Women in developed countries are living longer, but the gap in life expectancy between older women in rich and developing nations is widening, says a new report published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization.
The authors of the report - "Global mortality trends and patterns in older women" - wrote that measures taken in the world's most advanced economies to reduce non-communicable diseases have extended the life spans of women aged 50 years and older over the last two to three decades.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), non-communicable diseases are long-term (chronic) diseases that cannot be passed from person to person. They are generally of slow progression.
There are four main types of non-communicable diseases:
The WHO study reported that the main causes of early deaths among older women globally are cardiovascular disease (stroke and heart disease) and cancers. However, in developing nations deaths from these diseases occur at a much earlier age than in rich countries.
The authors say that their study is one of the first to examine the causes of death among women aged 50+ years worldwide. They have found that in too many countries, the prevention, detection and treatment of non-communicable diseases are inadequate.
Co-author, Dr John Beard, director of the Department of Aging and Life Course at the World Health Organization, said:
"Given the substantial reduction in maternal mortality and the increase in the number of older women over the last 10 years, health systems in low- and middle-income countries must adjust accordingly, otherwise this trend will continue to increase.
Changing women's exposures at earlier stages of their lives, particularly in relation to sexual health, tobacco and harmful use of alcohol, is essential to reversing the epidemic of chronic diseases."
There are scientifically proven, cost-effective ways to combat these common non-communicable diseases:
- High blood pressure, obesity and high cholesterol need to be addressed with effective prevention campaigns, early diagnosis, and prompt and effective management.
- Women need to be screened and treated at national level for cancers.
If non-communicable diseases can be detected early and managed promptly with effective treatment, women's life expectancies improve significantly, the authors wrote.
Beard said "The best way to address these conditions in low- and middle-income countries is to build on the existing health-care services, so that they can be detected early and managed with effective treatment,. So, for example, maternal health care services can provide proper detection and management of gestational diabetes to help prevent mothers from becoming overweight or diabetic later in life."
The results of the measures taken in developed nations to address these conditions over the last twenty to thirty years are now evident.
Fewer older women today in the advanced economies are dying from diabetes, stroke and heart disease compared to 1985. "These health improvements contributed most to increasing women's life expectancy at the age of 50," the authors added.
A 50-year-old woman today in Germany and Japan can expect to live to 84 and 88 years of age respectively - 3.5 years longer than three decades ago.
Women of the same age in France, UK and Chile can expect to live 2.5 years longer today than thirty years ago, thanks to improvements in these health areas.
In Mexico and Russia, however, improvements have been more moderate, 2.4 and 1.2 years respectively. A fifty-year-old Mexican woman can expect to live to the age of 80 years, and her Russian counterpart to 78 years.
The gap in life expectancy between developed and emerging economies is slowly growing, and increasing much more rapidly compared to the poorest countries in the world.
A 50-year-old woman's life expectancy - 1985-2013
The illustration below shows how the gap in life expectancy for women aged 50 years between Japan and South Africa has widened over the last three decades.
(Source: World Health Organization)
Cancer rates have risen but deaths from cancers have fallen
The incidence of breast cancer has risen over the last three decades among women. However, over the same period, the number of older women dying from breast and cervical cancer has gone down. The authors say this is due to early diagnosis and prompt, effective treatment.
In the USA, UK, Russia, Poland, Mexico, New Zealand, Japan, Greece, Germany, France and Chile, deaths from cardiovascular disease and diabetes among older women between 1970 and 2010 fell by 66% (average), the study showed.
In May this year, during the World Health Assembly, 194 WHO Member States agreed on a worldwide action plan for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCD). The plan includes measures countries can take to combat these diseases over the next seven years.
Dr Oleg Chestnov, Assistant Director-General for Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health, said:
"We know that the measures proposed in the WHO Global NCD Action Plan 2013-2020 are effective in reducing the toll of deaths and disease from noncommunicable diseases. This study underlines how important it is for all countries to embrace the WHO global action plan and put it into practice.
The Action Plan targets, including a 25% relative reduction in the overall mortality of men and women aged between 30 and 70 years from cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes or chronic respiratory diseases, should be a priority for all public health and development partners."
The report highlighted the following data regarding women aged 50 years or older:
- 280 million live in developed nations
- 550 million live in developing countries
- They will make up 19% of the world's population by 2050
- 379 million will be living in developed countries by 2050
- 1.5 billion will be living in developing countries by 2050
Beard said "The fact that noncommunicable diseases strike these women at an earlier age in less developed countries has major implications, as these deaths are devastating for individuals, families and societies."
Over the next twenty years, the number of older women with breast cancer will quadruple in the UK, according to a study carried out at King's College London. The researchers wrote in the British Journal of Cancer that by 2040 there will be 1.2 million women aged at least 65 years living with breast cancer, compared to 340,000 today. 73% of breast cancer survivors will be seniors, compared to 59% today.
While life expectancy is generally rising among American women, in many parts of the USA females under the age of 75 are dying at higher rates than before. The researchers suggested in the journal Health Affairs that increased smoking and obesity rates are partly to blame.