Report: NIH, federal agencies should boost women’s health research

Chronic conditions in women are far too under-researched. The National Institutes of Health and other agencies should do more to investigate problems that lead to poorer medical treatments for women, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

Women are disproportionately affected by chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s and depression, according to a study commissioned by the NIH’s Office of Research on Women’s Health and published Wednesday.

But insufficient research on women’s health “hinders a comprehensive understanding of the impact on women” of these and other chronic diseases, the report’s authors write. More research is needed, particularly for black women, who are more likely to die from a chronic disease than white women, the study says.

The 500-page report calls for focused efforts, led by the NIH, to improve diagnostic tools for female conditions such as endometriosis and distinguish between overlapping symptoms of different chronic conditions.

Farida Sohrabji, one of the report’s authors, said she hopes the paper will highlight urgent research priorities.

“One of the biggest frustrations is how often we [saw] “There are examples where women were not included in research, where women’s experiences and symptoms were undermined or not given enough attention,” said Sohrabji, the director of women’s health in the neuroscience program at Texas A&M University. “One of the things that comes up quite often is that [women] are aware that their health sometimes does not receive the proper attention and that their pain experience is minimized.”

Sohrabji stressed the importance of addressing racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities, saying the experiences of white women and women of color vary widely but are not adequately addressed in research.

The report highlights the impact of biology and social factors on the diagnosis and treatment of chronic conditions. It also highlights gaps in research on specific female and gynaecological conditions and the influence of social determinants of health on chronic conditions.

The experts stress the need for improved diagnostic tools tailored to chronic conditions in women, noting marked differences in symptom presentation for women and men, such as heart disease and diabetes. Experts say women’s diseases can present uniquely, potentially leading to misdiagnosis when using tools designed primarily for male patients.

A 2019 research letter published in JAMA found that NIH gives more research money to male first-time grantees than to their female colleagues. The letter argued that federal research funding is linked to the quality of science and career advancement.

“If there was one thing that would affect a large percentage of men as [some of the diseases that affect] “If we could help women, we would know exactly what the cause is, and then we could do more treatments and diagnostics,” said Karen Tang, a gynecologist and author who was not involved in the report.

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