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Women, your stress may be killing you

I lost one of my favorite aunts in 2005. She was a beautiful 63-year-old woman who many would say looked younger than her years. She was slender, exercised regularly, never smoked, paid attention to healthy eating and was in a happy marriage for 40 years at the time of her death. She died from cancer, and although she was able to fight it for just under a year, it won the battle. My biological uncle, her husband, is still an active man in his early 80s and continues to enjoy good health.

Since her death I began to pay more attention to the cases I knew where women in happy marriages died before their husbands. Many of the causes of death were due to cancer, but sometimes they were related to chronic illnesses. There is a study that suggests that almost two-thirds of cancers are random, so maybe for these women it was just "bad luck." But I, along with some experts in the field of lifestyle medicine, do not agree with the conclusions of that study. Yes, I would readily agree that "bad luck" or randomness does play a role in developing cancer, but the debate remains: What is an accurate estimation of that role? Frankly I think that study grossly overestimates the effect of randomness.

So the question that came to my mind was: What was different about these women?

They already had good relationships, which according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development was the best predictor of a healthy, happy life. However this study was done in men, and the data for the women is not yet available.

In the case of my aunt and other women who passed years before their husbands, a few things I can say with certainty: They gave generously of themselves, they were in happy marriages, they were exposed to the same environmental factors as their spouses including: the food they ate, the location they lived, similar friendships and no cigarette use. But I know more about some of these women. For example, when they entertained, they did it to perfection — multiple entrees — and usually on their own. I vividly remember visiting my aunt for the last time while her cancer was in remission, she still ensured that I was properly fed at my visit, ironed my shirt to help me out of a clothing dilemma and ventured out to purchase thank you cards for her health care team. In the case of another friend of my mother's who passed before her husband, she regularly invited my parents for delicious meals, many of which she prepared on her own, and was very generous in the gifts she gave to my mother.

For many of us women we delight in seeing the gathering of friends and family around a meal, but the hours spent in preparation and the aftermath of cleaning up can be exhausting and significantly affect our ability to relax and our enjoyment of the event.

I am sure that for these women the stress was not limited to entertaining but was encountered in fulfilling other household and family demands even if it came at the expense of their own well-being.

A study of Italian centenarians suggested that female longevity is less dependent on genetics than male longevity. So my question is: Could psychological stress be playing a greater role in the adverse health outcomes for women than is currently realized, and, if so, what is being done to understand and alleviate it?

Fortunately more studies are focused on the effect of stress on health and well-being, and, with that, information on the health benefits of mindfulness and meditation have evolved. However data exclusively examining the long-term effects of stress on women's health are still lacking. It is my hope that researchers and scientists will rally to the cause.

In the meantime, this is what we already know: Feeling stressed feels awful. Societal expectations on women are tremendous. We are asked to deliver the same work or better than men and are paid less for the job. Our appearance in certain settings is heavily criticized if we are not "on point." Stay at home moms are often burdened with all household duties in addition to child care, and those who work outside the home have to tack many of those duties unto their day job.

My advice to all women is "cut yourself some slack" because the stress both literally and figuratively could be killing us.

Dr. Monique Rainford is a St. Agnes Healthcare obstetrician/gynecologist; her email is dr.moniquerainford@gmail.com; website: moniquerainford.com.

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