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For too many years, medical researchers neglected women’s health. The problem grew partly from practical considerations: Researchers were scared to test new drugs on women who might get pregnant midtrial. But it also came from false assumptions and ignorance: Until recently, most doctors didn’t realize that men and women experience many diseases differently. Women are more prone to osteoporosis, immune disorders, eating disorders, breast cancer, and depression. In women, the tiny arteries are more likely to clog; in men, the big arteries clog more often. Women report more incidents of pain, and their bodies are less able to tolerate alcohol.
“When we think of women’s health, we often think about childbirth,” says Dr. Teresa Woodruff, an obstetrician-gynecologist who is the founder and director of the Institute for Women’s Health Research at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “That’s not negative. Birthing is a major part of women’s lives, and it is a major health risk, even in 2010.”
But without giving maternal health short shrift, she says, it’s critical to appreciate how the biology of sex differences exists outside of reproduction. Nearly two years ago, Woodruff started the Illinois Women’s Health Registry, designed for women to self-report medical data. Using the registry, investigators can recruit women who are good matches for clinical studies. So far 5,000 women have signed up.
The Institute for Women’s Health Research is just one of the projects and studies under way in Chicago to help bring new treatments and preventive care to women.
In the links below, based on interviews with dozens of doctors, researchers, patients, and others involved in women’s health care, we examine some of the most common ailments afflicting women and discuss some of the initiatives taking place here.
“Chicago is really the epicenter of the new wave of women’s health research,” says Woodruff.
HEART DISEASE | FERTILITY | PREGNANCY | BREAST AND OVARIAN CANCER
CERVICAL AND ENDOMETRIAL CANCER | OSTEOPOROSIS
HEADACHES, MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS, AND OTHER NEUROLOGIC DISORDERS | DEPRESSION
EATING DISORDERS | INCONTINENCE | IMMUNE DISORDERS | SLEEP DISORDERS
Photograph: Caroline Mollov/Moodboard/Corbis