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Medical Breakthroughs in Women's Health

Studies in recent years have increasingly concentrated on how women's bodies are affected by diet, disease and environment.


Historically, medical research has primarily focused on men's health. Studies in recent years have increasingly concentrated on how women's bodies are affected by diet, disease and environment. After decades of assuming women's bodies nearly mimicked men's, many of the results have been surprising. Although the majority of research dollars are still invested in studies that involve men, momentous women's research has been occurring recently. Here are some of the latest scientific findings that affect women's health:

Breast Cancer

  • Mammograms do prevent death from breast cancer, according to a new study by the National Cancer Institute. The study showed 28 to 65 percent of the decrease in breast cancer deaths from 1990 to 2000 is attributed to the fact that more than 80 percent of women over 40 get mammograms. New drugs for the treatment of the disease, along with chemotherapy and hormonal therapy with tamoxifen, accounted for the rest of the decrease.
  • Drug therapy for breast cancer is also contributing to better long-term survival rates for women who have the disease. Hormone treatments and chemotherapy can reduce by 50 percent the risk of dying from breast cancer for at least 15 years, according to a worldwide analysis by the British government.
  • A study conducted by doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center showed that breast cancer survival in recent years is higher because the average tumor is smaller.

Diet and Nutrition

  • Reducing your total fat intake has little effect on the risk of breast cancer, heart disease or stroke. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported on the largest clinical trial of a group that followed a low-fat diet plan and others who ate their normal diet. Eating less saturated and trans fat, however, may reduce cholesterol and heart disease risk, according to the study.

Heart Health

  • The New England Journal of Medicine reported that a new study has determined how much exercise is required to maintain a healthy heart. Women who scored less than 85 percent of their age-predicted exercise capacity had twice the risk of dying from any cause and two and a half times the risk of dying from heart disease. METs, or metabolic equivalents, show how much oxygen the body is consuming and are available on most exercise machines. Doctors say this measure eliminates the need for many stress tests.


  • A new study published in Obstetrics and Gynecology found no truth in the commonly held belief that vaginal birth can result in urinary incontinence. The number of elective Caesarean sections has risen in recent years due to this assumption, but the research found no basis for it.
  • The sperm of smokers who smoked four or more cigarettes a day for a minimum of two years was 75 percent less fertile than men who don't smoke. It has not been determined whether or not quitting smoking has a positive effect.
  • Two studies on pregnant women who take antidepressants came up with conflicting results. One showed that 30 percent of pregnant women on the drugs had babies showing symptoms of drug withdrawal. Another study showed that pregnancy was no protection against depression so stopping treatment may be harmful to both mother and child.

Physiological Studies

  • Perimenopause and menopause has been monitored in 30 gorillas in 11 zoos, according to a study in the International Journal of Primatology. It showed that females went through physiological changes during the time their reproductive days were ending. Scientists observed touches, stares, copulation, masturbation and sexual displays for the male.
  • A new book, The Shape We're In: Overcoming Women's Obsessions with Weight, Food and Body Image, claims that a growing number of women in their 30s, 40s and 50s have eating disorders. These are similar to those found in teenagers who suffer from loneliness, a lack of self-esteem and a drive for perfection. A 30-year study of anorexia found that 18 to 20 percent of women died from the mental disorder.

Ovarian Cancer

  • The National Cancer Institute issued an unusual clinical announcement, urging doctors to use a treatment that pumps the cancer drugs paclitaxel and cisplatin directly into the abdominal cavity. The treatment is said to add 16 or more months to the lifespan of women with advanced ovarian cancer.


  • Birth control pills may cause some women to lose interest in sex, not only while taking them, but also for months after discontinuing their use, according to a study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine. The research showed the pill resulted in sexual side effects in 25 percent of users.
  • Male circumcision may protect women from contracting HIV, trichomonas and bacterial vaginosis, according to research in Uganda by investigators from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Women had 30 percent more protection from HIV infected partners who were circumcised.

Published: April 01, 2006
Issue: Spring 2006