The Picture Of Health

It's all about choices and change. In the past decade, advances in medical science have given women opportunities our great-grandmothers never dreamed of. A baby girl born today can reasonably expect to be active and vigorous well into her 80s and beyond. Her sisters, her mother--and even her grandmother--can make informed decisions that enable them to take charge of their own good health. Their choices can be as simple as setting aside time for a brisk 30-minute walk several times a week and revamping their diet to include more fruits and vegetables. Or they can be as mind-boggling as the reproductive technology that now allows once infertile women to bear healthy babies and the genetic crystal ball that enables doctors to predict which women are at highest risk for breast cancer.

And this is just the beginning. In the next few decades, scientists will undoubtedly make many breakthroughs that will have a profound effect on all of us. Research into women's health--once virtually nonexistent--is now in full swing at prestigious medical centers around the country, thanks to a major National Institutes of Health study. Designed in 1991 as the largest clinical study ever undertaken anywhere, the Women's Health Initiative has enrolled more than 160,000 women who are sharing their experiences in an unprecedented effort to broaden our understanding of the physiological and psychological differences between women and men. Other scientists are exploring everything from 3-D imaging for studying malignant tumors to the delicate balance of hormones and chemicals that affect women's minds and moods. These scientists are discovering new ways to read our bodies and our brains; our challenge will be to make the best use of the knowledge they give us.

This new era of optimism and opportunity is reflected in a special NEWSWEEK Poll conducted for this issue. Women around the country indicated that they felt good about their overall health and the choices available to them. Many said they are eager to lower their odds of becoming ill by working out and losing weight. These women understand why their efforts make a difference. Nearly two thirds of those who exercise at least three times a week say they are in very good or excellent health, compared with only 43 percent of those who exercise less often. Women have also learned the importance of regular checkups and early detection for diseases. Sixty-eight percent of all women have a yearly gynecologic checkup, and 63 percent of women over 50 have a mammogram every year. Two thirds of all women say that they would take genetic tests if they were available to find out their risks of inherited diseases. And more and more women are trying nontraditional approaches to health, using meditation and massage to reduce stress, experimenting with changes in diet to reduce symptoms of menopause and turning to acupuncture for back pain.

But there is still much work to be done. Despite all the publicity about breast cancer, it is not the biggest threat to American women's good health. That unhappy distinction goes to cardiovascular disease, which kills more women than the next 16 causes of death combined, according to the American Heart Association. Doctors say that if current patterns continue, a third of all women under 40 will develop heart disease during their lifetime. The big culprits here: unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles. Although most overweight women say they are trying to shed their extra pounds, many will fail because they rely on "quick fix" diets--liquid meals or grapefruit six times a day--that don't really reverse a lifetime of bad habits. The high failure rate is alarming not only because roller-coaster dieting is dangerous in itself but also because overweight women are at much higher risk for other conditions like arthritis and diabetes.

Lung cancer is another leading killer of women, claiming far more lives than either breast or colon cancer. That should be especially disturbing because the percentage of teenage girls who smoke is alarmingly high, despite years of intense publicity about the dangers of cigarettes.

It's easy to be discouraged by the bad news, but it's important to remember that the overall picture that emerges from these sometimes conflicting trends is ultimately heartening. Women of all ages and backgrounds are embracing the opportunities offered by both state-of-the-art technology and old-fashioned rules of good health. They're trying to educate their daughters because good habits should start as early as possible. For mothers, daughters--and grandmothers, too--the future should look bright and healthy.