At the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Women’s Health Research Office 30th Anniversary Scientific Symposium, held on December 15, 2020, NIEHS Acting Deputy Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., and Senior Public Health Advisor John Balbus, MD, presented innovative results in environmental health .
As a member of the NIH Director’s Office, the Office of Women’s Health Research seeks to increase the relevance of medical research to the health of all women. He urges biomedical scientists to consider the potential influence of sex – being female or male – on health and disease.
Under the theme of the symposium, “Advancing Women’s Health Through Science,” a panel of leaders from six NIH institutes, including Collman, shared their perspectives on women’s health research.
Environment, timing, chemistry
“Different environmental factors are linked to many different outcomes in women’s health,” Collman said. In addition, women are more prone to the adverse health effects of certain environmental exposures at different stages of life. These stages include puberty, childbearing years, pregnancy and postpartum period, middle age and old age.
Collman spoke to the audience about the important associations between mixtures of environmental chemicals and health conditions. For example, air pollution from traffic can increase the risk of hypertension in a pregnant woman.
At all stages of life, endocrine disrupting chemicals, both natural and man-made, can disrupt health as they can mimic or interfere with hormones in the body. A leading study found that certain endocrine disrupting chemicals found in personal care products affected puberty in girls, but there was little evidence of such effects in boys.
Other NIH leaders have made important remarks about women’s health.
- Monica Webb Hooper, Ph.D., deputy director of the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Disparities, explained that differences in life expectancy are a primary reason for examining gender differences in health research. In different racial groups, women tend to live longer than men.
- Helene Langevin, MD, director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, noted that complementary health approaches are used more frequently by women than by men. Women use these approaches for overall health and wellness, as well as for specific conditions such as pain management.
- Norman Sharpless, MD, director of the National Cancer Institute, described significant gender differences in the mechanisms of cancer development. For example, estrogen is linked to a higher rate of thyroid cancer in women. In people who have never smoked, lung cancer affects more women than men.
- Diana Bianchi, MD, director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, discussed key knowledge gaps in menstrual biology and health. Menstrual health Studies provide answers to essential questions about menstrual irregularities and how to treat them.
- Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, revealed that brain imaging of opioid users reveals striking structural differences between men and women. The significant gender differences in substance use disorders need to be addressed.
Environmental health and climate
Balbus discussed the history of environmental health and women’s health research, as well as climate change.
“As we try to understand the effects of climate change on women’s health, the broader social and environmental context must also be taken into account,” he said. One example is extreme heat, which can lead to adverse reproductive outcomes for women.
Climate-related disasters can also lead to disproportionate mortality among women. Contributing factors may be related to bodily function, such as higher rates of dietary deficiency, and socio-economic conditions, such as a greater number of women living in poverty.
(Carol Kelly is editor-in-chief of the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)