11 Women's Health Myths
Think Fast: Where do you turn for quick, reliable health information? If your answer is not “my doctor,” you are not alone. Despite our Digital Age, or maybe because of it, myths about women’s health continue to float around, often misrepresented as truth.
In addition to the Internet’s lack of a medical degree, friends and family are also sources of erroneous information and advice regarding your health, and they’re often more than willing to share it with you. Dr. Katherine Gurchak of Allina Health Mercy Women’s Health Clinic says that the close bonds women often maintain with other women in their lives make it “very safe and easy to trust the opinions of these women and mistake some of the myths that get perpetuated for fact.”
Long-held cultural beliefs, passed down from one familial generation to the next, can compound the fact-or-myth challenge, too. “Regardless of factual basis, some women may still regard a traditional belief with a certain degree of respect,” says Dr. Carrie Ann Terrell, medical director of the Division of General Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
For a calming dose of clarity, here are 11 of the most common and recurring women’s health myths our Twin Cities doctors encounter among their patients, along with the truths that debunk them. Our blood pressure’s feeling better already.
“Once you turn 35, pregnancy is much more risky and unlikely.”
Truth: There is no biological alarm that makes pregnancy suddenly much more hazardous the minute a woman turns 35 years old, though various risks do increase with age. “Every year a woman ages, the risks of infertility, miscarriage, and chromosomal abnormalities in the fetus increase slightly, but there is no dramatic increase at 35,” explains Dr. Annelise Skor Swigert, partner at Southdale OB/GYN.
As proof, reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Bruce Campbell of The Center for Reproductive Medicine cites national IVF success rates per cycle: “At age 34, the success rate is about 38 percent. At age 35, it is about 34 percent. At age 36, about 30 percent. At age 40, about 20 percent, and so on.”
The unnecessary attachment to age 35 resides in the fact that women ages 35 and older are offered testing, like amniocentesis, to evaluate the risk of chromosomal abnormalities. At age 35, the baseline risk is 1/200 or 0.5 percent, compared to 1/600 or 0.17 percent at age 25.
“A pregnant woman needs to limit her exercise.”
Truth: Though your penchant for naps may have grown, a baby bump needn’t slow you down completely. “Staying physically active in pregnancy has many benefits: relief of low back pain, improved endurance during childbirth, decreased rates of gestational diabetes, and long-term health,” says Dr. Leigh Koidahl of Southdale OB/GYN. In fact, women in good physical condition before pregnancy are encouraged to get 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day, provided they do not have medical conditions that make it unadvisable.
“I don’t feel like having sex. Something must be wrong with me.”
Truth: Low libido is the most prevalent sexual health issue among women, affecting about 40 percent of the U.S. female population, according to a 2006 PRESIDE study of nearly 60,000 women. Dr. Andraya Huldeen of Western OB/GYN, a Division of Ridgeview Clinics, says she discusses low libido with at least one patient every day, and that it’s common for women to experience it at some point in their lives.
Dr. Kathryn Babich, medical director of Park Nicollet Women’s Services, compares libido differences between genders to “driving to Duluth for the men—a straight shot up Interstate 35—versus a road map of Los Angeles for the women. Not only can fluctuating or lack of hormones affect our desire and response, but so can factors such as fatigue, relationship stress and discord, self-esteem and body image issues with aging and motherhood, and dissatisfaction with home life.” All of which is part of the reason there is no medication for women proven to effectively raise libido.
Women’s best treatment bets? Couples counseling and sexual therapy. Huldeen says couples counseling “gets at all the life stressors that make intercourse fall to the bottom of your to-do list.” Sexual therapy addresses the fact that women are wired to want more of the status quo: The less they have sex, the less they want to have sex. The more they have sex, the more they want to have sex. As Huldeen puts it, “Sexual therapy gives you homework.”
Terrell adds that resetting the definition of sexual activity can help, too. “For many heterosexual women, sex can solely mean intercourse. If intercourse is no longer possible due to either partner’s abilities, then other options can always be explored as alternatives.”
“Hormone therapy is so dangerous.”
Truth: Many fears surrounding hormone-based menopause treatments are based on a 2002 Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) study. Though widely publicized, the study’s menopause treatment–related outcomes are considered secondary data, because the study was originally conducted to determine whether hormones prevent heart disease in women (they do not). Many participants were placed on hormones solely for the study, and at much higher levels than would be prescribed for menopause. All participants were also post-menopausal, meaning they suffered from none of the symptoms hormone therapy can treat. “Hormones do have some risks, but they are not nearly as significant as many patients think,” Huldeen says. “Hot flashes won’t kill you, but they may drive you crazy along the way. If this is true for you, don’t be afraid to discuss the risks and benefits of hormone therapy with your doctor.”
“Depression is a matter of personal willpower.”
Truth: Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain. “So many women believe they should be able to ‘beat this thing’ or ‘get over it,’” Terrell says, but depression is a medical condition that can be managed with therapy, medication, or in the case of postpartum depression, it may take time for symptoms to improve.
Huldeen agrees. “I find a lot of women feel guilty about feeling anxious and depressed. They say, ‘I have a good life, healthy kids, a caring partner; I have no reason to be depressed.’ Then they feel bad about feeling bad. Most women think they can will themselves out of it. I remind women that if it were that easy, we would all just feel good. Who wants to feel horrible? Nobody. It’s not your fault. Your chemicals are off in your brain. Things aren’t firing right. We can help you.”
“There is a simple cure for fatness: Eat less.”
Truth: Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is a mental, emotional, and physical journey that requires making healthy choices big and small throughout each day. As a starting point, Terrell recommends that each woman familiarize herself with the risks at varying body mass indexes (BMIs), both high and low, and consider her individual circumstances to determine where on the scale she would like to reside. “In some cases, women may choose to be in the overweight BMI category (25-30) rather than regress into an eating disorder they may have had in adolescence. Women may require counseling and in-depth medical assessment if a restrictive eating disorder keeps their BMI at 17,” Terrell says. Next, they could commit to small health “wins” like walking 15 minutes each day, or switching out one pop for a glass of water.
Dr. Wesley Grootwassink, OBGYN West president, encourages patients who are overweight to keep in mind that in most cases, it is possible to achieve a healthy weight regardless of family history. “People will say, ‘Everyone in my family is overweight, that’s just the way it’s going to be.’ But to just assume it’s a genetic thing, so there’s nothing you can do about it, may reduce personal responsibility,” Grootwassink says.
“Heart disease is a male problem.”
Truth: Heart disease is the number one cause of death in U.S. women, killing about one woman in our country every minute.
Part of the prevalence may be misinformation about female heart attack symptoms. “The classic heart attack symptoms were first described from studying men: chest pressure, shortness of breath, and pain radiating down the left arm or up to the jaw. This is what the textbooks say,” Huldeen says. “Women tend to present differently: tired, nauseated. Don’t wait for the feeling that an elephant is sitting on your chest. It may not come.”
Fortunately, Dr. Sheryl Louie, a partner at Southdale OB/GYN, says healthy eating and exercise habits that prevent many other diseases also help prevent heart disease. Louie adds that women have an added layer of protection, too: “Even after menopause, women’s ovaries make hormones which can protect them from heart disease.”
“Breast cancer is mainly hereditary.”
Truth: Although two very specific family genes (BRCA I and II) are strongly linked to breast cancer, about 80 percent of all cases occur in women who have no family history of the disease. “I see the fear and the anxiety of women that have breast cancer in their family, and I see the nonchalance of women that don’t have it in their family,” says Dr. Lisa Schneider, chief of breast section at Consulting Radiologists Ltd., and co-medical director at Piper Breast Center. “But just being a woman is a risk factor, so it’s important to test regardless of your family history.”
“Mammograms are not beneficial and may do more harm than good.”
Truth: Mammograms detect about 78 percent of all breast cancer cases, and are even more accurate in women older than 50. “Screening mammography has been shown to decrease mortality of breast cancer by 30 percent,” Schneider says, in part because it helps detect cancer in the early stages when it is more easily treatable.
Though radiation from mammograms also remains a concern among many women, current mammography equipment emits very low radiation levels—about a 0.1 to 0.2 rad dose per image, according to the American Cancer Society. Put in perspective, a woman receiving treatment for breast cancer will receive about 5,000 rads, while a woman having annual mammograms from age 40 to age 90 will receive 20 to 40 rads over her lifetime. Dr. Tara Bowman, lead radiologist at United Breast Center at the Virginia Piper Cancer Institute in United Hospital, says, “The radiation risk from a mammogram is quite low. It is similar to the radiation risk from an airplane flight across the country. Compared to the risk of breast cancer, it is negligible.”
“If you have breast cancer, you will lose your breast(s).”
Truth: The majority of breast cancers today are treated with a lumpectomy, which removes the cancerous lump instead of the entire breast, and is typically followed by a course of radiation. And in the first two stages of breast cancer, survival rates are just as high among lumpectomy patients as they are among patients who undergo a mastectomy.
However, for women who want additional peace of mind, Schneider says a mastectomy or double mastectomy can be beneficial. “When I talk to patients, some of them just don’t want to think about it again. If they don’t have breasts, then they don’t have to go through screening and they can be confident,” she says.
“I have breast pain—it must be cancer.”
Truth: Part of the difficulty of detecting breast cancer is that it is not painful, and often has no symptoms at all. “If it hurt, women would come in and we would find it sooner,” Huldeen says, adding that if you are feeling breast pain, it’s often “hormonal in nature or related to caffeine, stress, the fit and support of your bra, or the presence of underwire in your bra.” Her advice? “Be seen and evaluated for breast pain, but don’t panic. It is hardly ever breast cancer.”
PREVENTING BREAST CANCER: WHAT YOU CAN DO
Age is the biggest risk factor for developing breast cancer, but several risk-lowering behaviors are in your power:
Breastfeed. Women who breastfeed have a lower risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression.
Limit your alcohol intake. Alcohol can increase estrogen levels in the body and damage DNA cells, which may increase your risk.
Move your body. A Women’s Health Initiative study showed that as little exercise as 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week of brisk walking cuts your risk by 18 percent.
Maintain a healthy weight. Walking also helps prevent obesity, which is another risk factor, particularly after menopause. “Post-menopausal breast cancer is linked to being overweight and sedentary. Your androgens are converted to low-strength estrogens in fat cells, and so the theory is that the more fat that you carry, the greater your risk of developing breast cancer will be,” explains Dr. Wesley Grootwassink, president of OBGYN West.