is also known as angina.

The most common symptoms of angina can include:

  • pain or discomfort in the middle of the chest
  • pain with breathlessness and sweating
  • pressure or a feeling of tightness in the chest
  • radiating pain to the neck, jaw and left arm, or both arms
  • sometimes, radiating pain in the upper back and shoulders

Heart attacks

If there is a complete blockage in your arteries, you could experience a heart attack. The warning signs for a heart attack differ from person to person.

When having a heart attack, you may experience pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in one or more parts of your upper body including your chest, shoulders, neck, arms, jaw or back.

You may also experience the following symptoms:

  • nausea (feeling like you might be sick)
  • dizziness
  • cold sweats
  • shortness of breath

If you experience warning signs of a heart attack, call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.

To learn more, read heart attack symptoms at the Heart Foundation.

  1. 2. Breast cancer

Breast cancer happens when cells in the breast tissue grow abnormally. These cancerous cells usually form a tumour which can be felt as a lump or seen in a screening. Generally, the earlier breast cancer is found and treated, the greater the chance of survival.

Know your risk

Some of the risk factors for breast cancer include:

  • increasing age
  • having a family history of breast cancer
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • smoking
  • being overweight or obese

Read more about risk factors for breast cancer at Cancer Australia.

There are several lifestyle changes you can make that could reduce your risk of developing breast cancer:

  • maintain a healthy body weight
  • be physically active on most, preferably all days of the week
  • choose a varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables
  • limit your alcohol intake
  • quit smoking

For help to stop smoking, read our article on quitting smoking for good.

Checking your own breasts

It’s important to be familiar with your own breasts so you know what’s normal for you and be able to identify any changes. If you do find a lump in your breasts, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have breast cancer, but you shouldn’t delay getting it checked.

According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, if you’re a woman under 40, breast awareness remains the most effective method for early detection of breast cancer.

The National Breast Cancer Foundation of Australia (NBCF) recommends checking your breasts once a month. If you’ve never checked your breasts before, or you’re not sure if you’re doing it right, read their guide to checking for breast cancer symptoms.

Mammogram screenings

Breast cancer screenings help to detect cancer early. If breast cancer is found early, there’s a better chance of survival. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that if breast cancer was found in screening, women had a 42% lower risk of dying compared to women with breast cancer who had never been screened. 

All women over 40 have access to a free mammogram through BreastScreen Australia.

All women aged 50 to 74 should have a mammogram screening every two years as this is the most common age to develop breast cancer.

Women aged between 40 and 49 who have no symptoms can choose to have a free mammogram and women over 75 years should discuss the screening with their doctor.

You call BreastScreen Australia on 13 20 50 for more information or to book an appointment.

  1. 3. Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a condition that makes your bones weaker and more likely to break or fracture. This means even a minor bump or accident like falling out of bed or off a chair can cause a fracture. The cause of osteoporosis is a loss of bone density. Loss of bone density happens when your bones lose minerals like calcium faster than your body can replace them.

Older women are more likely to develop osteoporosis as after menopause, the level of oestrogen falls in the body and this can lead to a reduction in bone density. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, one in four women over 75 have osteoporosis and one in 10 men have the condition.

Most people only get a diagnosis after they break a bone as there aren’t any obvious symptoms of osteoporosis. A bone density scan can diagnose osteoporosis. This test usually measures bone density at the hip and spine and takes around 10-15 minutes.

Reduce your risk

It’s possible to reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis by doing certain types of exercise and making sure you have enough calcium and Vitamin D.

Weight-bearing and progressive resistance exercises

Putting stress on your muscles and bones increases bone density and decreases your risk of fractures. While exercises like swimming and cycling have many health benefits, they won’t increase your bone strength. To increase your bone strength, you should do weight-bearing and resistance exercises on 2-3 days a week.

Weight-bearing exercises are those that you do on your feet, so you have to carry your own weight. They include:

  • walking, jogging and running
  • basketball and netball
  • tennis
  • dancing
  • gymnastics
  • impact aerobics

Progressive resistance exercises are those that get harder over time. These can include:

  • weightlifting
  • hand or ankle weights
  • press-ups

Exercise is also a great way to become more aware of your body and even achieve better balance. Balancing exercises specifically can help you to reduce falls, but they don’t increase your bone strength. Balancing exercises including tai chi, or some yoga poses like standing on one leg.

Healthy diet

Calcium

Calcium is important because it combines with other minerals to form hard crystals that give your bones strength. You should make sure you have enough calcium in your diet because if your levels get low, your body will start to withdraw calcium from your bones. If your body starts to withdraw more than it deposits, you bone density will slowly decline and your risk of osteoporosis will increase.

Less than half of Australians get their daily recommended intake of calcium. You can reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis by making sure that you have 3-5 serves of calcium rich foods each day including:

  • dairy foods like yoghurt, milk or cheese
  • oily fish like salmon
  • nuts like almonds
  • green vegetables like broccoli, mustard cabbage or Bok Choy
  • soy products like tofu

Women aged 19 and over should have 1000 mg of calcium a day, while women over 50 should have 1300 mg a day. It’s best to get your calcium from your diet, but when this isn’t possible, you can try a supplement. Osteoporosis Australia recommends doses of 500-600mg per day. Calcium supplements are sometimes combined with Vitamin D.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D also helps to maintain your bones and increases the absorption of calcium. In Australia, it’s likely that your main source of Vitamin D will be from exposure to the sun. Skin exposure to sunlight causes our bodies to produce Vitamin D. Despite how sunny it is here, many Australians still don’t get enough Vitamin D, especially during winter. In fact, over 30% of adults have a form of Vitamin D deficiency.

Osteoporosis Australia recommends most adults should have a level of least 50 nmol/L at the end of winter. This means they might have levels up to 60 – 70 nmol/L in summer. If you have any concerns or questions about your vitamin D level, you should see your GP.

Osteoporosis Australia also recommend that if you’re Vitamin D level is low, you can try a supplement. If you have some exposure to sunlight and you’re under 70, you should aim for 600 IU per day. If you’re over 70, you should aim for 800 IU per day. If you don’t have any exposure to sunlight, you should go for higher doses of up to 1000 – 2000 IU per day. Diet alone can usually not provide a high enough amount of Vitamin D for your body.

  1. 4. Depression

Around one in six Australian women will experience depression at some time in their life. Anxiety is even more common, with one in three women experiencing anxiety in their lifetime.

Depression is more than a passing low mood. It can be feeling sad for weeks on end, having low energy and low motivation. It can also be a feeling of numbness rather than sadness. 

Know your risk

According to Beyond Blue, some of the situations that could increase the risk for anxiety and depression in women include:

  • caring for or supporting others
  • relationship breakdown
  • violence or abuse
  • discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity
  • infertility and perinatal loss
  • pregnancy, having a baby and becoming a mother (perinatal)
  • menopause

Know the signs and symptoms

Some of the symptoms of depression can include:

  • moodiness and irritability
  • hopelessness and helplessness
  • loss of appetite or over-eating
  • loss of interest in usual activities
  • acting out of character
  • increase in alcohol or drug intake
  • becoming shy or more confident
  • withdrawing from close family and friends

You might also experience physical symptoms like low energy levels, insomnia or digestive troubles.

By understanding the risks and recognising the signs and symptoms of depression, you can help yourself and others. It’s important to remember that effective treatments are available, and with the right care, most people recover.

The following practices could help you to reduce your risk of depression:

  • exercising regularly
  • connecting with people by finding a local support group
  • having regular personal time
  • avoiding unhealthy habits such as alcohol, smoking and caffeine

Get help now

For immediate help in a crisis:

For general mental health support:

Seeing your GP

If you have concerns about your mental health, it’s best to see your GP.

When you see your GP, they can:

  • assess your mental health
  • prescribe some medications for anxiety or depression
  • refer you to a mental health professional if necessary
  • refer you to other support services

They can also put you on a mental health plan, and this means Medicare may subsidise up to 10 sessions with a mental health professional.

Sources

https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/life-expectancy-death/deaths-in-australia/contents/leading-causes-of-death

https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/your-heart/heart-attack-symptoms

https://www.heartfoundation.org.au/your-heart/women-and-heart-disease/risk-factors-for-women

https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/cancer/cancer-in-australia-2019/contents/summary

https://breastcancerriskfactors.gov.au/risk-factors/personal-factors

https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/breast-cancer-prevention

https://www.beyondblue.org.au/who-does-it-affect/women

https://www.beyondblue.org.au/who-does-it-affect/women/factors-affecting-women

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified Health Care Professional.

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