women’s health

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Caution: ‘Acceptable’ Black Women’s Hairstyles May Harm Health

(U.S. Army)

(U.S. Army)

This spring, the Pentagon issued Army Regulation 670-1, which included bans on several hairstyles worn mainly by black women, including twists and multiple braids. After a major backlash that included accusations of racial bias, that grooming policy is now under review. Here, researchers at the Connors Center for Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital argue that this is more than an issue of racial fairness; it could also cause harm to women’s health — and disproportionately impact black women, whose life expectancy is already five years less than white women’s.

By Tamarra James-Todd and Therese Fitzgerald
Guest contributors

We are encouraged by the news that the Pentagon is reviewing the Army’s grooming policy, Army Regulation 670-1, which many deemed to be racially biased because it banned hairstyles worn primarily by black women.

Such policies set unreasonable standards for what is appropriate or acceptable in our society, and promote the idea that natural “black” hair is somehow inappropriate and unacceptable.

But perhaps most disturbing is the growing evidence that the process involved in straightening curly hair and maintaining acceptable hairstyles is harmful to women’s health, disproportionately affecting black women and making the pervasive practice of banning “black” hair styles a major health equity issue.

Nearly half of black women and girls use hair products that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals compared to just 8 percent of whites.

The military’s previous position on this reflects a precedent that unfortunately continues to exist in corporate and private sector settings throughout the country. Labeled as “grooming” issues, companies have fired employees for wearing dreadlocks and a private school in Orlando, Florida, threatened to expel a young girl if she refused to straighten or cut her natural black hair.

The public discourse around these biased policies should not only focus on the racism they perpetuate but also on the potential harmful health outcomes and health disparities they may leave in their wake now and for future generations.

In order to conform to the standards of appearance that these policies demand, black women and girls are often encouraged to straighten or otherwise change the texture of their natural “black” hair. Unfortunately, many of the hair relaxers, oils, creams and other products used to straighten or alter curly hair contain synthetic chemicals that disrupt the normal functioning of the human body’s endocrine system, which regulates and secretes hormones.

Based on hair product labels, nearly half (49 percent) of black women and girls use hair products that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals compared to just 8 percent of whites, which could leave blacks with higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies compared to whites.

For example, phthalates, a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in hair products, are known to be found at higher levels in blacks than whites. Research led by Dr. Tamarra James-Todd at the Connors Center for Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has revealed that higher phthalate levels are associated with a variety of poor health outcomes that disproportionately impact black women and girls including:

Type 2 diabetes, a condition twice as common among black women compared to white women, as well as insulin resistance and other associated conditions. Continue reading

AP: Supreme Court Strikes Down Buffer Zone For Abortion Clinics

(Update from the AP: “Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office argued before the justices to keep the 35-foot zone, did not immediately say whether officials would seek to create a different buffer zone or take some other steps. But she said the ruling appeared to leave open other alternatives and called on lawmakers to act quickly.

“Every day that we don’t change the rules and make it safer for people to get access, people are put at risk,” said Coakley, a Democratic candidate for governor.

Senate President Therese Murray, D-Plymouth, said she expected lawmakers to act before the July 31 end of the legislative session, but would not speculate on what changes might be sought.”)

The AP reports that the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down a 35-foot protest-free zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts (read the court’s “slip opinion” here). We’ll update the news and add reactions as they come in, but for now, here’s the Associated Press, with reactions below:

The justices were unanimous in ruling that extending a buffer zone 35 feet from clinic entrances violates the First Amendment rights of protesters.

Chief Justice John Roberts said authorities have less intrusive ways to deal with problems outside the clinics.

While the court was unanimous in the outcome, Roberts joined with the four liberal justices to strike down the buffer zone on narrow grounds. In a separate opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized Roberts’ opinion for carrying forward “this court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents.”

The case began when Boston-area grandmother Eleanor McCullen and other abortion opponents sued over the limits on their activities at Planned Parenthood health centers in Boston, Springfield and Worcester. At the latter two sites, the protesters say they have little chance of reaching patients arriving by car because they must stay 35 feet from the entrance to those buildings’ parking lots.

Planned Parenthood provides health exams for women, cancer screenings, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and abortions at its clinics.

The organization said that the buffer zone has significantly reduced the harassment of patients and clinic employees. Before the 35-foot zone went into effect in 2007, protesters could stand next to the entrances and force patients to squeeze by, Planned Parenthood said. Continue reading

Good News-Bad News On PMS and Menopause

Young women, take heart: if you are among the vast majority of us who suffer from PMS —  the irritability, anxiety, headaches, breast tenderness, or bloating — it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to suffer from hot flashes when you hit menopause.

But don’t go out and celebrate just yet.

Because this is a good news/bad news kind of report:

pixel pro photography/flickr

pixel pro photography/flickr

The Good: Researchers found no connection between having a history of PMS and then experiencing hot flashes during menopause.

The Bad: They did find a connection between PMS and other seriously annoying problems shortly after menopause —  including impaired memory and concentration, poor sleep and depression.

Oh well.

The study of 150 recently menopausal woman published in the journal Menopause, claims its findings — linking a history of PMS with worsened so-called “health-related quality of life” measures, but not with hot flashes — are “novel.”

Here’s more on the mechanics of the connection, from the study:

The resemblance between premenstrual and menopausal symptoms raises a question on whether they also share similar physiological characteristics. One mechanism that has been suggested to contribute to premenstrual symptoms is deficiency in, or abnormal functioning of, neurotransmitters in the central nervous system, Continue reading

WSJ: Women At Risk, Doctors Split On Procedure Linked To Rare Cancer

Here’s another excellent Wall Street Journal report on the controversial procedure known as “morcellation.”  Reporter Jennifer Levitz notes that even after the FDA issued a warning on the practice (which involves a “laparoscopic power morcellator” that allows for less invasive surgery to remove fibroids by slicing them up, but can also potentially spread a rare type of cancer through the body) doctors are split on how to proceed.

According to the report:

The FDA said women undergoing surgery for what look like benign fibroids actually have a 1 in 350 risk of hosting an undetected cancer called a uterine sarcoma. Morcellating these tumors can spread cancerous tissue internally and significantly worsen the odds of long-term survival, the agency said.

So what are women to do when the medical community itself is divided? From the WSJ:

(wikimedia commons)

(wikimedia commons)

A number of doctors believe the FDA overreached, and think the cancer risk is so small that gynecologists can go an entire career without seeing a case. Others call the advisory a necessary precaution.

Hospitals and private practices are taking an array of approaches. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center system, which has more than 50 obstetrics and gynecology practices, opted to continue using the device.

The medical system changed its informed-consent forms to include wording on cancer risk and told doctors to discuss the risk with patients. But Allen Hogge, chairman of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences there, questioned the data behind the FDA’s estimate. The FDA began looking at the issue after media reports late last year about a prominent Boston doctor who discovered she had sarcoma after morcellation.

“I think this is mostly public relations and not science,” Dr. Hogge said. In response, the FDA said it conducted a rigorous analysis of published literature.

The common practice of morcellation, which is often used for hysterectomies, came under fire when Dr. Hooman Noorchashm, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and his wife, Dr. Amy Reed, an anesthesiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center launched a publicity campaign aimed at stopping the procedure, Continue reading

A Victory For Women And Medical Research

The New York Times reports that a pair of influential scientists are calling for an end to gender bias in medical research, starting with a warning that researchers must “begin testing their theories in female lab animals and in female tissues and cells.”

From the article:

Name a new drug or treatment, and odds are researchers know far more about its effect on men than on women. From sleeping pills to statins, women have been blindsided by side effects and dosage miscalculations that were not discovered until after the product hit the market.

Now the National Institutes of Health says that this routine gender bias in basic research must end.

In a commentary published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the N.I.H., and Dr. Janine A. Clayton, director of the institutes’ Office of Research on Women’s Health, warned scientists that they must begin testing their theories in female lab animals and in female tissues and cells.

The N.I.H. has already taken researchers to task for their failure to include adequate numbers of women in clinical trials. The new announcement is an acknowledgment that this gender disparity begins much earlier in the research process.

“Most scientists want to do the most powerful experiment to get the most durable, powerful answers,” Dr. Collins said in an interview. “For most, this has not been on the radar screen as an important issue. What we’re trying to do here is raise consciousness.”

Women now make up more than half the participants in clinical research funded by the institutes, but it has taken years to get to this point, and women still are often underrepresented in clinical trials carried out by drug companies and medical device manufacturers.

Dr. Paula Johnson (courtesy)

Dr. Paula Johnson (courtesy)

Score a point for Dr. Paula Johnson, executive director of the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology
and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Johnson, earlier this year, led a coalition of doctors, policymakers and others calling for an overhaul of clinical trials and medical research to address the gender gap.

I asked Johnson for her take on the new NIH stance, and she offered this update:

In March of 2014, the National Policy Summit on Women’s Health brought together policymakers, practitioners, advocates and academics who, for the first time, gathered specifically on the issue of sex and gender inequity in biomedical science. For discussion was a new report, “Sex Specific Medical Research: Why Women’s Health Can’t Wait.” Continue reading

Consumer Advocates: FDA’s Action On Vaginal Mesh ‘Too Little Too Late’

Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group that years ago called for tighter restrictions on a type of surgical mesh used to treat pelvic organ prolapse, called the FDA’s latest proposal to increase oversight on the products “troubling both in its scope and timing.”

The group said in a statement that the government agency waited too long to act and that its recommendations may still put women at risk.

Here’s the full statement from Public Citizen’s Health Research Group Director Michael Carome on the FDA’s latest proposal:

Public Citizen welcomes…[the] long-overdue issuance of a proposed order by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that, if finalized, would reclassify surgical mesh for transvaginal pelvic repair organ prolapse (POP) from a moderate-risk device (class II) to a high-risk device (class III). This would subject these devices to a more rigorous approval process that would require manufacturers to submit to the agency premarket approval applications with evidence from clinical trials that the devices are safe and effective. Such an order would implement one of three actions requested in Public Citizen’s August 25, 2011, petition to the FDA, which also requested an immediate ban and recall of all such devices currently on the market.

(wikimedia commons)

(wikimedia commons)

However, the FDA’s action today is troubling both in its scope and timing. First, the agency acknowledged that the safety and effectiveness of surgical mesh for transvaginal repair of POP has not been established and that these devices frequently cause serious adverse events. But the agency has taken no action to immediately remove currently available products from the market, as we requested in our petition, or to warn physicians and patients to stop using these devices.

Second, it is disturbing that the agency has taken so long to begin the regulatory process to reclassify surgical mesh for transvaginal repair of POP Continue reading

FDA Proposes New Restrictions To Address ‘Health Risks’ Of Vaginal Mesh

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today proposed strict new regulations to address the “clear risks” associated with surgical mesh used to treat vaginal prolapse in women.

Specifically, federal regulators want to reclassify surgical mesh as a “high-risk” medical device (it’s now in the “moderate-risk” category) and also impose more requirements on manufacturers in which they must demonstrate that the device is safe and effective.

The risks and health problems related to this type of surgical mesh, which we’ve detailed here, include infections and nerve damage that can occur when the material erodes through the vaginal lining, as well as excruciating pain, the inability to sit down or urinate without a catheter, multiple hospitalizations and an end to a women’s sex life.

Here’s the full FDA news release:

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today issued two proposed orders to address the health risks associated with surgical mesh used for transvaginal repair of pelvic organ prolapse (POP). If finalized, the orders would reclassify surgical mesh for transvaginal POP from a moderate-risk device (class II) to a high-risk device (class III) and require manufacturers to submit a premarket approval (PMA) application for the agency to evaluate safety and effectiveness.

POP occurs when the internal structures that support the pelvic organs such as the bladder, uterus and bowel, become so weak, stretched, or broken that the organs drop from their normal position and bulge (prolapse) into the vagina. While not a life-threatening condition, women with POP often experience pelvic discomfort, disruption of their sexual, urinary, and defecatory functions, and an overall reduction in their quality of life.

“The FDA has identified clear risks associated with surgical mesh for the transvaginal repair of pelvic organ prolapse and is now proposing to address those risks for more safe and effective products,” said William Maisel, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director of science and chief scientist at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. “If these proposals are finalized, we will require manufacturers to provide premarket clinical data to demonstrate a reasonable assurance of safety and effectiveness for surgical mesh used to treat transvaginal POP repair.” Continue reading

The Grandma Effect: A Little Caregiving Sharpens Brain, A Lot Dulls It

(Douglas/flickr)

(Douglas/flickr)

There’s an old saying in medicine: “The dose makes the poison.”

Personally, I find the adage holds true in many contexts, from nutrition to exercise to parenting: often too much of a good thing turns toxic.

Here’s the latest twist: A new report finds that grandmothers who care for their grandkids once a week experience a boost in mental sharpness. But if that one day of cozy caregiving expands to five or more days a week, it can put grandma on edge, and her brain can grow duller, with more memory and other cognitive problems.

Here’s what the researchers conclude, from the abstract:

The data suggest that the highest cognitive performance is demonstrated by postmenopausal women who spend 1 day/week minding grandchildren; however, minding grandchildren for 5 days or more per week predicts lower working memory performance and processing speed. These results indicate that highly frequent grandparenting predicts lower cognitive performance.

And here’s more info on the study (via news release) published online in the journal Menopause:

Taking care of grandkids one day a week helps keep grandmothers mentally sharp, finds a study from the Women’s Healthy Aging Project study in Australia…That’s good news for women after menopause, when women need to lower their risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders.

On the other hand, taking care of grandchildren five days a week or more had some negative effects on tests of mental sharpness. “We know that older women who are socially engaged have better cognitive function and a lower risk of developing dementia later, but too much of a good thing just might be bad,” said NAMS Executive Director Margery Gass, MD. Continue reading

Women’s Anal Sex More Common And Still Taboo, Says Researcher

Sexual health researcher Debby Herbenick often says what the rest of us are merely just silently, sheepishly thinking.

A few years back, Herbenick, a researcher at Indiana University, co-director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion, and a sexual health educator at the Kinsey Institute, raised the issue of pain during sex based on her landmark study of sex in the U.S. And here she is again, discussing the pros, cons and surprising new data on women and anal sex in America.

It’s worth reading her full report at Salon, titled Anal Sex: Science’s Last Taboo, but here’s a snippet:

That anal sex remains taboo may explain why a study about anodyspareunia – that is, pain during anal penetration – received little attention when it was published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. The study should have turned heads: It was the first research on anodyspareunia among women; it was conducted by a well-respected scientist (Dr. Aleksander Stulhofer from the University of Zagreb); and it was centered on young women and sex. That’s often the kind of research that attracts media attention (Young women sext! They get pregnant! They give oral sex! You get the picture …). However, anal sex remains such a strong taboo that this otherwise important study barely turned a head.

younglove

Except it did turn mine. Here’s why. In an incredibly short period of time, anal sex has become a common part of Americans’ sex lives. As of the 1990s, only about one-quarter to one-third of young women and men in the U.S. had tried anal sex at least once. Less than 20 years later, my research team’s 2009 National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior found that as many as 40-45 percent of women and men in some age groups had tried anal sex. With its rising prevalence, I felt it was important to devote a chapter of my first book, “Because It Feels Good,” to anal health and pleasure — only to find that a magazine editor wouldn’t review it because the topic of anal sex was “not in the best interest of our readership.” Even though nearly half of American women in some age groups have done it! She added, “In the correct circles, I personally will be suggesting the book to those with whom I can share such a resource.”

Hmm. The correct circles. Which ones would those be? The ones where scores and scores of women openly sit around talking about anal sex between glasses of wine? Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today, Moms: For The Kids, Of Course

mikebaird/flickr

mikebaird/flickr

My 11-year-old daughter recently asked if she could take a hot yoga class with me. My first reaction was negative: it’s too hot, it’s not “fun” and it’s one of the few things I do that’s truly mine — 90 minutes in which I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s needs.

Of course, I said yes. And I’m glad I did. She made it through class, and was totally into it (though she wished there’d been more “tricks” and less pose-holding).

“That was great, Mom,” she said afterwards. “When’s the next class?” And whether she becomes a yoga fan or not, I consider those 90 minutes to be a small gift: another way for me to show her how strong and able a body can be, and how good it feels. It doesn’t much matter if it’s yoga or running or swimming or playing ultimate frisbee — our kids are clearly taking their physical activity cues from us.

A new study out of the U.K. confirms this: researchers report that physical activity levels in mothers and their pre-school kids are directly associated. The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, suggests that interventions to promote more physical activity among mothers (who, understandably, are often exhausted, harried and not great at fitting exercise into busy, kid-filled days) might also benefit their young children.

Here’s some of NPR’s report on the study of 554 mothers and their kids:

Mothers’ increased physical activity boosted children’s moderate and vigorous activity overall…

It’s not entirely clear whether it’s the mother’s activity that influences her child’s, or if mothers are more active because they’re busy keeping up with a playful child, says Esther van Sluijs, a behavioral epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and the study’s lead author.

But busy mothers don’t have to drop all other priorities to play with their children all day. Van Sluijs says just small changes – walking to the park instead of driving or playing a good game of tag instead of a board game – can make a difference. Continue reading