The overall health of Australian women compares favourably with other countries and Australia ranks tenth in terms of total life expectancy at birth. Australian women can generally expect to live well into their 80’s which is several years longer than males. However, many Australian women remain burdened by chronic and disabling diseases of which heart disease and stroke are the most common. Other major health concerns include cancer, particularly of the breast, colon (large intestine), lung and skin, which numerous Australian women die from each year. Mental health is also an emerging disease category amongst women and conditions associated with child birth are unique considerations in women’s health. Women can benefit from researching their own health and practicing healthy lifestyles and behaviours, such as regular exercise, nutritious diets and disease screening.
Cardiovascular disease, which includes all pathological conditions involving the heart and blood vessels (for example coronary disease, stroke, disease of the blood vessels and heart failure) has been described as the largest health problem in Australia. Currently there are 209.8 deaths from heart, stroke and vascular diseases per 100 000 of the Australian female population each year. Cardiovascular disease is frequently labeled as a male disease but it should be recognised as the leading cause of death in both men and women in Australia. The rates are considerable high in the elderly female population. Ischaemic or coronary heart disease is the most common cardiovascular condition caused by the build up of plaques in the blood vessels supplying the heart muscle. This leads to heart attacks and angina in many women every year. Fortunately the rates have slowly decreased over recent years due to improved prevention and treatment strategies. However, growing rates of obesity may contribute to further disease in the future. Stroke is the second commonest cause of death following ischaemaic heart disease. Stroke is characterised by a disturbance in the blood supply to the brain due to a blocked or ruptured artery. Strokes can have severe manifestations including paralysis of different parts of the body or speech problems. The burden from stroke is 2% greater in females compared to males. You can decrease your likelihood of getting these nasty conditions by quitting smoking, controlling your blood pressure, exercising regularly, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight and keeping your cholesterol and blood sugar levels low.
Cancer is the name given to a condition where abnormal cells proliferate and spread out of control. The resulting growth can damage surrounding tissues and organs and migration of the defective cells to other parts of the body can lead to extensive damage to a wide range of organ systems. There are numerous different types of cancer that can affect women in Australia and nearly one quarter of women will be diagnosed with some form of cancer by the time they reach 75 years of age. The cancer burden for women in Australia is dominated by breast, colorectal, melanoma (a deadly type of skin cancer) and lung cancers. Together these account for 60% of all cancers in women. Breast cancer: Breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in women and the most common cause of cancer deaths. However, regular breast examinations and two yearly mammograms (special X-rays of the breast) for women over 50 can help detect the disease early before it has spread. This leads to better treatment outcomes. Studies have suggested the rates of breast cancer may be increasing but this may be due to better detection methods as the mortality rates have correspondingly fallen. Incidences of colorectal cancer, lung cancer and melanoma may also be increasing. In addition, studies showed the mortality rates of the latter two had increased in Australian females. Cervical cancer is less common but still accounts for 2.1 deaths per 100,000 Australian women each year. This cancer is considered the most preventable and curative of all cancers if regular Pap smear screening is followed.
Depression is the most common mental disorder affecting Australian women accounting for 4.8% of the total disease burden. It is not entirely understood why being female predisposes you to depression but it may be associated with social factors of the level of special hormones and nerve transmitters in the body. Post partum depression may contribute to the higher rates as this affects up to 15% of childbearing women.
Obstetrics and Gynaecology is a branch of medicine that deals with disorders related to pregnancy and childbirth and the female reproductive organs. Therefore it is a key component to be considered in the health of Australian women. Menstrual disorders, endometriosis (a condition where the lining of the womb spreads to other organs and tissues) and fibroids (benign growths in the uterus) are just a few of the widely prevalent medical conditions unique to females. In addition, complications of childbirth are fairly common in Australian women such as haemorrhage, psychiatric problems, clots, and high blood pressure which can have serious consequences. Fortunately, the rates of maternal mortality are amongst the lowest in the world and there are only 90 deaths each year in Australia for pregnancy complications.
Unfortunately the health of Aboriginal women does not correspond with the generally high standards of health of the rest of the population. The life expectancy of Aboriginal women falls some 20 years short of that for the total female population. However, the specific diseases affecting Aboriginal women are similar to those listed above. Thus the leading cause of death for Indigenous females is cardiovascular disease (myocardial infarction and stroke) with mortality rates 2.8 times those of the total Australian female population. Neoplasms (cancers) were the second most common cause of death for Indigenous females with high rates of lung cancer (20%), neoplasms of digestive organs (20%) and neoplasms of the female genital tract (17%).
- Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Issue 4102.0 – Australian Social Trends, 2004, Health Related Actions: How Women Care for their Health.
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) 2004. Heart, stroke and vascular diseases-Australian facts 2004. AIHW Cat. No. CVD 27. Canberra: AIHW and National Heart Foundation of Australia (Cardiovascular Disease Series No. 22).
- Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) & Australasian Association of Cancer Registries (AACR) 2004. Cancer in Australia 2001. AIHW cat. no. CAN 23. Canberra: AIHW (Cancer Series no. 28).
- King J, Slaytor E, Sullivan E, Maternal deaths in Australia, 1997-1999, MJA 2004; 181 (8): 413-414.
- Mathers C, Vos T, Stevenson C, Burden of Disease and Injury in Australia, The (full report) 1999, AIHW Cat. No. PHE 17, Canberra.
- Mathers C, Vos T, Stevenson C, Begg S, The Australian Burden of Disease Study: measuring the loss of health from diseases, injuries and risk factors, MJA 2000; 172: 592-596.
- Pope S et al. Postnatal depression- A systematic review of published scientific literature to 1999, National Health and Medical Research Council, 2000.
- The Cancer Council Australia, Facts and Figures, 2004. Available [online] at URL: http://www.cancer.org.au/content.cfm?randid=101127
- Women’s Health, Population sub-groups, HealthInfoNet, 2006. Available [online] at URL: http://www.healthinsite.gov.au/content/external/frame.cfm?ObjID=0001F1DB-886F-10DB-94C780B1536A006D