Many people hold misconceptions about women’s health that can get in the way of appropriate prevention, treatment, and support. To combat this, it's essential that we set aside preconceptions and misinformation, and instead prioritize evidence-based facts regarding women’s health. Here we debunk several common myths surrounding women’s health and offer practical information to support the well-being and long term health of females.
Please be aware that the words female, women, and mother in this article refer to people with female reproductive organs and/or those assigned female at birth.
Myth 1: ~50% of subjects in research studies are female
While there can be significant physiological differences between men and women regarding the presentation of disease symptoms and clinical outcomes to treatment, women have been chronically under-researched compared to their male counterparts. Historically, females have been actively excluded from research and were only first mandated to be included in clinical trials by the FDA in 1992. According to the US Government Accountability Office, eight out of ten of the drugs removed from the US market between 1997 and 2000 were done so due to side effects that primarily or exclusively affected women. According to Nature, between 2004 and 2013, women in the US experienced 2 million drug-related events compared with just 1.3 million for men.
The prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of conditions that affect women have improved substantially over the past 10 years. However, there are still barriers including study design, social stigma, and ignorance that need to be addressed for women’s health research to continue to advance.
Myth 2: Women aren’t really at risk of heart disease
While it is true that men have an overall higher risk of heart disease compared to women, coronary artery disease is still the leading cause of death for women in the US and the UK, and kills more than twice as many women as breast cancer. Research at the British Heart Foundation shows that correct diagnoses, appropriate medical intervention, and survival rates are all lower for women who experience a cardiac event.
It is really important for women to stay active and know the signs that put them at risk of a heart attack such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, preeclampsia, and being overweight.
Myth 3: Pap smears test for STIs
The Pap smear (short for Papanicolaou smear) is designed to test for cervical cancer, not sexually transmitted infections. Cervical screening tests help prevent cervical cancer by swabbing the cervix (lower part of the uterus) and checking the sample for abnormal cells or sometimes for an infection with the virus HPV. Although HPV is an STI, it’s the only one tested since it is the only STI that can lead to cervical cancer.
It is important for women to be honest and open about their sexual history with their doctor to ensure that they are appropriately tested and supported for other STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, and herpes. Additionally, all women over the age of 21 should regularly get a pap smear, even if they are not sexually active.
Myth 4: Breast cancer primarily runs in families
Most breast cancers are not inherited and only a small number of people have an increased risk of developing it because of a substantial family history. This means that if you have a relative with breast cancer, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more likely to develop it. In fact, according to Cancer Research UK, about 90% of women with breast cancer have no family history of it. As a result, women should regularly check themselves for lumps or changes in their breasts, and start getting mammogram tests (breast screening) every few years once they reach age fifty (now age forty in some countries).
Myth 5: Cranberry juice cures urinary tract infections
UTIs affect both men and women, however they are far more common for women and many are surprised to hear that minimal research shows that cranberry juice is an effective treatment. Long-term use of highly concentrated cranberry extracts may improve some symptoms and recurrence of UTIs, however drinking cranberry juice should not substitute a visit to the doctor for people experiencing UTI symptoms such as frequent trips to the bathroom, a sensitive urinary tract, or pain in the lower abdomen. Untreated UTIs may spread to the kidney which can lead to blood infection and even sepsis, so it’s crucial to speak to a doctor, nurse, or pharmacist if symptoms persist.
Myth 6: Thin means healthy
Oftentime, thinness is equated to health, however increasing research shows that health depends more on what we eat and how well we manage stress than the number on the scale. The key distinction here is that prioritizing weight loss or thinness is not the same as prioritizing health. In fact, based on the Mental Health Foundation, improved body image has been shown to improve eating and movement habits, well-being, and long-term health, irrespective of body size.
Furthermore, negative body image and extreme dieting can lead to disordered eating which has long-lasting detrimental effects for an individual’s life and health. While disordered eating is a serious concern for both males and females, women are disproportionately likely to go to self-deprecating measures to try to achieve a thin body with more than two thirds of people with eating disorders being female. Additionally, a lean person may not be taking care of their health and may still carry genetic risk factors for developing conditions. Instead of idealizing our thinnest selves, our efforts are more proactive prioritizing nutritious food, an active lifestyle, and stress management.
Myth 7: Motherhood comes naturally to women
A 2022 survey of over 15,000 US adults found that 37% of women felt societal pressure to have children which was more than twice as much as men reported. Despite this, global fertility has been decreasing globally for over 50 years which has been attributed to a number of different factors including women’s empowerment in the workforce, lower child mortality, and increased cost to raise children.
It is often assumed that women have an innate knowledge and set of care-giving behaviours that are an automatic part of becoming or being a mother. However, what we think of as maternal instinct has largely been dispelled by researchers and perpetuating the idea that it is real makes parenting, and the choice to have children, even harder. In fact, according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, as many as one in five women experience mental illness during pregnancy or during the first year after birth. However, social support from family, friends, the community, and/or medical professionals has been proven to dramatically improve the healthy adjustment and functioning of postpartum women and families. Parenting is a challenge and we’re much better off letting go of unfair expectations on mothers and offering support instead.
There is a lot of misinformation around women’s health. This is the result of many factors including stigma, perpetuation of stereotypes, and a lack of funding and research, all of which need to be addressed to improve the health-span of the female population. We are moving in the right direction, but we have so much further to go, and it starts with you prioritizing your health and supporting the health of the women around you.