Last week, my colleague Scicurious sent out an email about the lack of quality health reporting in magazines aimed at women. She was particularly appalled by what she saw when she picked up a copy of Women's Health at the gym. I was also appalled, if not surprised, by the poor quality of the information, including the usual propaganda about vitamin supplements, the immune system, and sexual health.
The broadest view of the problem of media portrayal of women's health in the U.S. indicts our society's view of women. Media aimed at women focus on and magnify society's desire to see women cook better, look better, and fuck better. There is little quality reporting in popular magazines about the most common health problems women face.
Let's start by looking at what you believe kills people in the U.S., then we can look at the data (the observant reader will notice some interesting details about the poll templates, named "Thinking Woman" and "Thinking Man", respectively.)
The failure to communicate the real health problems facing women is not limited to popular media. Take this statement from the NIH:
Women and men have many of the same health problems, but they can affect women differently. For example, women may have different symptoms of heart disease. Some diseases or conditions are more common in women, such as osteoarthritis, obesity and depression. And some conditions, such as menopause and pregnancy, are unique to women.
Women sometimes neglect their own health and focus instead on their partner's and their children's. Take care of yourself first:
The first paragraph is certainly true. The second contains good advice, but leaves the impression that pregnancy and cancer are the most important health problems that women face (and that early detection is the most important intervention).
To understand more about the health of our population, we need to understand quantitatively what makes us ill (morbidity) and what kills us (mortality).
It's not easy to find a rank listing of the most common diseases in women, but condition-specific data are available. Smoking leads to heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. Around 18% of adult women in the US are smokers. Hypertension is usually without symptoms and leads to heart disease, stroke, blindness, and kidney failure. Thirty-three percent of US women have diagnosed hypertension. Nearly 25% of women surveyed in the U.S. reported violence from an intimate partner. About 9.5% of women in the US have diabetes, a disease which leads to heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney failure, and other serious problems.
How well did you do on the questions above? This table lists causes of death in the US by sex. Be careful in reading it as it is listed in rank order determined by male mortality, making it easy to confuse the rank order for women. For women, the top killers are heart disease, cancer, and stroke. For men, they are heart disease, stroke, and accidents.
The NIH landing page quoted above focuses on the wrong diseases. So do most of the health articles commonly seen in women's magazines. An effective message about women's health should include educating women as to what conditions are common and serious, and how to get proper screening and care. Hypertension and diabetes lead to premature disability and death, and the diagnosis and treatment of these diseases is relatively simple and inexpensive. Women in North America are not dying in large numbers due to vitamin supplement deficiencies, sexual inadequacy, or un-boosted immune systems. Obesity contributes to many of the diseases that affect men and women, and is an independent risk for premature death, but is not as potent a risk as smoking, untreated high blood pressure, or uncontrolled diabetes.
The focus of women's magazines is not to educate; it is to sell more magazines. But there is nothing wrong with holding them accountable for their skewed focus on cosmetic health, sexy diseases, and supplement articles that are thinly-veiled infomercials.