Being a woman presents a lifetime of unique experiences inherent to the female gender. Some of these experiences, like pregnancy for example, may even afford us a path to immense personal growth. Women have never been more challenged than we are today as more of us take on the traditional wifely and motherly roles while also attempting to balance a career – all while faced with the additional task of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Given women are very likely to wear various hats at any given time, a deeper understanding of the female predicament with regards to disease occurrence and associated risk factors is crucial to a healthier us.
Whereas communicable diseases (such as strep throat and sexually transmitted infections) affect women in the earlier stages of their life cycle, non-communicable diseases (such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes) tend to dominate as they age. Not only do women tend to live longer than their male counterparts, but their risk factors for certain conditions are different.
“There is not a lot of clear data about gender, but women have unique risks. There has been some research done in the cardiovascular field, and woman have risks for certain types of cancer.” said local physician Elizabeth Lapeyre, M.D., an Obstetrician and Gynecologist with Ochsner Health System since 2003.
Dr. Lapeyre, who is originally from Atlanta, has lived in uptown New Orleans for more than 23 years with her husband, Etienne, and their five children. She is actively involved with The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists where she serves as a district officer. When she is not seeing patients at Ochsner Baptist Medical Center, you’ll find her cheering on her children at any one of their many sporting events, going for a quick run, or on her family’s annual summer trip to Watercolor, Florida.
“Preeclampsia, gestational diabetes and pre-term delivery are linked to cardiovascular disease, and women with type 2 diabetes and coronary artery disease can have a more severe course than men with the same two medical conditions,” said Dr. Lapeyre. “Also, hypertension after a certain age for women is not as well controlled by medication as it is for men.”
A two-day course entitled “Perinatal Mood Disorders: Components of Care,” held at Junior League Headquarters on January 12 and 13, 2017, addressed the assessment and treatment of such disorders. Participants of the event included physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, nurses and other healthcare professionals from the Metropolitan New Orleans area and beyond. Renee M. Bruno, M.D., Birdie Gunyon Meyer, R.N. and Wendy Davis, Ph.D. presented the results of ongoing challenges in the assessment and treatment of perinatal mood disorders, as well as addressed possible consequences if left untreated. Postpartum Support International, an advocacy organization with branches across the country, hosted the two-day meeting.
Dr. Lapeyre, who was not affiliated with the course, weighs in on the subject. “Perinatal mood disorders include major and minor depressive episodes that occur during pregnancy or during the first 12 months after delivery,” said Dr. Lapeyre. “It can be depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, mania – those are really the big ones. As many as 10 percent of women will experience perinatal depression, and 15-20 percent can experience post-partum depression,” Why such a high prevalence, and what are the associated risk factors? “A history of depression or anxiety, and life stressors, are risk factors,” said Dr. Lapeyre. “Lack of social support, unintended pregnancies, domestic violence, lower income, smoking, poor relationship quality – all of that can put you at risk. Then in the post partum period, there’s fatigue. It’s kind of the perfect storm.”
So, when it comes to our health, are we as women doomed to a fate worse than men, by the very virtue of our gender? Not necessarily. While controlling for our family histories is clearly off the table (unless of course you can time-travel and even then you threaten your very existence à la Back to the Future) there are steps we can each take to help promote a happier and healthier you. “Many things are preventable on some level. Diet, exercise, keeping your BMI at a certain level, healthy choices, trying to live a healthy life in terms of stressors – those are the things that you can control to some extent,” said Dr. Lapeyre. “Mindfulness I think is important too. Even if you find it difficult to carve out time for hour-long, weekly group classes – which many women do find works well for them – oftentimes just sitting in your car is enough to gather your thoughts and regroup.”
Finally, Dr. Lapeyre recommends creating a life-long partnership with a physician who can offer advice on how to maintain your healthiest lifestyle every step of the way.
“The work/life balance is kind of that new badge that we feel we have to have, and I think that in and of itself can sometimes be a little stressful for women,” said Dr. Lapeyre. “As caught up as we get in caring for others, our jobs, other family members, or our friends even, you’ve got to take care of yourself so you can take care of other people. And don’t ever start smoking!”