Women's Health

Women’s health focuses on the many health issues and conditions that are unique to women or that affect women differently than men. A central part of the NICHD’s mission, women’s health research that is led and supported by the NICHD includes many aspects of women’s health, from menstrual irregularities to infertility and from pregnancy to menopause. 

 

Women's Health: Condition Information

What is women’s health?

Women face unique challenges and health issues. In addition, health issues that affect both men and women often affect women differently. Women’s health covers a wide range of issues affecting women, not all of which can be covered in one section of this website. This particular topic section provides broad information on women’s health; more detailed information on these topics can be found in the specific topic sections on the NICHD website or on other sites.


What health issues or conditions are specific to women only?

Women experience unique health issues and conditions, from pregnancy and menopause to gynecological conditions, such as uterine fibroids and pelvic floor disorders. The health topics listed below affect women only. Some other conditions affect men too but affect women primarily or more severely. Because women’s health is so broad, these health topics include links to access more information within the NICHD’s website.

Gynecological health and disorders affecting women include menstruation and menstrual irregularities; urinary tract health, including urinary incontinence and pelvic floor disorders; and such disorders as bacterial vaginosis,vaginitis, uterine fibroids, and vulvodynia.

Pregnancy issues include pre-pregnancy care and prenatal care, pregnancy loss (miscarriage and stillbirth), preterm labor and premature birth, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), breastfeeding, and birth defects.

Disorders related to infertility include uterine fibroids, polycystic ovary syndrome, endometriosis, and primary ovarian insufficiency.

Other disorders and conditions that affect only women include Turner syndrome, Rett syndrome, and ovarian and cervical cancers.

Issues related to women’s overall health and wellness include violence against women, women with disabilities and their unique challenges, osteoporosis and bone health, and menopause.


What health issues or conditions affect women differently than men?

Some health issues that are common to both men and women affect women differently. Although the symptoms may be similar, the effects of the condition and the care necessary can differ significantly for women. In addition, some of these conditions might affect women primarily or more severely than men. For example, U.S women are at higher risk for breast cancer than men.2

Certain health issues and their effects on women are listed below.

three generations of women smiling; text on top: What health issues affect women differently than men?Alcohol abuse3

Millions of women in the United States abuse alcohol, putting their health, safety, and general well-being at risk. While men are more likely to become dependent on or addicted to alcohol than women are throughout their lifetime, the health effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism (when someone shows signs of addiction to alcohol) are more serious in women. These health effects include an increased risk for breast cancer, heart disease, and fetal alcohol syndrome, in which infants born to mothers who drank during pregnancy suffer brain damage and learning difficulties.

Heart disease4

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Although heart disease is also the leading cause of death for men in the United States, women are more likely to die following a heart attack than men are. In addition, women are more likely than men are to experience delays in emergency care and to have treatment to control their cholesterol levels.

Mental health

Women are more likely to show signs of depression and anxiety than men are. Depression is the most common women's mental health problem,5 and more women than men are diagnosed with depression each year.6

Osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It causes joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Arthritis is the leading cause of physical disability in the United States. The condition affects millions of people in the United States and seems to affect more women than men.7

Sexually transmitted diseases/sexually transmitted infections (STDs/STIs) 8

The effect of STDs/STIs on women can be more serious than on men. Leaving STDs/STIs untreated can cause infertility in women. STDs/STIs often go untreated in women because symptoms are less obvious than in men or are more likely to be confused with another less serious condition, such as a yeast infection.

Stress

According to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association, stress is on the rise for women. According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), stress is on the rise for women. For example, almost 50% of all women in the APA survey reported that their stress had increased over the past 5 years, compared to 39% of the men.9 Stress also has unique effects on women. A recent NICHD study found that stress might reduce a woman's chance of becoming pregnant.10

Stroke11

More women than men suffer a stroke each year. Although many of the risk factors for stroke are the same for men and women, including a family history of stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, some risk factors are unique to women. These include:

  • Taking birth control pills
  • Being pregnant
  • Using hormone replacement therapy, a combined hormone therapy of progestin and estrogen designed to relieve menopausal symptoms
  • Having frequent migraine headaches
  • Having a thick waist (larger than 35.2 inches), particularly if post-menopausal, and high triglyceride (blood fat) levels

Urinary tract health

Women are more likely than men are to experience urinary tract problems. For example, urinary incontinence affects twice as many women as men12 due to the way the female urinary tract is structured.13

Citations

  1. National Cancer Institute. (2010). Probability of breast cancer in American women. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/detection/probability-breast-cancer
  2. National Cancer Institute. (2017). General information about male breast cancer. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/treatment/malebreast/patient
  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2015). Alcohol: a women's health issue. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochurewomen/women.htm
  4. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (2010). Cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions in women: Recent findings. Retrieved August 3, 2012, from https://archive.ahrq.gov/research/findings/factsheets/women/womheart/womheart.pdf (PDF 263 KB)
  5. World Health Organization. (n.d.). Gender and women's mental health. Retrieved August 3, 2012, from http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/genderwomen/en/ External Web Site Policy
  6. National Institute of Mental Health. (2012). Women and Depression: Discovering Hope. Retrieved August 22, 2012, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/women-and-depression-discovering-hope/complete-index.shtml
  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Arthritis-related statistics. Retrieved May 16, 2018, from http://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics/arthritis_related_stats.htm
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2011). 10 ways STDs impact women differently from men. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.cdc.gov/std/health-disparities/stds-women-042011.pdf (PDF - 222 KB)
  9. American Psychological Association. (n.d.) Gender and stress. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/gender-stress.aspx External Web Site Policy
  10. NIH. (2010). NIH study indicates stress may delay women getting pregnant. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://www.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/Pages/081110-stress-delay-women-getting-pregnant.aspx
  11. National Stroke Association. (n.d.) Women and stroke. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from https://www.stroke.org/en/about-stroke/stroke-risk-factors/women-have-a-higher-risk-of-stroke External Web Site Policy
  12. National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. (2010). Urinary incontinence in women. Retrieved August 6, 2012, from http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/uiwomen/
  13. National Kidney and Urologic Diseases Information Clearinghouse. (2011). Urinary tract infections in adults. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from http://kidney.niddk.nih.gov/kudiseases/pubs/utiadult/index.aspx/uti

Women's Health: NICHD Research Goals

A primary part of the NICHD mission is to ensure that women do not suffer any harmful effects from reproductive processes. Women’s health as a whole is an important research area at the NICHD. Goals for women’s health research include studies to advance knowledge and understanding of the different research areas at the NICHD, including gynecological issues, pregnancy and pregnancy outcomes, infertility and contraception, and other issues affecting a woman’s health and wellness.

Women's Health: Research Activities and Scientific Advances

Institute Activities and Advances

Most of the programs within the NICHD lead and support an extensive portfolio of research on women's health throughout the life cycle, from menstruation and gynecological issues and disorders to pregnancy and menopause.

Gynecological Issues and Disorders

The NICHD conducts and supports research on issues affecting women's overall gynecological health. Areas of research include menstrual irregularities, menopause, disorders such as vulvodynia and uterine fibroids, the organs and pathways of the female reproductive system, and disorders linked to the X chromosome. The following NICHD organizational units conduct or support research in this area of women's health:

Fertility, Infertility, and Contraception

NICHD research on issues in this area includes diseases related to infertility, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), premature ovarian failure (POF), and endometriosis; and sexually transmitted diseases and infections. The following NICHD organizational units conduct or support research in this area of women's health:

  • Current DIPHR research includes the role of the X chromosome in POI, the BioCycle Study for PCOS, the ENDO study on endometriosis, and LIFE, which studies the long-term effects of chemicals and lifestyle factors on fertility.
  • The DIR's Unit on Integrative Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility is studying ovarian function loss after chemotherapy for cancer.
  • The Fertility and Infertility (FI) Branch Branch's Reproductive Medicine Network is currently studying the safety and efficacy of various fertility treatments in women with PCOS or unexplained infertility. In addition, the Endometrium Database Resource has discovered that statins could be a possible treatment for endometriosis. Other studies include the effects of obesity on young girls' future fertility.
  • The CRH Branch's Contraceptive Clinical Trials Network includes four phases of clinical trials for new contraceptive methods, including a vaginal ring that can be used for 13 cycles. Other work includes the Contraceptive Development Research Center Program, which supports studies on nonhormonal methods to inhibit ovulation.
  • The Maternal and Pediatric Infectious Disease Branch supports and collaborates on the Microbicide Trials Network. Network researchers aim to reduce the transmission of HIV by working together to develop and evaluate microbicides—products taken orally or applied topically—to prevent HIV transmission.

Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Pregnancy Outcomes

The NICHD conducts and supports research on pregnancy issues, including pre-pregnancy and prenatal care, miscarriage and stillbirth, prematurity and preterm labor, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), birth defects and developmental disabilities, medication use during pregnancy, and breastfeeding. The following NICHD organizational units conduct or support research in this area of women's health:

  • The bulk of research in this area is through the Pregnancy and Perinatology Branch, which currently studies the effects of breastfeeding on brain development, specifically development of the medullary raphe of the brainstem and the serotonin systems, and its mechanisms for reducing the risk for SIDS. Other studies include complications of high-risk pregnancies, including medication use and adolescent pregnancy.
  • Current DIPHR research includes a study on the effect of long-term aspirin therapy on blood flow to the fetus and placental health (EAGeR study), studies on preeclampsia, and research on labor and induction.
  • The DIR includes studies on preeclampsia and preterm birth as well as on calibrating measurements of growth factors in blood.
  • Current studies in the Pediatric Growth and Nutrition Branch include advancing knowledge of the benefits of breastfeeding for preterm and low-birth-weight infants and studying the role of breast milk in gastrointestinal immunity.
  • The Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch supports studies to develop prenatal screening techniques to diagnose intellectual and developmental disabilities early.

Overall Health and Wellness

General wellness topics for women's health include violence and exposure to violence and bone health. The following NICHD organizational units conduct or support research in this area of women's health:

  • The Population Dynamics Branch currently studies domestic violence and relationship dynamics.
  • The Pediatric Growth and Nutrition Branch is studying fibroblast growth factors and the role of physical activity in bone health.
  • The DIR includes studies on osteogenesis imperfecta in its Bone and Extracellular Matrix Branch.

Other Activities and Advances

The promotion of women's health is at the heart of many of the networks and programs supported by the NICHD. A number of these are included below.

  • Contraceptive Clinical Trials Network (CCTN)
    Funded through the CRH Branch, this network supports research on contraceptive drugs and devices. Current studies include research on the efficacy of a female condom and a vaginal ring that can provide effective contraception without increasing the risk of blood clots, particularly in obese women.
  • Global Network for Women's and Children's Health Research
    The Global Network is a partnership committed to improving maternal and infant health outcomes and building health research capacity in resource-poor settings by testing cost-effective, sustainable interventions. The network began in 2001 as a public-private partnership between the NICHD and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It currently includes a Data Coordinating Center and seven research units around the world.
  • National Child and Maternal Health Education Program (NCMHEP)
    NCMHEP was created by the NICHD in 2008 to provide a forum for reviewing, translating, and disseminating new research in maternal and child health. A coalition of health care provider associations, federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and other partners pinpoint one issue pertaining to maternal and child health on which to focus for a set period of time, typically 12 to 18 months. The first focus area is Late Preterm Birth and Elective Term Deliveries.
  • Women's Interagency HIV Study (WIHS)
    Funded through the PAMA Branch, the study is investigating the impact of HIV infection on women in the United States. It is the largest and longest ongoing U.S. study of HIV-infected women. The study will evaluate how the infection affects women in particular, look at effective treatments, and investigate the relationship between HIV and other diseases.

To support training and education in women's health research, the NICHD supports the following activities for career development:

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