The Health in Action blog sat down with Dr. Nancy C. Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Health — Women's Health, and Director of the Office on Women's Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to discuss the importance of getting an annual well-woman visit and preventative measures women can take to stay healthy.
You’ve had a long and distinguished career in women’s health working in research, preventative services, epidemiology and more. Can you tell us a bit about your journey to become the Director of the Office on Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services?
Women have unique health needs and I always felt personally invested in the health outcomes of women. It’s part of the reason I decided to study medicine. I am board-certified in internal medicine, but also did two years of training in obstetrics and gynecology. After my residency training I moved to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where I focused my research on issues that matter to women, including cancer screening and early detection, the epidemiology of reproductive system cancers, safety of contraceptive methods, and HIV infection among American women.
Now, as the Director of the Office on Women’s Health, I work to help women and girls achieve the best possible health through policy, education, and model programs. For example, each May, we lead National Women’s Health Week. Kicking off on Mother’s Day, May 8, the week serves as a reminder to women to put their health at the top of their to-do lists.
Do you feel it’s important for all women over age 18 to get an annual well-woman visit? If so, why?
Yes. One of the best ways to reduce your risk for illness and disease is to see your doctor or nurse before you get sick.
Think of the well-woman visit as a check in with your doctor. Together, you can assess where you are with your health and where you’d like to be. You can also discuss the preventive screenings and immunizations you need based on your age, health habits, risk factors, and family history. Preventive screenings, like those for breast, cervical, or colorectal cancer, can catch problems early, when they’re easiest to treat. And don’t forget to talk to your doctor about whether or not you want to get pregnant in the next year or so.
What is the leading cause of death among women today?
The top causes of death for women vary by age and race. However, heart disease, which is often thought of as a man’s disease, is actually the leading cause of death for women in the United States. In fact, it kills more women than all cancers combined. To put it in perspective: One in 4 women in the United States dies of heart disease every year, while 1 in 30 dies of breast cancer. Too often, women don’t realize they’re at risk for heart disease, or they may not recognize the symptoms of a heart attack. When you picture a heart attack, you probably picture someone clutching their chest and falling to the ground. In reality, a heart attack may be much harder to spot, especially in women. A woman may feel a heavy pressure on her chest, severe shortness of breath, cold sweats, dizziness or light-headedness, or sharp pain in the neck, back, or jaw. If a woman experiences any of these symptoms, she should call 911 immediately.
Are there other preventive measures and/or screenings that you’d recommend to women who want to make their health a priority?
Yes, there are simple steps all women can take for better health, no matter their age or stage in life. I encourage all women to:
- Get active for at least 30 minutes most days of the week. If that seems like a lot, try breaking it down into 10-minute chunks. Go for a brisk walk at lunchtime, run during your child’s sport practice, or take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Eat healthy. Making smart food choices isn’t always easy, but making small changes can make a big difference. For example, swap white bread for whole-grain bread, or white rice for brown rice. Instead of fruit-flavored snacks, choose whole fruits like apples or oranges. Avoid processed foods containing lots of additives that you have never heard of. Treat yourself to sweets in moderation.
- Pay attention to your mental health. This includes getting enough sleep, managing stress in healthy ways, and taking time for you. Women are expert multitaskers, but sometimes we need to slow down and take some “me” time. Think of it as an order from your doctor because your mental health is just as important as your physical health. If you need extra help managing your mental health, that’s okay. Talk to your doctor about any mental health concerns you may have.
- Avoid unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, texting while driving, and not wearing a seatbelt or bicycle helmet. If you smoke, quitting is the best thing you can do for your health and the health of those around you. Quitting is hard, but if you develop a quit plan, you’ll be prepared when things get tough. You can also talk with your doctor to get tobacco intervention and counseling services, covered at no cost to you under the Affordable Care Act.
For more ideas on how women can prioritize their health, visit womenshealth.gov/nwhw.