Women Living Longer Worldwide

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Fewer women are dying of childbirth-related health issues, but a World Health Organization (WHO) report says more can be done to improve women’s health by addressing more than reproductive concerns.

The WHO found that globally, a woman’s life expectancy at age 50 — meaning the number of additional years she can expect to live based on current mortality trends for her country — has increased by an average of 2.3 years, with women in Brazil and Japan enjoying the greatest gains of four years or more and those in the U.S. gaining just under worldwide average at 2.2 years.

Most of the gains can be traced to improvements in reproductive health efforts that raise maternal and infant survival following childbirth, and lower deaths from preventable infectious and communicable diseases such as AIDS. And there is evidence that in lower income countries, mortality patterns are shifting to gradually resemble those of higher income nations, as health care services start to make inroads in controlling communicable diseases.

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But the WHO says the gap between women living in high and low-resource countries remains wide. Most healthcare services for women in developing nations focus on reproductive health, and the report predicted that overall, deaths from chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, as well as from cancer, will increase — by eight million for heart disease, to make up 38% of total deaths among women by 2050, and by 3.6 million for cancer, to account for 17% of total deaths. Applying some of the lessons learned by developed nations could curb this rising tide, say the WHO report authors, as these diseases creep into the developing world. Adding strategies for preventing and managing heart disease such as screening for high blood pressure or elevated cholesterol levels could avoid some heart-related deaths, while monitoring for the first signs of tumors with mammograms and pap smears, as well as vaccinating against human papillomavirus (HPV), which contributes to cervical cancer, could also protect more women from late-stage cancers, which are more likely to result in death.

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Even with such efforts in place, the WHO experts say public health officials shouldn’t expect to see immediate benefits in the form of longer-lived women. The data also showed that in middle-income countries where more women are starting to die of chronic diseases typical of better-off nations, the women are dying earlier than their wealthier counterparts. That suggests that their health may be more vulnerable, due to factors such as stress, untreated conditions including hypertension, and poorer nutrition, that could make heart disease and cancer more deadly at earlier ages. “The trends described in this paper highlight the urgency of adapting health systems to better meet the changing health-care needs of women in low- and middle- income countries, primarily by improving the capacity to prevent and manage noncommunicable diseases,” the report authors write.

There is evidence that such programs do work. In developed countries, drops in blood pressure, cholesterol and obesity — all risk factors for heart disease — had contributed to a decline in heart-related deaths among women, and rates of breast, stomach, colon and cervical cancers have also declined, helping more women to live longer. But tobacco use among women hasn’t changed enough to push lung cancer rates down in developed countries, which may contribute to smaller gains in longevity in countries like the U.S.

Read the full WHO report, here.