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Women's Health Month: Take ownership of health, wellness issues

Navy Cmdr. Francesca Cimino, M.D. (standing) confers with a colleague in the Family Medicine department at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. (Courtesy photo) Navy Cmdr. Francesca Cimino, M.D. (standing) confers with a colleague in the Family Medicine department at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. (Courtesy photo)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: October is Women’s Health Month, an opportunity to increase awareness about health issues important to women throughout their lifetime such as heart disease, breast and ovarian cancers, stroke, diabetes and chronic lower respiratory diseases, among other illnesses. This month, Health.mil will focus on the importance of recognizing the health and medical needs of women who are part of the DoD community, addressing preventable health concerns and encouraging early detection and treatment of disease among women and girls in the DoD community. 

This month’s first article, by Cmdr. Francesca Ciminio, M.D., a family physician and Assistant Professor at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md., emphasizes small things that you can do to maintain health and fitness to live a healthy life.


October marks Women's Health Month, an opportunity for the Military Health System to increase awareness among female beneficiaries about important health and wellness issues that span a lifetime.

As an experienced family physician, I know, in the MHS, we have a receptive audience. Women are significantly more likely than men to make and keep appointments with their health care providers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health Interview Survey.

Many of these appointments are for routine screenings: mammograms to check for breast cancer, Pap tests to detect cervical cancer. These are important, of course. Thanks to improvements in detection and treatment, more and more breast cancer patients are becoming breast cancer survivors. And U.S. cervical cancer survival rates are among the highest in the world.

But women's health encompasses more than these preventive cancer screenings. Did you know the No. 1 killer of women is heart disease? The American Heart Association's Life's Simple 7 identifies seven risk factors that women as well as men can improve though lifestyle changes to achieve ideal cardiovascular health.

Managing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, reducing blood sugar – all of these actions matter. And they're as vital to long-term health and longevity as cancer screenings. Now that I've gotten older, I'm particularly cognizant that as we age, heart disease becomes more of an issue. Damage accumulates over time.

Excess weight also has been linked to heart disease. I know some women find tackling this issue particularly daunting. CDC statistics show that more women than men are obese, and that women are more likely to become obese as we age. (About 36.5 percent of women ages 20-39, and 44.7 percent of women ages 40-59, are obese. These figures compare to 34.8 percent of men ages 20-39, and 40.8 percent of men ages 40-59.)

A small weight loss may not necessarily get you to a healthy body mass index, but it can play a role in overall longevity. Losing even 5 pounds can be exponentially beneficial in terms of how it can improve blood sugar and cholesterol levels and lower risk of heart disease.

One tip is to cut added sugar from your diet. The Food and Drug Administration has updated its guidelines to suggest no more than 10 percent of daily calories come from added sugars. The FDA also updated the nutrition labeling on food packages to help us keep track of this amount in packaged products.

It's amazing how quickly added sugar accumulates. It shows up in the sneakiest places, including ketchup, salad dressing, canned soups, even your favorite "nutrition" bar. Be a smart shopper and read the label -- especially because there are, literally, dozens of different names for sugar on nutrition labels.

Many women are aware of the AHA's recommendation for 150 minutes weekly of aerobic activity. I'd like to encourage you to think about making physical activity an everyday part of life, and not something to accomplish only during dedicated workouts. If your schedule precludes you from spending 30 minutes on an elliptical machine or stationary bike on any given day, all is not lost. Make a daily habit of climbing the stairs instead of riding the elevator, and parking your car further from your destination so you can get a few more steps in.

All movement matters. According to a Harvard study, simply being more mindful of how movement adds up to exercise helped hotel maids lose weight and improve their blood pressure.

Finally, I'd like to encourage you to be your own best advocate when it comes to health and wellness. For example, urinary incontinence comes up frequently when I ask my patients about it, but patients have sometimes been reluctant to be the first to broach the topic. Incontinence may be normal for women who've experienced childbirth, but that doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to it. It's treatable. So are problems associated with sex and comfort, interest, pain, and pleasure.

Mental health is another topic to bring up with your health care provider. Research has shown that hormonal changes at three stages of a woman's life—puberty, post-pregnancy, and during perimenopause—may trigger clinical depression. You don't need to suffer in silence.

The MHS provides a variety of programs, resources, and tools to maintain and improve the health of our female warfighters and beneficiaries. During Women's Health Month and indeed, any other time, let us know how we can help you.

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