By:

Gretta Stone

We’re in the golden age of biomedical progress, and yet women’s health still presents many mysteries to the scientific community. The challenge often begins at the level of basic research where, in the name of reducing variables such as hormone cycles, most labs only study male animals.

Although women are more than half the population, women’s health is considered a niche area by investors. In 2018, funding for women’s health startups hit a record $500 million—a great milestone, but still just about 2% of the $26 billion that health care startups raised overall.

A seminal report in 2001 by the Institute of Medicine (now National Academy of Medicine) found that the research community had historically assumed that beyond the reproductive system, cellular and molecular differences between the sexes “do not exist or are not relevant.” Despite this historical trend, the study found that every cell in the body has a sex--and also found overwhelming evidence of differences between the sexes throughout their lifespans.

The Society for Women’s Health Research (SWHR) has been a critical voice on these issues, pointing out how women and men differ in Alzheimer’s disease, migraine, and even sleep. Women and men differ in small and large ways, for example:

  • Women tend to wake up from anesthesia more quickly than men--an average of 7 minutes for women and 11 minutes for men.
  • Women are more likely than men to suffer a second heart attack within one year of their first heart attack.
  • Just as women have stronger immune systems to protect them from disease, women are more likely to get autoimmune diseases (diseases where the body attacks its own tissues) such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma and multiple sclerosis.
  • Depression is 2-3 times more common in women than in men, in part because women’s brains make less of the hormone serotonin.

Tonight, SWHR will celebrate progress in understanding and treating women at their Annual Awards Dinner. I will be there as a proud member of their board, cheering on the leaders who are working to deliver on the promise of this golden age of biomedical innovation for everyone.

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