Toward a More Inclusive Definition of Women's Health

Last updated: November 2022

It’s Women’s Health Month, and the traditional definition of “women’s health” is overdue for an update. When we think of women’s health, two things often come to mind: Pap smears and pregnancy.

But there’s a lot more to tending to your health than that. Research about how common health problems or medications might affect women differently than men has historically been lacking.1

Funding for health research still overwhelmingly prioritizes research on men. And while we’re celebrating Women’s Health Month, I want to acknowledge that the health system has been very slow to catch up on issues affecting nonbinary and transgender people.2

Many issues are not exclusive to those who identify as women. With all that in mind, here are some ideas to get you started thinking about your health.

Heart issues in women

Some health problems that are not female-specific affect far more women than men, yet most studies have been done on men. Heart disease is the most common cause of death for US women, but two-thirds of clinical trial participants are male.3,4

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Everyone needs to know that heart disease shows up differently in women. The classic symptom of chest pain is common, but women often have other, less obvious symptoms, like:5

  • Back and neck pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Indigestion
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness

Don’t ignore these symptoms in yourself or the women around you. And there are lots of ways to lower your risk for heart disease. Eating healthy, avoiding smoking, and exercising have a big impact at home. Let your clinician know about any family history of heart disease at your medical appointment.6

They’ll check your blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol so that you can adapt your lifestyle or take medicines if needed to keep them in range.7

Mental health and women

Depression is the number one cause of disability in women in the United States. In 2020, nearly twice as many women as men had an episode of depression.8,9

Women can be especially susceptible to depression after giving birth. This is called postpartum depression and can affect more than 1 in 10 women who have had a baby.10

Depression is a medical problem. It’s not something you can “shake off.” There are ways to manage it both with and without medication.

Being taken seriously by doctors

One of my colleagues wears a button that says “Listen to Women.” This should not need to be said, obviously, but women too often experience not being heard when they seek healthcare. You can read far too many stories about doctors being dismissive of pain concerns from people in this community.

This is an even larger problem for women of color.11

How to avoid this? It can help to take a support person with you to your appointment. This person can help make sure you get your questions answered and concerns addressed.

Seeing a specialist in your condition can make all the difference – an endometriosis or chronic pelvic pain specialist is more likely to understand your situation and give you the best information.

Racial disparities in pregnancy care

High-profile people like Serena Williams and Beyoncé sharing their stories of pregnancy complications have helped shine a spotlight on racial and ethnic disparities in maternity care in the United States. Recent studies show that Black women are more than 3 times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than white women.10,12

For Native American and Alaska Native women, the death rate is 2 times that of white women. Black women and Latinas are much more likely to have severe pregnancy complications than white women.12

Professional organizations are finally acknowledging and taking steps to address these disparities through the education of clinicians, broader research, and policy. More resources are becoming available to support pregnant people of color.13,14

Women are so often caregivers in this world. Many of us work paid jobs and then spend much of our unpaid time caring for others: children, aging parents, and spouses. This may feel like a burden, or it may be the most rewarding part of our day. Sometimes, it is both. But it may mean that we are so focused on others that our own health gets put aside.15

There is so much more to a woman's health than a Pap smear, and the issues listed here scratch the surface. This Women's Health Month, let's aim to carve out a little time to look after our physical and mental health.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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