Top Breakthroughs in Womens Health

Learn the impact these life-saving medical advances may have on you and your loved ones.In today’s connected world, messages about our health are everywhere: the Web, emails, podcasts, magazines, television. But the news can be confusing, as one study reported today is often contradicted by another one two months later. You can drive yourself crazy trying to keep it all straight.

We’ve sorted through the studies and developments in women’s health this year and taken the notes for you. Here are the top breakthroughs you should know about.

Heart Disease Prevention
A woman is more likely to know her high school weight than her current cholesterol numbers, reports a 2007 survey conducted by the Society for Women’s Health Research. And this lack of knowledge is deadly: One in 2.6 female deaths are caused by cardiovascular disease, the number 1 killer of women in America compared with one in 30 from breast cancer.

And according to the American Heart Association (AHA), only 13 percent of women view heart disease as a health threat. Most women don’t understand that heart disease is something that affects them, says Dr. Jennifer Wider, medical advisor for the Society of Women’s Health Research.

To address this problem, in February the AHA released new guidelines for preventing cardiovascular disease. Here are a few highlights.

If you need to lose weight or sustain weight loss, exercise at least 60 to 90 minutes on most‚preferably all days of the week. For those who aren’t trying to lose weight, 30 minutes a day will suffice.

Make saturated fat less than 7 percent of your daily caloric intake.

Eat oily fish, such as salmon, trout and mackerel, at least twice a week.

Don’t use folic acid or antioxidant supplements to try to prevent heart disease, as there’s no evidence they work.

What you need to know
There’s no time like the present‚ according to the AHA, women 20 and older should talk to their doctors about their risk of heart disease.  We have the chance to learn what our mothers did’t know says Beth Battaglino, R.N. and executive vice president of the National Women’s Health Research Center.

The first step: Know your numbers. The AHA recommends that every woman find out the following: total cholesterol, LDL  cholesterol, HDL  cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting glucose, body mass index (BMI), waist measurement and blood pressure (120/80 is considered a normal reading). Shoot for total cholesterol of less than 200 mg, and HDL cholesterol above 50 mg. For more recommendations, visit americanheart.org and goredforwomen.org.

The HPV Vaccine
In 2006 the FDA licensed Gardasil, the first vaccine known to protect against some strains of the human papilloma virus (HPV), the most common sexually transmitted disease in the U.S. and cause of cervical cancer and genital warts. According to the National Cervical Cancer Coalition, studies reveal that at least 80 percent of women will test positive for HPV by age 50.

The release of Gardasil ends what The New York Times called a 70-year hunt for an HPV vaccine. It protects against four HPV strains, two of which are responsible for an estimated 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and two that are responsible for 90 percent of genital warts. By mimicking the disease with proteins grown from the outer shell of the virus, the vaccine essentially jumpstarts your immune system to produce antibodies that can successfully fight off the HPV strains.

Despite its ability to battle cervical cancer, the new drug has sparked controversy. Licensed for use on females age 9 to 26, the vaccine concerns some groups because they believe it might encourage young girls to be sexually active. And officials continue to debate whether the HPV vaccine should be mandatory. In January of 2007, the American Cancer Society (ACS) recommended that girls ages 11 to 12 be routinely vaccinated against HPV to help protect against cervical cancer and prevent genital warts.

What you need to know
The HPV vaccine is most effective if given before a woman becomes sexually active. However, some women ages 19 to 26 may benefit. Even if they have been exposed to some types of HPV, it is unlikely they have been exposed to all four types the virus protects against.

The FDA warns that the vaccine will not treat or cure HPV and cautions that the length of the immunity is not yet known. In addition, all women need to continue to get routine pap smears. This vaccine will not replace other prevention strategies, such as cervical cancer screening for women or protective sexual behaviors, says Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Women should continue to get pap tests as a safeguard against cervical cancer.

New Breast Cancer Screening Tool
In March the American Cancer Society issued its first recommendation for the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to screen women at a very high risk (20 to 25 percent or greater) of developing breast cancer. Although your risk level can only be accurately assessed by your doctor, very high risk indicators include having one first-degree relative (a mother, sister, daughter) with breast cancer‚ which approximately doubles your risk or if you have two or more relatives with breast or ovarian cancer.

With the ability to examine tissue in extraordinary detail, MRI has the potential to diagnose high-risk women in earlier stages of cancer than mammography alone. However, it’s important that all women continue to get regular mammograms. No single technology is perfect, says Dr. Cheryl Perkins, senior clinical advisor of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.  It is the combined use of screening options available today that will result in the best chance of early detection.

What you need to know
Talk to your doctor about your risk profile. You don’t need MRI screening if you are not in the high-risk category. For the average woman, mammography is still the gold standard, says Perkins. In fact, an MRI is so sensitive that it can lead to false-positive results. Those false positives, which can lead to a high number of avoidable biopsies, can create anxiety and adverse health effects, making it imperative to carefully select the women who should be screened using this technology, says Dr. Christy A. Russell, co-director of the University of Southern California/Norris Cancer Hospital Lee Breast Center.

If your doctor determines you are a candidate, be sure to seek proper screening. Debbie Saslow, Ph.D., and director of the Breast and Gynecologic Cancer Center at ACS, says women should get their MRI in a facility that has breast MRI equipment, as well as the ability to perform an MRI-guided biopsy.

New Ovarian Cancer Warning Signs
The deadliest of all reproductive cancers and the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women, ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in an estimated 22,000 women this year, according to the Women’s Cancer Network. And with no screening tool for the disease, early detection is particularly difficult. In June The Gynecologic Cancer Foundation, the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists and the American Cancer Society announced official warning signs for ovarian cancer. It isn’t a silent killer, says Sherry Salway Black, executive director of The Ovarian Cancer National Alliance.

We know that when women are diagnosed in Stage I of the disease, it is 90 percent curable, says Dr. Barbara Goff, a gynecologic oncologist at the University of Washington. Unfortunately, until now there has been no agreement on common symptoms, allowing women to go undiagnosed, despite visits to the doctor, until it was too late.

What you need to know
Researchers identified the following symptoms as possible warning signs of ovarian cancer: bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, difficulty eating or feeling full quickly, and urinary problems (urgency or frequency).

At first glance these symptoms may be perplexing as most women experience these common ailments at some point in their lives. However, the important thing to do is keep track of the frequency and severity of episodes. Consult your gynecologist about your symptoms if they are recent onsets, they are frequent, they get progressively worse, and you have them for more than two weeks of a month, says Salway Black. The bottom line: Know your own body.

Jeana Durst is the Senior Editor of Her Sports + Fitness.

Through inspiring stories about real women of all ages and abilities and practical guidance on training, health and nutrition, Her Sports + Fitness motivates women to achieve their fitness goals and stay active for life. Don’t forget to sign up for our free e-newsletter on hersports.com.