Ageing well: Women's health

We look at some of the most prevalent health issues for women over 50 and how you can put your best foot forward on the path to ageing well.

  • Summer 2020
  • Health and wellness
  • Read Time: 6 mins

A partner's role in women's health

Ageing can certainly trigger emotional changes in many women, especially in relation to hormone disruption due to menopause, psychosocial issues e.g. depression/anxiety (hormonal and environmental), dual caring responsibilities and increased financial stress. This is where an understanding partner can be an incredible resource.

Some women may try to shield the men in their lives from what they feel are ‘women’s issues’, however this can be counterintuitive. If your partner is a male, it’s important for them to understand the issues you are experiencing so they can provide adequate support.

Perhaps you’d like your partner to accompany you to medical appointments as a first step in understanding any ongoing health concerns you may have. Most doctors are usually very happy for patients to bring along a support person, and at the very least it can’t hurt to ask the question.

Director of the Priority Research Centre for Generational Health and Ageing, Professor Julie Byles studies women aged 70 years and up, and says ageing can be a very positive experience if we manage our health properly.

“Most people aged 70-plus would expect to have some sort of health problem being managed by their GP, and for women this may include arthritis, hypertension, high cholesterol, cardiovascular disease and other conditions. Often, women may even have more than one health condition, so you have to think about how these conditions are interacting with one another,” Julie explains.

“The problem with these conditions is that they can reduce your fitness, and if you are a bit overweight or have asthma, joint pain or arthritis, then you are going to struggle to do things and it becomes a vicious cycle—the more you struggle to do things, the less you do and the harder it becomes to do things,” Dr Byles says.

As women age from 70 to 80, the incidence of diabetes goes through the roof. If you’re in your late 50s through to 60s, it’s really important to watch out for the risk factors associated with diabetes. That means paying attention to your diet and keeping up your exercise. If you are experiencing difficulty with these things, it’s important to manage them as soon as possible.

Dr Byles says we all want to preserve fitness, mobility and balance as much as possible, as losing these things are the scourge of old age. “If you don’t move it you lose it. Staying fit and mobile gives you the best advantage possible to fight health problems as we age. It’s important to push through as once you lose the one ability, it can snowball.”

"If you don’t move it you lose it. Staying fit and mobile gives you the best advantage possible to fight health problems as we age.”

Fighting fit

Health checks

When health issues pop up it’s important to seek advice from your GP sooner rather than later, however minor they may seem, and have regular check-ups.

Women’s health expert Annie Flint says annual check-ups for women aged 50 and older should include checks for blood pressure, BMI, breast, skin and osteoporosis/bone density. Every two years have a heart health screen and breast screening mammogram, and every five years a cervical screening test and STI screen if with a different partner or there are symptoms.

Reproductive health

For women aged 50 and older, reproductive health issues usually include menopause/ post menopause, vaginal dryness, low libido, continence issues, menorrhagia (menstrual bleeding lasting for longer than seven days), STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and UTIs (urinary tract infections). It’s important to note that the pap smear program has changed, with the tests now called cervical screening tests (CST). The good news is that the CST is now more accurate and thus only required once every five years rather than once every two years.

A healthy mind

Keeping your brain healthy is essential for living a fulfilling, healthy and long life. Research suggests that a brainhealthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of developing dementia later in life.

When changes in memory or thinking regularly affect daily life, you may need further support. Changes might include difficulties such as:

  • remembering days and dates
  • remembering recent events
  • handling finances
  • following and joining conversations, particularly in groups maintaining interest in activities you usually enjoy.

One reason for these changes could be dementia. Dementia is not considered a normal part of ageing.

Keeping the brain stimulated and active is extremely important for our cognitive health. The types of activities we do, how mentally and socially engaging they are, and how frequently we do them, can build brain reserve, so it can cope better and keep working properly if any brain cells are damaged or die. Build your brain’s neuroplasticity through the growth of new brain cells, improved connections between existing brain cells and improved support networks surrounding brain cells.

Mental stimulation and new learning are linked to a reduced risk of dementia. Some activities that exercise the brain include reading, doing puzzles such as crosswords and Sudoku, painting, sewing, woodwork, cooking, playing an instrument and using technology.

Social interaction also helps to improve our wellbeing and reduce feelings of loneliness or depression. It may also reduce our risk of cognitive decline. It is important to find ways to be social, such as having a friendly chat with neighbours, catching up with friends over the phone or face to-face, or joining a club or volunteer group.

When health issues pop up it’s important to seek advice from your GP sooner rather than later...

Don't wait and see

Cervical screening

Women aged 25-74 years of age who havebeen sexually active should have a Cervical Screening Test every five years until the age of 74. Your first Cervical Screening Test is due at 25 years of age or two years after your last Pap test. If your result is normal you will be due to have your next test in five years' time.

The CST is still an invasive procedure but it can be made more comfortable if you let your health professional know about any previous difficulties or concerns you might have had with the test. These measures may include the use of oestrogen cream prior to taking the test, which reduces vaginal dryness, and you can request a paediatric speculum, which is less invasive.

Self-collection is now possible for the CST for women who have experienced trauma but it is important for the health professional to also see the cervix to complete the test. Remember, the screening procedure might be a bit uncomfortable, but it shouldn't hurt. You can always ask for a female clinician if you wish.

You can get a Cervical Screening Test at your doctor’s clinic, community health centre, women’s health clinic, sexual health clinic and Aboriginal Medical Service.

Bowel screening

Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in Australia and often develops without any noticeable symptoms, which is why regular screening is so important. The National Bowel Cancer Screening Program aims to reduce deaths from bowel cancer by detecting the early signs of the disease.

Eligible Australians from 50 to 74 years of age are sent a free, simple test that is done at home. From 2020 onwards, all eligible Australians between the ages of 50 and 74 will be invited to do the screening test every two years. The home test kit is mailed to you and comes with instructions on how to do the test. Once you’ve done the test, simply send the samples to the pathology laboratory in the reply paid envelope provided. The samples are processed and the result is sent to you and your doctor within two weeks.


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