Baby Boomer Women Hardest Hit By Pelvic Health Conditions

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Pelvic Health Conditions

At least one-third of all women (about 35 million) will be treated for a pelvic health condition by the age of 60, with the onset of these conditions highest among Baby Boomers.

Researchers estimate that even more women are affected but silently suffer. Their reluctance to consult a physician is attributed to lack of education and stigma associated with the conditions.

"Women learn about periods, pregnancy and menopause but are unprepared for what happens in between. The fact is, pelvic health conditions can happen at any age, particularly after a woman's had a baby," explained Elizabeth Battaglino Cahill, RN, executive director of the not-for-profit NWHRC.

The D.C.-based health and human services consulting firm, The Lewin Group, looked at four pelvic health conditions: menorrhagia (heavy menstrual bleeding), uterine fibroids, stress urinary incontinence (SUI) and pelvic organ prolapse (POP) for the report. At least one-third of all Baby Boomers (13.5 million) are affected by heavy periods and SUI. Forty percent of women over 40 are affected by POP. By age 50, 80 percent of African American and 70 percent of Caucasian women have developed fibroids.

"We think the sheer magnitude of how many Baby Boomer women are affected matters because such a large group will have the power to set new expectations for pelvic health, driving more women to seek treatment," said Cahill. "Think back to when the default treatment for breast cancer was a total mastectomy. Those rates have dramatically declined primarily because women advocated for more minimally invasive treatment options. The same needs to be true for pelvic health."

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Pelvic health conditions can be uncomfortable, painful and embarrassing, and have a significant impact on everyday quality of life. Symptoms range from sexual dysfunction to abdominal pain and pressure, complications with fertility and pregnancy, anemia, low self-esteem and depression.

The report indicates these conditions can be traced to a variety of factors - most commonly, pregnancy and childbirth or genetic factors - but maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle can help, and understanding the risks, symptoms and treatment options is a woman's first step in getting back to a healthy lifestyle if she does experience a pelvic condition.

"What I find most unsettling is that women are often under- or misdiagnosed for these conditions because they are hesitant to talk to their doctors," said Dr. Pamela Peeke, medical advisor for the NWHRC. "The findings of this report really stress the need for raising awareness about pelvic health."

In fact, the report revealed that 50-75 percent of women who likely have SUI don't tell their physician about their symptoms, and only 10-20 percent of women with POP seek medical care, because they don't know their symptoms are abnormal or they are too embarrassed to ask. As a result, they are never diagnosed and treated.

Treatment varies by patient and should depend on the severity of the condition and how it affects a woman's life. The choice of treatment also depends on whether a woman wants to have children. Treatments can include pelvic floor exercises, medications, minimally invasive procedures like endometrial ablation for heavy periods and sling procedures for SUI.

A key finding in the report showed the rate of hysterectomy (about 600,000 per year) has essentially remained constant for 25 years, and fibroids and menorrhagia are the leading indications for hysterectomy (representing 44 percent of all procedures in 2005), despite the availability of less invasive treatments that are associated with less pain and a quicker return to normal activities.

According to the NWHRC, women will feel more empowered to ask about alternative treatments to hysterectomy when they have access to reliable information.

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