The health experiences of older women have been too-often ignored, accepted as normal or dismissed. A new survey seeks to change that.
Our country is experiencing unprecedented growth in the population of older women. There are nearly 28 million women over 65—a number that will double by 2030. These women will live longer, acquire different chronic conditions and develop more functional impairments than older men. They face a myriad of complex and often interconnected issues relating to their health, independence and quality of life.
Despite these challenges—which are only exacerbated by social disparities—we don’t have sufficient understanding of how to best care for and support older women. This lack of knowledge and expertise with women’s health means the experiences of older women have been too-often dismissed.
A recent survey fielded by WebMD and the nonprofit HealthyWomen is offering some much-needed insight. It assessed how women experience their physical, mental and sexual health as they age, as well as their attitudes about healthy aging.
“While our survey did uncover knowledge gaps, it also identified teachable moments and opportunities for women and their HCPs [health care providers] to engage in meaningful conversations so that women can experience midlife and beyond with the best quality of life possible,” said Beth Battaglino, RN-C, CEO of HealthyWomen.
More than 3,100 U.S. women aged 18 and older from various ethnic and racial backgrounds and life stages responded to the survey, which is analyzed in the report, Aging Smart, Aging Well: A National Dialogue on Women’s Health Attitudes and Behaviors.
While the majority of respondents embrace the concept of healthy aging and say they discuss health concerns with their providers, the report found that most women have never had a dialogue about specific health issues, including menopausal symptoms, mental health concerns and sexual health.
This discomfort talking with health care providers is especially concerning becasue so many women feel the effects of perimenopause and menopause. The majority of respondents reported experiencing at least six symptoms, including hot flashes, (69%), fatigue and sleep problems (64%), mood swings/irritability (62%), brain fog (60%), night sweats (60%) and weight gain (54%). Nearly half of women experience irregular periods (45%), more than a third reported thinning hair, urinary urgency and vaginal dryness, and one in five experience painful intercourse.
Meanwhile, sexual health is decline—and going un-discussed. Only about one-third for women in perimenopause report their sexual health as very good to excellent (down from more than half of premenopausal women). Yet, just 10% of women discussed the issue with their provider.
In addition to staying quiet about these top gender-related health issues, most women have never discussed the other health concerns that worry them the most, notably cancer, stroke, dementia and heart disease.
Women rank cancer, dementia, heart disease and stroke as among the top health concerns of aging, but most have never brought them up with a health care provider. Only 11% discuss concerns about cancer, 18% heart disease, and 9% stroke.
When it comes to mental health, the trend continues. Conditions impacting mental health had the greatest negative impact on quality of life. More than 25% of respondents reported anxiety or depression (a number increases for women with less education and less household income), but only 16% of those women with anxiety discuss the issue with their provider.
Health insurance independently plays a significant role in ratings of health among women. Lack of insurance is associated with a greater proportion of “fair” or “poor” ratings of physical and mental health among respondents. Women without health insurance reported greater concern about developing mental illnesses associated with aging, as compared to women with coverage.
Despite the documented value of health screenings, women aren’t accessing those services as much as they should. Older women report to do slightly better on this this score: women 65+ typically responded more often than younger women that they have been screened for various diseases, including breast cancer, diabetes, hypertension, mental health and osteoporosis.
“Despite a general shift in our culture promoting more discussion of health concerns and healthy living,” said John Whyte, MD, Chief Medical Officer of WebMD, “our report shows that there is still a lack of openness when it comes to the health issues and changes of women as they age.”