At the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research on Women’s Health 30th Anniversary Scientific Symposium, held Dec. 15, 2020, NIEHS Acting Deputy Director Gwen Collman, Ph.D., and Senior Advisor for Public Health John Balbus, M.D., presented innovative environmental health findings.
As part of the NIH Office of the Director, the Office of Research on Women’s Health seeks to increase the relevance of medical research to the health of all women. It urges biomedical scientists to consider the potential influence of sex — being female or male — on health and disease.
Under the symposium theme, “Advancing the Health of Women Through Science,” a panel of leaders from six NIH institutes, including Collman, shared insights on women’s health research.
Environment, timing, chemistry
“Different environmental factors are linked to many different outcomes in women’s health,” Collman said. Furthermore, women are more prone to adverse health effects from certain environmental exposures at different life stages. These stages include puberty, reproductive years, pregnancy and the postpartum period, middle age, and older age.
Collman told the audience about important associations between mixtures of environmental chemicals and health conditions. For example, traffic-related air pollution can increase a pregnant woman’s chance of developing hypertension.
Across all life stages, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, both natural and manmade, may disrupt health because they can mimic or interfere with the body’s hormones. One prominent 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 made important points about women’s health.
- Monica Webb Hooper, Ph.D., deputy director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, explained that differences in life expectancy are a primary reason for looking at sex differences in health research. Across different racial groups, women tend to live longer than men.
- Helene Langevin, M.D., director of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, noted that complementary health approaches are used more frequently by women than men. Women use these approaches for general health and well-being, as well as specific conditions such as pain management.
- Norman Sharpless, M.D., director of the National Cancer Institute, described significant sex differences in mechanisms of cancer development. For example, estrogen is linked to a higher rate of thyroid cancer in women. Among people who never smoked, lung cancer affects more women than men.
- Diana Bianchi, M.D., director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, discussed major gaps in knowledge about menstrual biology and health. Menstrual health studies provide answers to essential questions about menstrual irregularities and how to treat them.
- Nora Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, revealed that brain imaging of opioid users reveals striking structural differences between males and females. Significant sex differences in substance use disorders should be addressed.
Environmental health and climate
Balbus discussed histories of environmental health and women’s health research, as well as climate change.
“As we try to understand women’s health effects from climate change, the broader social and environmental context must also be considered,” 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 for women. Contributing factors may be related to body function, such as higher rates of dietary deficiencies, and socioeconomic conditions, such as more women living in poverty.
(Carol Kelly is managing editor for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)