Women’s Health

Stephanie Watson

Staying fit linked to lower breast cancer risk

Daily exercise appears to reduce a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer, according to a study published online in the journal Cancer. The type or intensity of the exercise didn’t seem to matter, as long as it was done often. How much exercise is needed to lower breast cancer risk? In this study of 3,000 women, 10 to 19 hours a week (about two hours a day) had the greatest benefit. Age didn’t seem to matter—physical activity reduced breast cancer risk in younger women during their reproductive years and older women after menopause. What did make a difference in the effect of exercise was weight gain—especially after menopause. Gaining a significant amount of weight essentially wiped out the benefits of exercise on breast cancer risk in older women.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Studies question ban on alcohol during pregnancy

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has been taboo for some time, largely because drinking too much can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Because no one has been able to identify a clear threshold for “safe” drinking during pregnancy, doctors tell women to steer away from alcohol entirely. A series of five studies from Denmark published in BJOG An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that “low” (1-4 drinks per week) to “moderate” (5-8 drinks per week) alcohol consumption in early pregnancy did not harm the neuropsychological development of children evaluated at age five. Drinking more appears to be a different story. In one of the studies, five-year-olds whose mothers consumed higher levels of alcohol (9 or more drinks per week) during pregnancy were significantly more likely to have lower attention spans. The authors of the study do not argue that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is wise or to be encouraged. In fact, most doctors will continue to advise pregnant women not to drink alcohol. is there a middle ground? Perhaps. Deciding to have a sip (or glass) of champagne at a special occasion during pregnancy may not be an unreasonable or unsafe choice–one that each woman has to make for herself, ideally after talking with her obstetrician or midwife about this issue.

Carolyn Schatz

Anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders in midlife and beyond

Eating disorders don’t afflict only adolescents and young women, but plague older women, too, and may be shrouded in even greater shame and secrecy. Many women don’t seek help, especially if they fear being forced to gain weight or stigmatized as having a “teenager’s disease.” As reported in the February 2012 Harvard Women’s Health Watch, clinicians are reporting an upswing in requests from older women for help with eating disorders. For some of these women, the problem is new; others have struggled with anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, or another eating disorder for decades. Eating problems at midlife and beyond stem from a variety of causes, ranging from grief and divorce to illness, shifting priorities, and heightened awareness of an aging body.

Kay Cahill Allison

Managing fluids is one step toward better bladder control

As many as 32 million American women and men have some degree of incontinence—the unintended loss of urine or feces that is significant enough to make it difficult to do ordinary activities without frequent trips to the restroom. The most common causes of incontinence are childbirth and aging in women; prostate disorders and their treatment in men. Treatments include exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor, fluid management, medications, and surgery. For people with urinary incontinence, fluid management is an easy place to start, explains Better Bladder and Bowel Control, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. This involves drinking only when you are thirsty, limiting your fluid intake from all sources to six to eight 8-ounce cups of fluid per day from all sources, and minimizing caffeinated and carbonated drinks, as well as alcohol.

Carolyn Schatz

Study supports alcohol, breast cancer link

A 28-year study of 106,000 women found that moderate alcohol slightly increases a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. Women who had the equivalent of three to six drinks a week had a modest increase in their risk of breast cancer (15%) compared to women who never drank alcohol. That would translate into an extra 3 cases of breast cancer per 1,000 women per year. The risks were the same for wine, beer, and spirits. Because moderate drinking appears to prevent some types of heart disease—which affects more women than breast cancer does—it’s important for women to think about alcohol in light of their own personal health situation.

Lloyd Resnick

Blockages in tiny heart arteries a big problem for women

About 10% of women who have heart attacks seem to have clear, unblocked arteries. They don’t, really. Instead, they have a problem inside tiny arteries supplying the heart muscle, called microvessels. Traditional diagnostic tests can’t “see” into microvessels. In larger coronary arteries, the buildup of cholesterol-filled plaque creates distinct bulges that narrow the vessel at a particular spot, reducing blood flow. In microvessels, plaque uniformly coats the inner layer. This reduces the space for blood flow and makes the arteries stiff and less able to expand in response to exercise or other stress. Researchers are still trying to determine the best ways to diagnose and treat microvessel disease. Talking to cardiologists at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dr. C. Noel Bairey Merz said that the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra (sildenafil), which was originally developed to improve blood flow to the heart, is being tested as one possible therapy.

Carolyn Schatz

Painful, disabling interstitial cystitis often goes undiagnosed

Millions of Americans—most of them women—suffer from a bladder condition known as interstitial cystitis. According to a new study of this disorder, fewer than 10% of women with symptoms of interstitial cystitis are actually diagnosed with the disorder, even though it severely affects their lives. Without a proper diagnosis, women with interstitial cystitis are missing […]

Patrick J. Skerrett

Gaining weight? Beware potatoes—baked, fried, or in chips

Potato chips and potatoes (baked, boiled, and fried) were the foods most responsible for weight gained gradually over four-year periods among 120,000 healthy women and men in long-term studies. Other key contributors included sugar-sweetened beverages and red and processed meats. On the flip side, yogurt, nuts, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables were linked to weight loss or maintenance. Potatoes may be a “perfect food” for lean people who exercise a lot or who do regular manual labor. But for the rest of us, it might be safer for the waistline to view potatoes as a starch—and a fattening one at that—not as a vegetable.

Harvey B. Simon, M.D.
Carolyn Schatz