The Health Care Committee of the Amherst League of Women Voters brings a distinguished group of experts on women's health together for a forum March 12. Women of all ages won't want to miss a chance to hear presentations on subjects like nurturing sexual wellbeing after 60; barriers to healthcare for lesbians and the transgendered; what fancy tests or drugs you do not need; and other issues that affect life as we live it.
The event, which is free and open to the public, takes place at the Wesley United Church in Hadley. Registration begins at 9:30 a.m. Presentations end at 12:30 p.m. and a health fair follows. There will be time for attendees to continue discussions with the speakers of their choice in small group settings.
Why a forum on women's health? How is it different from men's?
The program leads off with an answer to that question by Katherine Reeves of the UMass School of Public Health's Division of Biostatistics and Epidemiology. In an era when women's drive to enter formerly male-dominated professions has led many to downplay physical differences between men and women, this presentation will remind listeners that health and gender, both physical phenomena, are, after all, related.
"Women experience numerous health conditions that men do not, such as pregnancy, menopause, cervical cancer and endometrial cancer," Reeves comments, pointing out that eating disorders and obesity are more common among women than among men. And, though women live longer than men, they are "far more likely to spend their later years with disabilities or in an institution."
Elizabeth R. Bertone-Johnson, an associate professor at the UMass School of Public Health, in 2006 got a grant of $868,857 from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institutes of Mental Health to study the effects of vitamin D on premenstrual syndrome. Bertone-Johnson will discuss recent studies evaluating the role of vitamin D in keeping at bay those familiar demons, osteoporosis, breast cancer and mood disorders.
How much exercise do you need? Also from the UMass School of Public Health, Dr. Erin Snook, an expert on the influence of exercise on conditions ranging from multiple sclerosis and dementia to colds, will speak on how much exercise you really have to get to see health benefits. Many women, says Snook, aren't getting enough.
Out of a stellar career fighting for justice in health care programs comes Arlene Ash, now a biostatistician at the UMass Medical School. In 1984, Ash worked with a team that devised the method Medicare still uses to create "risk contracts" for HMOs that prevent the HMOs from taking federal money and then cherry-picking healthy patients.
At the League forum, Ash will offer information that may be counterintuitive as she tackles such questions as, How much mammography is enough? What expensive new drugs do you not need? Ash promises to "defend the importance of research that clarifies tradeoffs and suggest that you should feel good about insurance coverage that doesn't pay for everything you might think you need."
An issue badly in need of discussion involves the special health needs of lesbian and transgender women. In many cases there is a significant disparity between their access to care and the access enjoyed by other women.
Physicians are often not cued in—in some cases, they are not receptive to information—about these women's medical histories, which means that they may be unaware of the enormous event a sex change has been in a patient's life. After that event, very special situations, such as transgendered women's use of cross-hormone therapy or silicone injection for feminization, require expert care when problems arise.
Access to appropriate mental health care is also vital for lesbian and transgender women, some of whom are disowned by their families and at risk for professional and social discrimination. The needs of these populations, and the difficulties they experience in seeking care, will be discussed by J. Mary Sorrell, director of Highland Valley Elder Services' Ombudsman Program.
The last presentation comes from a group many women have long depended on for health information on contemporary issues in a contemporary idiom: the Boston Women's Health Collective, which produced the Our Bodies, Ourselves books. Joan Ditzion, a founding member of the Collective and co-author of all nine editions of the books, will speak on Women Growing Older. Ditzion will discuss issues that "affect our health, social, emotional and sexual well-being and focus on our need to change the aging paradigm."
Massachusetts has a very good record on women's health, according to a recent report by the National Women's Law Center and Oregon Health Sciences University. The report gave Massachusetts and Vermont a "satisfactory minus" grade based on indices laid out in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Health People 2010 agenda (no state got a "satisfactory" grade this year).
But nationwide, though fewer women are dying from heart disease, stroke and breast and lung cancer, more are becoming obese; more suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes; and chlamydia and binge drinking are on the rise among women, the report says.
"Women's Health in the 21st Century: What We Need to Know," sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts. Saturday, March 12, 9:30 a.m., Wesley United Methodist Church, 98 North Maple Street, Hadley. Snow date April 2. A related program also sponsored by the League of Women Voters will take place at 9:30 a.m. March 5 at McPherson Hall in the Medical Arts Building, Metro West Medical Center-Framingham, with presentations on the impact of media on women's health; disparities in access and treatment; and mental health issues for women. For more information about both programs, see www.lwvma.org.