SEX CELLS
Hey, we’re over here: ‘female mostly’ health conditions
by Phyllis Greenberger

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The history of all times, and of today especially, teaches that . . . women will be forgotten if they forget to think about themselves.
—Louise Otto-Peters, a German suffragist and women’s rights activist, 1819–1895

Writing more than 100 years ago, Louise Otto-Peters’ words still apply today. While mainstream medicine has paid some attention to women’s health needs when it comes to women-only conditions, AKA “bikini medicine,” they have almost entirely overlooked the important sex differences in conditions that mostly afflict women. And if we don’t think about them ourselves, as Otto-Peters said, they will continue to be forgotten.

Mostly Women, Mostly Slighted

Studies by Dr. Art Mirin and others show that diseases that affect mostly women are stepchildren of male-dominated disorders. In Dr.Mirin’s 2021 study, published in the Journal of Women’s Health, he states that “in nearly three-quarters of the cases where a disease afflicts primarily one gender, the funding pattern favors males, in that either the disease affects more women and is underfunded (with respect to burden), or the disease affects more men and is overfunded.” He also found the NIH is no exception. Fortunately, independent healthcare organizations are bucking that trend. “Investigators in Mayo Clinic’s Women’s Health Research Center are studying why certain illnesses occur only in women or are more prevalent in women compared with men,” says Dr. Virginia Miller, professor emeritus of surgery and physiology and former director of the Women’s Health Research Center at Mayo Clinic. “Armed with this information, we are going to become ever-more able to prevent, diagnose and treat women’s most debilitating diseases and conditions effectively.”

Right now, there are more than 1,400 research studies across Mayo Clinic campuses in Arizona, Florida and Minnesota. Mayo researchers are dedicated to tackling the health issues that continually plague women. While Mayo’s research departments and divisions go from A to U—from anesthesiology and perioperative medicine to urology—we are going to look at sex differences in the development, diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases and immune responses to infection, Alzheimer’s disease, urinary tract issues, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), osteoporosis and thyroid diseases. Here’s a quick look at just how these conditions impact women.

  • Of the 50 million Americans with an autoimmune condition, around 37.5 million are women.
  • Alzheimer’s affects 6.7 million people age 65 and older in the United States and 4.1 million are women.
  • Urinary tract infections and disorders are up to 30 times more common in women than men, according to the HHS’s Office on Women’s Health, and as many as four in ten women who get a UTI will get at least one more within six months.
  • The International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders says that IBS affects between 25 and 45 million people in the United States, and 66% of them are female. That’s up to 30 million women.
  • IBD—a term for two conditions, Crohn’s disease (CD) and ulcerative colitis—affects females (12%) less than males (20%) until puberty, when there is a switch and it is more of a risk for females. Specifically, females age 25–29 and especially those above age 35 are up to 40% more prone to CD compared to males those ages. However, after age 45, men are 20% more likely to have IBD than women. Intriguing.
  • Osteoporosis, brittle bone disease in the femur, neck or lower back, affects almost 20% of women and less than 5% of men. And as for osteopenia—lowered bone mass that indicates a major risk for full-blown disease—that affects more than 51% of women and around 33% of men.
  • Thyroid diseases, whether autoimmune or not, affect women five to eight times more than men—and can interfere with the menstrual cycle and cause problems during pregnancy. One woman in eight will develop a thyroid disorder during her lifetime.

Tomorrow’s Promise

Drug development for conditions that affect women’s health has increased notably. A report from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturer of America, titled “Medicine in Development 2022 Report,” says that of the 800 drugs in development for chronic diseases, 625 target diseases that affect women disproportionately or solely. Now these won’t all make it to market—just 12% do—but the medications and treatments that are being considered include:

  • 200 drugs targeting cancers that primarily affect women, including breast, ovarian, uterine and cervical cancer.
  • 133 drugs for neurologic disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, migraine disease and multiple sclerosis.
  • 87 drugs for autoimmune conditions, including lupus, myasthenia gravis and scleroderma.
  • Treatments for postpartum depression, endometriosis, rheumatoid arthritis and triple negative breast cancer.

Let’s hope these potential advances in treatment options pan out and that many, many more are going to be pursued.

 

Excerpted with permission from Sex Cells: The Fight to Overcome Bias and Discrimination
in Women’s Healthcare by Phyllis Greenberger with Kalia Doner.

 

Phyllis E. Greenberger, MSW, is Senior Vice President of Science & Health Policy for HealthyWomen. She is the former President and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR), a national nonprofit organization widely recognized as the thought leader in women’s health research, for 26 years.  In 2016 Phyllis was given the Trailblazer award by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health. Women’s Day magazine awarded Greenberger the 2006 “Red Dress Award” in recognition of her work in leading the way in the fight against heart disease in women, and in 2010 named her one of 50 “Women Who Are Changing the World.” She also received the “Award for Research Excellence” by the National Association for Women’s Health, “Journal of Women’s Health & Gender-Based Medicine’s Achievement Award,” “Champion of Women’s Health” by Ladies’ Home Journal, the “Washington Woman of Genius” by Trinity College in Washington, DC, and received an award for public advocacy from the Clinical Research Forum. She was named the 2013 ‘Woman of the Year’ by the National Association of Professional Women. 

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