Top Health Issues Facing Women Today

by Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. Health Professional, Medical Reviewer

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading causes of death for American women across all ethnic and racial groups include heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. Lifestyle modification through proper nutrition and exercise is the best thing you can do to prevent your risk of disease. Here are simple ways to decrease your risk of developing chronic disease.

Take care of your heart

The best ways to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease are to lower your blood pressure, quit smoking, and manage your blood-lipid levels.

Saturated fat, which comes primarily from animals, and trans-fat, which is found in many packaged products and baked goods, have been shown to increase your low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol, which can lead to heart disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that no more than seven percent of your daily calories come from saturated fat, while less than one percent of your total calories should come from trans-fat — also shown to harm your high-density lipoprotein (HDL or “good” cholesterol). Replacing these fats in your diets with both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats can help lower your LDL cholesterol.

The AHA suggests that 25 to 35 percent of your total daily calories should come from these healthier fats. Good sources include avocadoes, olives, vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and fish. People who consume a diet high in these unsaturated fats have a lower risk of heart disease. The flavonoids found in tea, cocoa, and dark chocolate can also protect your heart.

Decrease your risk of cancer

Not smoking, limiting alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight, and consuming a diet rich in antioxidants are important steps in reducing your cancer risk. Antioxidants have the ability to attack free radicals in your body to get rid of them. Free radicals can damage the DNA in your cells, leading to disease over time. Foods high in antioxidants include carrots, green leafy vegetables, berries, citrus fruits, apples, pears, and green tea.

Prevent or control diabetes

It is estimated that more than 12 million women over the age of 20 in the United States have diabetes, while 27 million women have prediabetes. Millions of other women in our country have yet to be diagnosed.

The complications from diabetes can be serious, and include damage to the eyes, kidneys, and nerves. People living with diabetes are also at a greater risk for developing cardiovascular disease. While there are things you cannot control to reduce your risk, such as a family history of diabetes or your race/ethnicity, there are simple things you can do to reduce your risk for diabetes and its complications.

The most important step is to lose weight. If you are overweight or obese, you are at a greater risk of developing diabetes. Even a small weight loss can make a big difference in blood sugar control. Research noted by the American Diabetes Association (ADA)]( shows that you can lower your risk for type 2 diabetes by more than 50 percent by losing just seven percent of your excess body weight. If you weigh 250 pounds, this would mean losing 18 pounds to reduce your risk.

Moderate exercise, such as brisk walking, just 30 minutes a day, five days a week, can also reduce your risk of developing diabetes.

Limit the amount of processed foods and added sugars in your diet, replacing them with fiber-rich foods, such as whole grains and vegetables. Aim for 25 to 30 grams of fiber daily, filling half of your plate at each meal with vegetables.

Decrease your risk of stroke

Maintaining a healthy blood pressure is the number one thing you can do to avoid stroke. Regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can help lower blood pressure. Since blood pressure gradually rises with age, it is important, as you get older, to consume a diet that is low in sodium and high in potassium-rich foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoiding processed foods is the best way to decrease sodium in your diet.

The bottom line

Simple diet, exercise, and behavior changes can help all women reduce their risk of chronic disease and premature death. Talk to you primary care provider or registered dietitian if you need help with making positive lifestyle changes.

Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
Meet Our Writer
Carmen Roberts, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.

Carmen is a Registered Dietitian. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she has spent her career working at Johns Hopkins and is also an adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College. Carmen has over 20 years of experience in nutritional counseling, education, writing, and program management and is a certified specialist in adult weight management. She enjoys educating her students and clients about how nutrition affects the body and its role in overall health and wellness.