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All women have specific health risks and can take steps to improve their health through regular medical care and healthy living. Research tells us that lesbian and bisexual women are at a higher risk for certain problems than other women are, though. It is important for lesbian and bisexual women to talk to their doctors about their health concerns, which include:

Heart disease: Heart disease is the number one killer of all women. The more risk factors you have, the greater the chance that you will develop heart disease. There are some risk factors that you cannot control, such as age, family health history and race. But, you can protect yourself from heart disease by not smoking, controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol, exercising and eating well. These things also help prevent type 2 diabetes, a leading cause of heart disease.

Lesbians and bisexual women have a higher rate of obesity, smoking and stress. All of these are risk factors for heart disease. As such, lesbians and bisexual women should talk with their doctors about how to prevent heart disease.

Cancer: The most common cancers for all women are breast, lung, colon, uterine and ovarian. Several factors put lesbian and bisexual women at higher risk for developing some cancers. Remember:

• Lesbians are less likely than heterosexual women to have had a full-term pregnancy. Hormones released during pregnancy and breastfeeding are thought to protect women against breast, endometrial and ovarian cancers.

• Lesbians and bisexual women are less likely to get routine screenings, such as a Pap test, which can prevent or detect cervical cancer. The viruses that cause most cervical cancer can be sexually transmitted between women. Bisexual women, who may be less likely than lesbians to have health insurance, are even more likely to skip these tests.

• Lesbians and bisexual women are less likely than other women to get routine mammograms and clinical breast exams. This may be due to lesbians’ and bisexuals’ lack of health insurance, fear of discrimination or bad experiences with healthcare professionals. Failure to get these tests lowers women’s chances of catching cancer early enough for treatments to work.

• Lesbians are more likely to smoke than heterosexual women are and bisexual women are the most likely to smoke. This increases the risk for lung cancer in all women who have sex with women.

Depression and anxiety: Many factors cause depression and anxiety among all women. However, lesbian and bisexual women report higher rates of depression and anxiety than other women do. Bisexual women are even more likely than lesbians to have had a mood or anxiety disorder. Depression and anxiety in lesbian and bisexual women may be due to: social stigma; rejection by family members; abuse and violence; unfair treatment in the legal system; stress from hiding some or all parts of one’s life; and lack of health insurance

Lesbians and bisexuals often feel they have to hide their sexual orientation from family, friends and employers. Bisexual women may feel even more alone because they don’t feel included in either the heterosexual community or the gay and lesbian community. Lesbians and bisexuals can also be victims of hate crimes and violence. Discrimination against these groups does exist and can lead to depression and anxiety. Women can reach out to their doctors, mental health professionals and area support groups for help dealing with depression or anxiety. These conditions are treatable and with help, women can overcome them.

Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS): PCOS is the most common hormonal problem of the reproductive system in women of childbearing age. PCOS is a health problem that can affect a woman’s: menstrual cycle (monthly bleeding); fertility (ability to get pregnant); hormones; insulin production; heart; blood vessels; and appearance.

Five to 10 percent of women of childbearing age have PCOS. Lesbians may have a higher rate of PCOS than heterosexual women. : :

— Courtesy the Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at Reviewed by Susan Cochran, Ph.D., M.S., Professor of Epidemiology, UCLA School of Public Health.