Top health issues affecting women

Women’s lifespans are an average of 6.3 years longer than men’s — but don’t get too excited about that statistic. According to Health Canada, only 2.5 of those years will be disability-free. Women may live longer lives, but those lives aren’t necessarily healthier ones. Here are the top health issues affecting women, and what we can do about them.

Breast and lung cancer

Cancer kills more people in Canada than any other disease. According to the most recent statistics from the Canadian Cancer Society, 40 per cent of Canadian women will develop cancer during their lifetime. In 2011, approximately 84,800 Canadian women were diagnosed with cancer — and it killed about 35,100 women.

You’ve likely noticed breast cancer gets a lot of the attention, and there’s good reason: it’s the most common type of cancer in women. Current predictions warn one in nine women developed the disease during their lifestyle, and one in 29 died from it. In 2011, about 23,400 women were diagnosed with breast cancer, and 4,300 died from the disease.

There is good news: The Canadian Cancer Society notes that in recent years, fewer women are developing the disease and more women are surviving it.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for one of the deadliest cancers: lung cancer. Over the years, rates of this cancer in women have risen to the point where they almost equal men’s. In 2011, an estimated 12,200 were diagnosed with lung cancer and 9,300 women died from it. Experts predict one in 15 women will develop lung cancer during their lifetime and one in 17 will die from it. It doesn’t have to be this way — the majority of cases could be prevented because they are caused by smoking or second hand smoke.

There are a lot of things people can do to minimize their risk of cancer, like eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, exercising, not smoking and avoiding exposure to radiation and chemicals. Regular screenings are also essential to detect cancers in their earliest and most treatable stages. (For more information, see Eight ways to prevent cancer).

(Source: Canadian Cancer Society).

Cardiovascular Disease

Every seven minutes someone in Canada has a heart attack or stroke, but even more worrisome is the fact that women are more likely to die from them than men. Cardiovascular disease (the umbrella term for heart disease, stroke, and disease of the blood vessels) is responsible for nearly 30 per cent of all deaths of Canadian women, according to the most recent statistics.

When it comes to matters of the heart, women may not be as quick to recognize the warning signs. Experts still aren’t clear as to whether or not women experience more subtle or usual symptoms than men (like pain in the jaw or arm), or if they simply describe the symptoms differently. (See Women and heart disease for full details).

The lessons learned? Women need to be aware of their risks and their warning signs. Some risk factors can’t be controlled (like age and family history), but most people still aren’t doing enough to mitigate the ones they can control (like diet, exercise and smoking). Stress is also a factor, and some types like marital stress more keenly felt by women than men. Women also seem to be at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease after menopause when they lose the protective effects of estrogen, so preventative measures may need to start earlier than previously thought.

(Source: Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and Statistics Canada).

Type 2 diabetes

Currently, an estimated three million Canadians are living with diabetes — including the one million who don’t know it yet. Why? The Canadian Diabetes Association warns that one in three people with the disease haven’t been diagnosed — and sometimes people live with the condition for up to seven years before it’s detected.

And this number is only going to get worse… When you combine the aging population, growing obesity rates and increasingly sedentary lifestyles this illness will be a $19.2 billion dollar problem by 2020.

However, the personal costs are much higher. Adults with diabetes are twice as likely to die prematurely — by as much as 5 – 15 years depending on the type. Diabetes also goes hand-in-hand with other chronic diseases: 80 per cent of people with diabetes will die of heart disease or stroke, and others are more likely to get cancer. Furthermore, diabetes can cause complications like blindness, amputation and kidney disease (another top cause of death). The rise in obesity rates among women combined with their already increased risk for chronic diseases make diabetes a serious concern for protecting their future health.

While there’s no way to prevent type 1 diabetes — the type causes by an autoimmune disorder — women can avoid or delay the onset of type 2 diabetes (which accounts for 90 per cent of all cases). How? Lifestyle choices like eating a healthy diet and exercising can make a big difference. It doesn’t take a lot — studies have shown that people over age 50 who are at risk can significantly reduce that risk by exercising for 30 minutes per day and losing five to seven per cent of their body fat.

People should also be on the look out of the early signs of diabetes. People should visit their doctor if they are experiencing the warning signs like unusual thirst, unexplained weight changes, frequent urination, cuts or bruises that are slow to heal, blurred vision and tingling or numbness in the hands and feet. Damage to the body often starts during the “pre-diabetes” phase, but when caught early enough it’s possible to stop or delay the progression to type 2 diabetes. However, pre-diabetes is usually only detectable through routine blood work as part of your annual check up.

(Source: Canadian Diabetes Association).

Musculoskeletal diseases

They usually aren’t deadly, but they’re certainly a top health concern. Right now, they’re predicted to affect as many as four million Canadians over the age of 15– a number set to rise to six million adults by the year 2026. Diseases affecting the bones, joints and muscles are more common in females than males. Women are twice as likely as men to develop arthritis — currently, 19 per cent of women live with arthritis versus 11 per cent of men. By 2026, an estimated one in four women will be affected.

Women also have a greater risk of certain types of bone and joint diseases. They’re four times as likely to develop fibromyalgia, and they account for 90 per cent of the people who develop lupus (a potentially dangerous autoimmune disease). Women are also twice as likely to suffer from osteoporosis, partly due to the loss of bone following menopause. Currently, one in four women over the age of 50 lives with the disease. (However, women are less likely than men to develop gout or ankylosing spondylitis).

It’s more then just aches and pains. These diseases eat away at people’s independence and quality of life, and they’re extremely costly to society thanks to long-term term disability costs and lost productivity. These diseases also take an emotional toll as well, and symptoms may include fatigue and depression.

What can be done to help? While many of these diseases aren’t preventable, there’s a lot people can do to delay the onset or manage the symptoms. Getting plenty of calcium is important to help prevent osteoporosis, for example. Plenty of exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet can help put a hold on some types of arthritis (like osteoarthritis) and help manage symptoms of inflammatory forms of arthritis. Losing even as little as ten pounds can significantly reduce the stress on the body.

(Sources: Statistics Canada, Arthritis Society, Osteoporosis Canada).

Mental health

Experts note that while mental illness affects people of all ages, walks of life, gender and race, women experience it differently. For instance:

– Women are more likely to suffer from anxiety disorders and depression.

– Women are more likely to have been victims of incest, sexual abuse, battery and violence. They’re also more likely to develop an eating disorder.

– Women find it harder to maintain good a work-life balance, and are more affected by stress at work and home.

– While more men commit suicide, women make more attempts.

Not only do some women face the prejudice of being “weak” or “emotional”, they also have to face the consequences of being treated like a man. Experts warn that doctors need to factor in women’s hormonal changes (whether it’s due to menstruation, pregnancy, menopause, etc) rather than dismiss women because of them.

While the causes of mental illness are complex, there are some simple things people can do for better mental health. That means reducing stress, maintaining a good work-life balance and seeking support when needed, especially during life-altering events like a death or divorce. Don’t overlook the essentials like daydreaming, laughing and exercising too.

In addition, experts recommend that people should be aware of the warning signs of mental illness and shouldn’t be afraid to seek help. Get past the stigma — after all, one in five Canadians will experience a mental illness at some point during their lives. Women shouldn’t be afraid to insist on the treatment they need as individuals.

(Source: Canadian Mental Health Association, Health Canada).

While these health issues were identified as top concerns based on statistical data, there are many other challenges too. The good news is that in recent decades there’s been an increasing emphasis placed on researching and effectively treating women’s health concerns. For more information about health issues and advocacy, see the Canadian Women’s Health Network website.

Additional Sources: Health Canada, Statistics Canada (Top ten causes of death; Diseases and health conditions).

Updated May 2012 with new information.

Photo © digitalskillet

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