Top Breakthroughs in Women's Health

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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 one killer of women in America--compared with one in 30 from breast cancer.
 
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 didn'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 ("bad") cholesterol, HDL ("good") 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."

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