July 23, 2021
In this article, Carolee Lee, Founder and CEO of Women’s Health Access Matters® (WHAM), whose mission accelerates dramatic change by working to reverse the inequities in medical research and scientific discovery that greatly impair women’s physical and economic well-being, lends her voice to address women’s health.
There’s currently a stark gender gap in health research funding across the board, even when it comes to diseases that disproportionately impact women. Case in point: only 12% of Alzheimer’s disease research goes to projects focused on women, even though women make up about two-thirds of all Alzheimer’s patients. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, yet only one-third of patients enrolled in clinical trials are female, and just 4% of the National Institutes of Health’s cardiac artery disease research budget focuses on women-only research. It makes no sense.
As a businesswoman, I was determined to find the answers. I joined forces with other entrepreneurs and corporate CEOs to create Women’s Health Access Matters® (WHAM), a nonprofit committed to supporting research that investigates conditions that disproportionately affect women. One of the first things we did in 2018 was commission the RAND Corporation to understand the economic impact of increasing the investment in women’s health research.
We were stunned by their findings. It was clear that women’s health research isn’t just better science; it’s a better investment. Increasing funding—even by small amounts—produces big returns for women, families, businesses, and yes, our economy. This last point is critical, as women are the driving force behind the economy and control over 60% of all personal wealth in the United States. The WHAM Report found that doubling funding for women’s Alzheimer’s disease research would pay for itself three times over—a 224% return. For every dollar invested, we get back two dollars in quality-of-life improvements and $1.24 in health care cost savings. If we doubled the investment in women’s heart disease research, every dollar would generate $95 to the economy. If we doubled it for rheumatoid arthritis, every dollar would generate over $1,700 (yes, you read that right).
“When women make up more than half the population and are more vulnerable to a whole slew of diseases, including cancer as well as neurologic, autoimmune and cardiovascular diseases, why would research dollars not be skewed their way?” — Carolee Lee, Founder and CEO, WHAM
When research reflects the differences between men and women, we can improve the health and wealth of everyone. Here are some ways WHAM is accelerating women’s health research to benefit all.
Develop health assessments to better identify cardiovascular risk in women. It’s estimated that heart-related health care costs will surpass $1 trillion by 2035. Yet just 4% of cardiovascular disease research goes to projects focused on women, even though women continue to have worse heart attack outcomes than men, with higher death rates. The result is that women with heart disease are frequently misdiagnosed and undertreated. WHAM is funding research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital that will lead to better tools to help us develop a more personalized approach toward assessing women for heart disease. If we can do that, we can improve their health outcomes, which will have powerful effects on our economy.
Lower women’s risk for Alzheimer’s. A woman’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease is almost two times that of a man. It’s imperative that we find ways to lower women’s chances of getting this devastating disease by modifying their risk factors whenever possible. We know that research has linked insufficient sleep with Alzheimer’s disease, and that women have higher rates of sleep disturbances such as insomnia than men. That’s why WHAM provided funding to institutions such as Yale University to research whether strategies that optimize sleep in women over 50 can reduce certain brain and blood biomarkers indicating an elevated risk for Alzheimer’s.
Invest in research on gender and COVID-19. We know that men and women experience COVID-19 differently. Men across all age groups, ethnicities and cultures are more vulnerable to acute disease and death from COVID-19 than women. We saw this same thing during the two previous coronavirus outbreaks of SARS and MERS. Unfortunately, even with vaccinations readily available, COVID-19 isn’t disappearing anytime soon. When we advocate for and promote best practices to improve COVID-19 research, we ensure that the developed treatments are benefitting everyone.
We created the WHAM collaborative to bring together researchers and clinicians from leading women’s health institutions, including the Katz Institute for Women’s Health, The Connors Center for Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, The Mayo Clinic, and Johns Hopkins Hospital. We’re working with them to create a road map for the future, to figure out how we can use the data and research we’ve collected to create a seismic impact and change.
WHAM is convening advocates, economists, scientists, business leaders, public health experts and policymakers, and we’re asking everyone to do one thing: Use the data.
How can we possibly continue to make decisions based on information that excludes the majority of our population, half our workforce, two-thirds of our wealth holders, and nearly all of our spenders?
The answer is we can’t—and we shouldn’t. That’s why it’s so important to create the kind of lasting change we all know is right, not just for women’s well-being, but for all of society.