Don’t Leave Women’s Health to Chance

April 30, 2015 Brigham and Women's Hospital

Dr. Paula Johnson

The author of today’s post is Paula A. Johnson, MD, MPH, Executive Director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Did you know that, 20 years ago, women and minorities were not routinely included in federally funded clinical trials? That changed in 1993 when President Bill Clinton signed into law the historic NIH Revitalization Act, making inclusion of women in health research a national priority.

Today, we know that women are different from men down to the cellular and molecular level. We see these differences across all organ systems — from our hearts to our joints, lungs, and brains. The Mary Horrigan Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital is dedicated to exploring and discovering why these differences occur, and translating those differences into clinical care. However, roadblocks remain in research and clinical care. Here are just a few examples:

Heart Disease

Heart disease is the number one cause of mortality in U.S. women today. But women’s heart disease often looks different than it does in men. Evidence of heart disease in women’s arteries may be more diffuse and more difficult to see. And while cardiac catheterization has long been the gold standard for diagnosis, this test doesn’t always show blockages in women. However, intravascular ultrasound, which uses sound waves to look at the artery from the inside out, does. Clearly, the gold standard is not the gold standard for women.

Lung Cancer

Each year, lung cancer kills more women than breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers combined. And women who have never smoked are three times more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than men who never smoked. Yet, when women are diagnosed, their survival tends to be better. Why is that? Investigators have found that there are certain genes in lung tumor cells that are activated by estrogen, and this discovery may have the potential to save lives.


Depression is the number one cause of disability in women worldwide, and women are 70 percent more likely to experience depression over their lifetime than men. Investigators have discovered significant sex differences in the area of the brain connected with mood. You can actually see the difference in a functional MRI scanner when men and women are exposed to stress. Findings like these may hold clues as to why we see sex differences in depression.

Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)

A woman’s overall lifetime risk of developing AD is twice that of a man’s. And it’s not just because women live longer. Investigators are just beginning to realize that studying sex differences may provide clues to the basic biology of AD, which we hope will lead to more effective treatment, and ultimately to prevention.

More to Do

The public is finally waking up to gender disparities in medical research. But we have much work ahead of us if we are to fully understand sex differences in all areas of health and disease, and translate that knowledge into personalized care.

Please don’t leave women’s health to chance. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations to make sure our research, clinical care, and medical education applies as much to women as it does to men.

As Mother’s Day approaches and we honor generations of mothers and women worldwide, you can make a difference by participating in our Mother’s Day campaign. Honor your mom or a special woman in your life with a tribute gift that will advance prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and cures for women. As thanks, the women being honored will receive a beautiful e-card this Mother’s Day. Visit to learn more.
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