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Life Expectancy Gap Widens Between Women in Rich and Poor Countries

  • Lisa Schlein

The World Health Organization reports women aged 50 and older globally are healthier now than they were 20 and 30 years ago. But while women’s health has improved, a new WHO study finds the gap in life expectancy is widening between older women in rich and poor countries.

The World Health Organization reports heart disease and stroke and cancers are the leading causes of death of women aged 50 years and older worldwide. But, it notes these deaths occur at earlier ages in the developing countries.

The study is one of the first to analyze the causes of death of women aged 50 and more from a range of rich and poor countries. It finds many of these women are meeting an early death because they live in countries that lack the money and resources to prevent, detect and treat non-communicable diseases.

The head of the WHO Mortality and Burden of Disease Unit, Colin Mathers, says developed countries have the health systems and means to reduce and control cardiovascular problems. He tells VOA screening and treatment programs also are successfully reducing the incidence of breast and cervix cancers.

He notes cervical cancer is one of the leading cancers in African women. He says the illness is largely preventable, but African countries have fewer resources to treat it.

“There is simply not enough money to provide high quality health care to everyone that is accessible. And, also a matter of human resources, that there often are not enough trained doctors and nurses and other health professionals in the country. And, that is made worse by the brain drain where African nurses can migrate to high-income countries to get jobs in their health systems and so some of the training that is done in developing countries ends up not benefiting them," he said.

Dr. Mathers says donors give relatively little money toward the problem of non-communicable diseases in African countries because they tend to focus on reducing maternal mortality. While this is understandable, he notes maternal mortality rates are going down substantially. At the same time, he says death rates among older women are going up, so it is time for donors to rethink their priorities.

Thanks to improvements in health, the Study finds women over 50, on average, have gained 3.5 years in life expectancy over the past 20 years. It notes older women in Germany and Japan now can expect to live to 84 and 88 years respectively and women in many other developed countries can expect to live to age 83 or 84.

The report says life expectancy for women in the poorer countries is about 10 years less. It notes women in Eastern Europe also die at an earlier age because of high rates of cardiovascular disease, accidents, and high alcohol consumption.

Dr. Mathers says major risk factors for older women include smoking, the harmful use of alcohol, overweight and obesity.

“Many of the problems faced by older women start earlier in life. So, smoking for example-people typically develop the habit at earlier ages. So, it is not only about intervening in older years-improving conditions and education and providing information to younger people can ultimately assist in improving health at older ages as well," he said.

The World Health Organization says the epidemic of chronic diseases can be reversed with available cost-effective ways to address common non-communicable diseases. These include prevention, early diagnosis and management of high blood pressure, obesity and high cholesterol.

The study says inexpensive and simple tests for the screening and early detection of cervical cancer can save many lives.
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