Women’s health

08.07.2020

Almost three out of five Australian women rate their health as excellent or very good. At the same time, three out of five Australian women are overweight or obese. The same number don’t get enough daily physical activity, suggesting women aren’t as fit or as healthy as they think they are.

Lack of physical activity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis. Being overweight or obese also carries significant health risks for diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, sexual health, arthritis and some cancers.

Two out of five Australian women under the age of 45 suffer from at least one chronic condition. That figure rises to four out of five for women over the age of 65.

Women are more likely than men to experience blood and metabolic disorders, neurological conditions and musculoskeletal conditions, and the most common disease they develop is coronary heart disease, followed by dementia.

Breast cancer

The most common cancer for women in Australia is breast cancer. One woman in seven will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her lifetime and 53 new cases are diagnosed every day. Eight women die of breast cancer every day in Australia.

The good news is that survival rates have improved. Since 1994, five-year survival rates have gone up from 76% to 91%. Whilst it’s extremely rare, men can occasionally suffer from breast cancer too.

Breast cancer risk

The risk of contracting breast cancer rises with age. About three out of four breast cancer cases occur in women over the age of 50.

Certain genetic factors can also increase the risk, such as a close family history of breast cancer, breast density, a genetic mutation or if a woman goes through menopause later than the average.

Lifestyle is also linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer.

  • Alcohol consumption (any regular consumption)
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Not having children
  • Smoking

Symptoms of breast cancer

Any of these symptoms could indicate breast cancer. You should see your doctor if you spot any of the following:

  • Lump in either breast
  • Thickening of breast tissue
  • Change in size or shape of either breast
  • Dimpling on the skin
  • Rash on or around the nipple
  • Lump or swelling in either armpit
  • Discharge from either nipple
  • Change in appearance of either nipple
  • Pain in either breast or armpits, not associated with menstruation

The vast majority (90%) of lumps found in the breast are not cancerous.

Detecting breast cancer

You should check your breasts thoroughly once a month, using the pads of your fingers to make small circles over the whole breast area, including under the armpits. 

The National Breast Cancer Foundation has useful tips on how to perform a thorough breast examination. 

Mammograms

Regular screening through mammograms can detect the early stages of breast cancer and make successful treatment more likely. The Cancer Council of Australia recommends women between the ages of 50 and 74 (which is when most breast cancers occur) have a mammogram every two years. Breast cancer can also be detected with MRI, ultrasound and biopsies.

Keep a look out for any changes in your own breasts. If you find a lump or any other sign that could indicate breast cancer, speak to your doctor.

Treatment of breast cancer

Treatment options vary depending on the type of cancer detected.

  • Lumpectomy – surgery to remove the lump
  • Mastectomy – removal of the entire breast
  • Chemotherapy – drug therapy to kill cancer cells
  • Radiotherapy – radiation to destroy cancer cells
  • Hormone therapy – medication to treat certain cancers
  • Targeted therapy – may be given with chemotherapy

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than men. Scientists aren’t sure why, although recent research has identified differences in the way tau - a protein associated with cognitive impairment - spreads through the brains of men and women.

Almost half a million Australians live with dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It causes problems with memory, behaviour and the way our brains process thought.

Symptoms of dementia

  • Significant memory loss
  • Challenges solving problems or making plans
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Confusion over time or place
  • Trouble with vision or balance
  • Misnaming things
  • Misplacing things
  • Problems with decision making
  • Withdrawal
  • Changes in mood or personality

Causes of dementia

There are over 100 different conditions that can cause dementia. They include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Some forms of multiple sclerosis

How to reduce your risk

  1. Be physically active.
  2. Stop smoking.
  3. Eat a balanced diet.
  4. Maintain a healthy weight. 
  5. Limit the intake of alcohol.
  6. Stay mentally active.

Coronary heart disease

The most common disease amongst women is coronary heart disease.

If you smoke or have uncontrolled diabetes, it could increase your risk of developing heart disease. Gestational diabetes and preeclampsia during pregnancy can also increase the risk of heart disease later in life. If you’ve had any of these conditions, tell your doctor so they can monitor your heart health.

Reduce your risk of coronary heart disease by making healthy lifestyle choices:

  • Avoid smoke or smoking
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Exercise and stay active
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Manage stress levels

Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a painful, chronic condition that happens when uterine cells grow outside the uterus. It occurs most often in the pelvis. Endometriosis can’t be prevented, and women with a close relative with endometriosis are ten times more likely to develop it. Endometriosis can affect a woman’s reproductive organs and even cause infertility.

Symptoms

  • Heavy, painful or irregular periods
  • Pain in the abdomen, lower back or pelvis
  • Pain during or after sex or when emptying bowel or bladder
  • Bloating
  • Tiredness
  • Infertility
  • Mood changes

Treatment

Depending on the severity of symptoms, treatment could involve surgery, pain-relief and hormone-based medication or implants. In severe cases, a hysterectomy to remove the uterus might be required.

Osteoporosis

Around six percent of women have osteoporosis, compared with 1.5 percent of men. Women aged 75 and over are three times more likely than men to have osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is diagnosed when bones lose their strength and density, breaking more easily following a minor bump or fall. The disease itself isn’t painful, although fractures can be.

Osteoporosis carries significant health risks, and has few, if any, obvious symptoms. Often the only sign you have osteoporosis is when you break a bone. Osteoporosis can’t be cured but it can be treated and prevented.

Risk factors

  • Age
  • Family history
  • Lack of exercise
  • Lack of calcium
  • Low vitamin D
  • Smoking
  • Heavy drinking
  • Being underweight

Prevention strategies

  • Perform weight bearing and muscle strengthening exercises
  • Follow a healthy diet
  • Spend more time outdoors
  • Reduce alcohol consumption
  • Stop smoking
  • Maintain a healthy weight

You can reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis by doing certain types of exercise and making sure you have enough calcium and Vitamin D.

Women over 50 at risk of osteoporosis should talk to their doctor about a bone density scan. You can find out more about bone density scans at Osteoporosis Australia.

Cervical cancer

Cervical cancer often has no symptoms in the early stages of the disease. It develops in the entrance to the uterus from the vagina (cervix).

Cervical cancer is caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). Four out of five sexually active people will have HPV at some point in their lives, and it usually clears up by itself. It’s rare for HPV to lead to cervical cancer. Symptoms include vaginal bleeding (usually after sex), pain when passing urine or during sex and an unpleasant smelling vaginal discharge.

Early detection is the best form of prevention. Australian high school students are offered a free vaccine against HPV, and women aged 25-74 should have a cervical screening test every five years. These have replaced the old ‘pap’ smear tests which were recommended every two years.

The National Cervical Screening program has more information.

Ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer occurs most often in women over the age of 50 who have been through the menopause, but it can affect women of any age.

The symptoms include persistent abdominal bloating, pain in the lower stomach and pelvis, unexplained weight loss or gain, indigestion, fatigue, nausea, bleeding in-between periods or after menopause, appetite loss and pain during sex.

If you have any concerns or symptoms that persist, see your doctor

Hysterectomy

Certain diseases and medical conditions may require surgery to remove the uterus (hysterectomy). In some cases, the cervix is also removed.

Hysterectomy may be recommended if you have:

  • Cancer
  • Tumour in your uterus
  • Endometriosis
  • Incontinence
  • Heavy or irregular menstruation
  • Chronic pain in the pelvis

It’s no longer possible to fall pregnant once you’ve had a hysterectomy.

Menopause

Most women go through the menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, when changes in hormone levels cause the symptoms of menopause and periods eventually stop completely. A woman is considered to have gone through the menopause when she hasn’t had a period for over 12 months.

‘Early’ menopause is anything earlier than the ‘expected’ age of around 50.

You can still get pregnant during the menopause. Health professionals recommend using contraception for at least 12 months after your last period if you’re 50 and for two years if you’re under 50.

Most women experience some symptoms of menopause for between five and ten years.

Symptoms of menopause include:

  • Change in periods
  • Hot flushes
  • Night sweats
  • Problems sleeping
  • Tiredness
  • Pain in joints
  • Anxiety or mood changes
  • Dry vagina
  • Overactive bladder

See your doctor if your symptoms are bothering you, or if they include heavy or more frequent periods.

Treatment

Improving diet, increasing exercise, stopping smoking and reducing stress may help alleviate symptoms. Some psychological treatments (for example, cognitive behaviour therapy) can make symptoms easier to deal with. Avoiding caffeine, alcohol and spicy foods may help to reduce hot flushes and using water-based lubricants can help with vaginal dryness.

Menopausal Hormone Therapy (MHT, also known as Hormone Replacement Therapy or HRT) controls menopausal symptoms and is considered safe for most women in their fifties to use for the first ten years after the onset of symptoms.

MHT can be administered as tablets, patches, gels or vaginal oestrogen therapy. The health benefits and possible health risks are outlined by the Australian Menopause Society.

Depression

Around one in six Australian women will experience depression at some time in their lives. Anxiety is even more common, affecting one in three women in their lifetime.

Know your risk

Some of the situations that could increase the risk include:

  • caring for or supporting others
  • relationship breakdown
  • violence or abuse
  • discrimination based on sexuality or gender identity
  • infertility and perinatal loss
  • pregnancy, having a baby and becoming a mother (perinatal)
  • menopause

Know the signs and symptoms

Some of the symptoms of depression can include:

  • moodiness and irritability
  • hopelessness and helplessness
  • loss of appetite or over-eating
  • loss of interest in usual activities
  • acting out of character
  • increase in alcohol or drug intake
  • becoming shy or more confident
  • withdrawing from close family and friends
  • low energy and trouble sleeping

The following practices could help reduce your risk:

  • exercising regularly
  • connecting with people through a local support group
  • having regular personal time
  • avoiding unhealthy habits such as alcohol, smoking and caffeine

How does the health of women and men compare?

Check the latest statistics

Pregnancy and birth

We have developed a full guide to pregnancy and birth which you might find useful if you’re planning a family or expecting a new addition.

Routine health checks for women

Breast self-checks – every month
Mammogram – every two years for women between the ages of 50 and 74
Skin cancer – every 12 months
Cervical screening – two years after your last pap test, every five years from then for women aged 25 to 74
Bowel cancer screening – every two years between the ages of 50-74

 

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.

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