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Better Research Leads to Strides in Women's Health

Report: Progress in Research Cuts Death Rates for Breast Cancer, Cervical Cancer, and Heart Disease in Women

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 23, 2010 -- Better research in the past 20 years has led to lower death rates from breast cancer, heart disease, and cervical cancer. But little progress has been made in other conditions that affect women, including autoimmune diseases such as lupus, lung cancer, and Alzheimer's disease, according to a new report on the state of women's health research, issued by the Institute of Medicine.

Other areas where some gains were made in the past two decades include depression, HIV/AIDS, and osteoporosis in women, according to the report.

“By and large, it's quite positive and we are quite encouraged,” says report author Nancy E. Adler, PhD, professor of medical psychology and director of the Center for Health and Community at the University of California, San Francisco. “The progress is substantial, the pitfalls are that we haven't reached all women and health conditions yet, and the promise is that we can do better.”

In particular, she says, “these benefits have not been seen in all conditions, and women who experience social disadvantages as a result of race/ethnicity, low education, or low income levels have not benefited as much,” she tells WebMD.

Targeted initiatives should focus on groups of women where the burden of diseases is the greatest, she says.

Now that women are being included in clinical trials, the results of these studies must be analyzed to reflect sex differences, she says.

“It's not enough, if you don't analyze the results separately to know if a drug or device works as well in women as it does in men,” she says.

“The National Institutes of Health should also require journal editors to publish sex stratification of results so that we know if drugs and/or devices are as effective for women as men,” she says. “Women were about 20% of the sample in some trials of new drugs for cardiovascular disease, but without sex-specific analyses, we don't know if they are really benefiting from the drug,” she says.

One of the greatest accomplishments in women's health research has been the cervical cancer vaccine, says Marietta Anthony PhD, director of Women's Health at the Critical Path Institute in Rockville, Md. Anthony served on the committee that authored the new report.

“The cervical cancer vaccine is a total breakthrough,” she said in a podcast.

“In this case, there was an association between a virus and a cancer, and we have a vaccine acting to prevent infection and this gives us the ability to change the incidence of cervical cancer all over the world,” she says.

“Research really has made tremendous progress, but there are other areas such as maternal mortality that we would really like to see improvement in,” she says.

SOURCES: Department of Health and Human Services: Women's Health Research: Progress, Pitfalls and Promise."Nancy E. Adler, PhD, professor, medical psychology; director, Center for Health and Community, University of California, San Francisco.Marietta Anthony PhD, director, Women's Health, Critical Path Institute, Rockville, Md.

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