Women's health declines in 40s: StatsCan

OTTAWA — Canadian women experience a significant decline in health and quality of life between the ages of 40 and 50, compared to men during the same period of life, suggests a Statistics Canada study.
The study, released Wednesday, suggests women in their 40s experience more health problems — for example, illness linked to emotional stress — that lead to a poorer quality of life than their male counterparts during that particular decade, says one of the study’s authors, Heather Orpana.
The findings are no surprise to women’s health experts, who say many in this age group are worn out emotionally and physically from so-called “time-hunger” issues, or trying to juggle careers, family and other caregiving responsibilities.
“They’re absorbing all of this in a very different way than from generations ago,” said Madeline Boscoe, executive director of the Canadian Women’s Health Network. “So much so that if you were to ask them questions about the quality of their life they would say they had lots of anxiety of some kind or another.”
According to the report’s data, from ages 40 to 50, women’s average health-related quality of life index fell by the equivalent of six percentage points (.06 on the index), which is twice the threshold considered clinically important. The data for men in their 40s, on the other hand, did not drop significantly and instead the numbers stabilized, indicating a period of relative good health for men, but not for women.
“The numbers look like a really small decrease, but in actual fact it’s quite large in terms of the impact on one’s daily living,” said Orpana. “It’s going from a state where you have pain or vision problems, for example, but you can still function to going to a state where you have pain or a vision problem that you can’t correct.”
Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, says men in their 40s may perceive a better quality of life because they are confident in their careers and have more senior positions.
“Men in that age group are hitting their stride in their work careers,” he said. “They are also more likely (than women) to get the resources and rewards from the work role and that could be bolstering their sense of well-being.”
While women and men may have equally demanding jobs, men may not have the stress of child-bearing and child rearing, he said, adding that men may be less anxious about their jobs.
“There’s more sharing of responsibilities going on but if the burden of childcare is falling more on women and they are trying to work at the same time that’s probably taking a major toll as well.”
Another reason why men might perceive their health-related quality of life as good is because they tend to ignore their health more than women, suggests Dr. Tom Freeman, chair of family medicine at the University of Western Ontario.
“Our socialization is different that way. Women are worrying about birth control and pap smears and regularly visit physicians but it isn’t until around age 50 that men take any action,” he said.
“There is lots of speculation about why they don’t live as long as women and you know you wonder if they paid more attention to their health they would perhaps live longer?”
The study measured eight attributes: vision, hearing, speech, ambulation, dexterity, emotion, cognition, and pain and discomfort. Participants were asked to grade each attribute ranging from severely impaired to no impairment.
Orpana said one of the reasons for this drop among women could be attributed to the emotional domain.
For example, of the women studied, those who said they went from being “somewhat happy” in their 30s to “somewhat unhappy” in their 40s would experience that decline in quality of life.
The reasons could be linked to emotional stress including relationship problems, problems with children, job stress or financial problems, said Orpana.
“We know that women are more likely to experience depression than men,” she said.
“So that really implies that we need to look further at women in that decade to see why their health quality of life is decreasing so much.”
Boscoe said women in their 40s make up a larger percentage of those who are poor and are coming into middle age with lower expectations than when they were younger, which could cause some anxiety or depression.
“They’re suddenly understanding that this is the life they are going to live. You know, you’re not on a trajectory to make oodles of dollars. You’re just coping,” she said.
Boscoe pointed to the need for a national daycare program as an example of women calling on the government for some relief from the juggling act.
Orpana said the findings were significant enough to warrant further study of women during that decade, adding that a report is expected to be published later this year.
“It was a result that was unexpected and quite interesting and so we really want to look at the explanations now for that decline,” she said. “Hopefully that will help us better understand women’s health.”
Researchers will look at behavioural factors, such as smoking, physical activity and alcohol consumption, as well as social factors such as stress and access to health care, she said.
After 50, the report suggests, the rate of health does not improve, but the rate of decline stabilizes until the age of 70.
Data for the study came from 7,915 community-dwelling adults aged 40 and older in 1994 and 1995.
Overall, excluding people who were institutionalized, the study found the health-related quality of life for all Canadians remained generally stable until about 70, when it began to decline.

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