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Book Review: 'The Strong Women's Guide to Total Health' by Miriam E. Nelson and Jennifer Ackerman

April 10, 2010 |  3:45 pm

StrongWomencoverAlthough men may have more heart attacks, more women die as a result of them. Women have stronger immune responses  --  with increased resistance to many infections -- but are much more likely than men to develop autoimmune diseases. Men are more likely to have schizophrenia and alcohol and drug addiction, whereas women have more depression, anxiety and eating disorders. 

Those are just some of the ways women's health differs from men's, according to Miriam E. Nelson and Jennifer Ackerman, authors of "The Strong Women's Guide to Total Health."

"Our gender affects everything from the makeup of our bones and the architecture of our joints, to our skin's response to sunlight and aging, to how we experience pain, react to drugs, and cope with stress," they write.

Until fairly recently, medical researchers considered men's bodies the prototype for both genders. But today women are more than half of participants in health studies, and researchers are looking closely at illnesses affecting mostly them, Nelson and Ackerman write. 

In fact, there is so much health information available to women -- much of it contradictory -- that it can get confusing.

That's where "Strong Women's Guide" comes in. The book aims to summarize the latest thinking on women's health and offer "basic, reliable guidelines for staying well in body, mind and spirit."

And it appears to do so remarkably well considering the range of topics it covers, including reproductive and sexual health; skin, teeth, hair and nails; body weight and metabolism; muscles, bones and joints; the heart and lungs; cancer and disease; vision and hearing; and mental health.

Nelson -- the director of the John Hancock Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition and Obesity Prevention and an associate professor of nutrition at Tufts University -- has gained a following with earlier "Strong Women" books on topics such as weight control and bone health. Ackerman is a science and health writer and the author of several other books, including "Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream."

Their new book is not the place you would go for in-depth coverage of a specific health topic, but it offers solid overviews, useful advice and quite a bit of up-to-date detail. 

The section on birth control, for example, looks at the varied oral contraceptives available today, including a spearmint-flavored chewable pill, the three-month combination pill, the mini-pill, the "no more period" pill and other hormonal options such as a skin patch and injections. The chapter on menopause sorts through recent research findings on hormone therapy and summarizes the options for easing symptoms. A discussion of heart disease details the symptoms unique to women and tells what to look for in cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure screenings.

The writing is intelligent, accessible and sometimes personal; amid the matter-of-fact health discussions are anecdotes such as one in the sexuality chapter that describes a nervous first-time trip to a sex-toy boutique. A chapter on changing habits includes a story about how a colleague once chastised Nelson for not practicing what she preached about exercise -- a comment that prompted her to start running regularly to train for the Boston Marathon.

"Strong Women's Guide" is as much a how-to health book as it is a medical reference work. It starts with a health self-assessment section that looks at everything from body mass index to joy quotient. Sprinkled throughout the book are checklists of ways to protect or improve health. The book ends with chapters on managing stress and sleeping well, eating and exercising right and getting the proper screenings, tests and vaccines at every age.

-- Anne Colby

Photo: "The Strong Women's Guide to Total Health," Miriam E. Nelson and Jennifer Ackerman, Rodale Books, $27.99 

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