When it comes to health, ignorance is not bliss. It can kill you. Although women are generally more health conscious than men, there are some important areas of female health where misunderstanding abounds.
Today, I wish to highlight a few of these medical myths.
Heart disease is a man issue
Heart disease is often thought of as primarily a male problem. The reality, however, is that more women die from heart disease than men and, unfortunately, the commonest presenting sign of heart disease is sudden death.
Currently, more than one third of all adult women in the United States of America have some form of cardiovascular disease that killed 419,730 women in that country in 2008.
Women often downplay their heart symptoms and wait too long before seeking help. When women are seen late, doctors are more likely to misdiagnose female heart disease because their symptoms are different to those of men.
The most common feature of a heart attack in women is pain, pressure or discomfort in the chest. But this is not always severe or very prominent and more than 40 per cent of women suffering a heart attack may not even experience any chest pain.
Women are more likely to have heart attack symptoms unrelated to chest pain such as neck, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, sweating, lightheadedness, dizziness, palpitations or unexplained fatigue. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to experience the classic symptoms like severe left-sided chest pain that radiates to the left arm or jaw.
Women historically receive less attention to heart disease prevention, so that when they are finally diagnosed, they often have more advanced heart problems and their prognosis is worse. Another factor is that women tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries, but also in the smaller vessels supplying blood to the heart - a more difficult to diagnose condition known as small vessel heart disease.
Only smokers get lung cancer
Lung cancer kills so many cigarette smokers that many people mistakenly believe that non-smokers will never develop it. The facts are that lung cancer kills about 24,000 non-smokers (17.5 per cent of lung cancer deaths) each year in the United States of America.
Additionally, lung cancer in people who have never smoked is on the increase particularly among women. In other areas of the world like Southeast Asia, as many as 50 per cent of female lung cancer cases are found in non-smoking women.
What is particularly sad is that many of these non-smokers are victims of second-hand smoke. The widespread suffering and death caused by second-hand smoke, which amounts to millions of disabled and dead people worldwide, is one of the great medical disasters of the recent past. The dangers of second-hand smoke are still not fully appreciated, as adults and children are still exposed each year in the public and home environment while society prioritises much less important issues. My best wishes to the Ministry of Health in Jamaica in its efforts to address this thorny issue.
In the past century, it was not uncommon for doctors to encourage their patients to smoke cigarettes for dubious reasons: to reduce nervousness, to improve digestion or to enhance weight loss. Perhaps we can forgive those physicians on the grounds of ignorance, but who can forgive the cigarette companies who despite having strong evidence of the addicting and deadly nature of cigarette smoke, deliberately hid the information from the public and instead for decades promoted cigarette smoking as part of a healthy and glamorous lifestyle.
Now that the truth is known, crafty cigarette manufacturers have shifted their marketing campaigns to the Third World and to women in particular.
Blood sugar is just a diabetes problem
Diabetics have a higher risk of cancer than non-diabetics. One study of diabetic women showed a 22 per cent increased breast cancer risk, and even those women with pre-diabetes had breast cancer with greater frequency. The researcher concluded that a higher cancer risk occurs even when a woman's blood glucose is below the level for diagnosing diabetes. Another study measured women's glucose when fasting and then after eating. It showed that those with the highest levels were 75 per cent more likely to develop cancer.
Gestational diabetes is a state of temporary glucose imbalance during pregnancy. However, in the long-term, women who had gestational diabetes have a 700 per cent higher incidence of cancer of the pancreas. Keeping your glucose levels in the low ranges protects against cardiovascular disease and reduces cancer risk. High glucose levels lead to more of the hormone insulin that promotes the growth of tumours.
An appropriate diet and healthy lifestyle are critical in the overall treatment of both cancer and diabetes. Nutritional interventions using vegetable protein from soy, beans and legumes, green tea isoflavones, supplementing with magnesium, chromium, vanadium, vitamin D and the omega 3 fatty acids, along with moderate exercise and stress management, can lower blood glucose to safer ranges.
The fat female is healthy
Many women suffer from an accumulation of excess body fat. Data from the World Health Organization indicate that nearly 80 per cent of Jamaican women are overweight and 50 per cent obese. Hard-to-die cultural beliefs encourage female fatness on the pretext that it is a sign of good health, prosperity and sexiness.
That is true if you consider having heart disease, cancer, strokes, diabetes, arthritis and high blood pressure healthy. It is true if you find that suffering from uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, chronic yeast infections, endometriosis, irregular periods, painful intercourse, facial hairs, varicose veins and infertility makes you sexy. Modern research now associates increasing obesity rates with lower socio-economic status and in the western world, the poorer women are the fattest.
So ladies, empower your self. Knowledge put to work is power.
You may email Dr Tony Vendryes at firstname.lastname@example.org or listen to 'An Ounce of Prevention' on POWER 106FM on Fridays at 8 p.m. His new book 'An Ounce of Prevention, Especially for Women' is available locally and on the Internet.