6 health conditions that women face higher risks of than men

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The “gender gap” is something that is often discussed when it comes to salary and societal norms. However, did you know that there’s a real, tangible “gender gap” with some diseases?

And we’re not talking about the obvious ones such as breast cancer, endometriosis, and polycystic ovary syndrome.

The reality is that women are more at risk of a few common health conditions, such as depression, insomnia, and migraines. The question is why, and what can you do about it? Here’s what you need to know about six health problems you’re more at risk of – just because you’re a woman.

Migraine

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The stats: A research conducted by the Duke-NUS Medical School and Novartis found that migraines tend to be more common in adult women than in men.

According to the Migraine Research Foundation in New York, women tend to suffer from migraine three times as often as men.

Why: Monthly hormonal fluctuations are thought to play a role – more than 50 per cent of migraines that occur in women strike just before, during, or after a monthly period.

But lab-based research also suggests that women’s brains may have a faster trigger than men’s for activating the waves of the activity responsible for migraines.

Fight back by: Making sure your diet is full of folate-rich foods, such as spinach, citrus fruits, legumes, and eggs. Folate, a B-Vitamin, can significantly reduce the frequency of migraine attacks, by lowering levels of a headache-triggering protein called homocysteine.

Stroke

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The stats: One in five women has a stroke in their lifetime compared to one in six men. According to the Singapore Heart Foundation, heart disease and stroke combined is the leading cause of death among women in Singapore.

Why: Women have some unique stroke risk factors. On top of that, the use of some types of hormone replacement therapies and contraceptive pills can increase the risk of blood clots, leading to an ischemic stroke.

Women are also more at risk of experiencing blood vessel bursting in the brain, which causes a hemorrhagic stroke.

Fight back by: Doing more exercise. Your stroke risk falls by more than a third the fitter you are after the age of 45.

One explanation is that exercising for more than four hours a week means you’re 20 per cent less likely to have high blood pressure, a known risk trigger for stroke.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

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The stats: It occurs in three times as many women as men.

Why: Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a type of autoimmune disease, a group of diseases that are more prevalent in women than men.

The exact reasons for this aren’t clear yet, but a combination of X-Chromosome and immunity-related genes, as well as hormones and environmental factors, is likely to play a role.

Fight back by: Eating oily fish, such as salmon, tuna, and sardines for at least once a week. These fishes are high in omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA and EPA, and these omega-3s help block inflammatory substances, which works to lower the risk of developing RA by as much as 52 per cent.

Fish oils have also been found to decrease joint tenderness and stiffness in RA patients too.

Insomnia

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The stats: A survey conducted in 2018 by Wakefield Research places Singapore as the second most in-need-of-sleep country, out of 12. Many international studies have also shown that insomnia is more common in women, compared to men.

Why: Hormonal changes play a role, particularly around menopause, which increases the risk of insomnia.

On top of that, recent research shows that women may be more likely than men to inherit specific genes that increase the likelihood of experiencing insomnia.

Fight back by: Devoting 20 minutes a day to mindfulness meditation. According to a study, that can create a significant improvement in sleep quality for people living with insomnia.

If you’re not sure how to meditate, download apps such as Headspace or Calm.

Depression

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The stats: The Singapore Mental Health Study in 2017 found that the lifetime prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) was higher among women (7.2 per cent) compared to men (4.3 per cent).

Why: Certain life events, specific to women, can increase the risk of depression, including having a baby or going through menopause early.

Menopause is also a risk factor if you have a history of depression. Plus, women are more likely to be carers for other family members, which can increase the risk of depression.

Fight back by: Spending at least 30 minutes in a “green space” each week makes you much less likely to experience depression, 2016 study shows.

It may be because the time in nature leads to decreased activity in a brain region associated with rumination or repetitive negative thoughts – a critical factor in the development of depression.

Alzheimer’s Disease

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The stats: According to the 2014 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report by the Alzheimer’s Association in the US, one in six women over the age of 65 will develop Alzheimer’s Disease, compared to one in 11 men.

Why: Women’s brains tend to accumulate more amyloid, a protein that forms the plaques that play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers are still not sure why, but one theory is that carrying two X chromosomes increases the risk of inheriting a gene that bumps up the risk of the disease.

Fight back by: Following the MIND diet, which can lower your Alzheimer’s risk by as much as 53 per cent, according to a 2015 study.

In fact, even following the diet’s principles moderately well can help lower your risk of Alzheimer’s by about 35 per cent.

The MIND diet consists of food that promotes good brain health. It includes foods like green, leafy vegetables, berries, nuts, beans, whole grains, olive oil, poultry, and no more than one glass of wine per day.

This article was first published in The Singapore Women's Weekly.