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Study: Older women living longer but gap between rich, poor countries growing

Women aged 50 and older are living longer, but the gap in life expectancy for women in rich and poor countries is growing, according to a study by the World Health Organization.

The chronic health conditions heart disease, stroke and cancer kill the most older women, but they die at an earlier age in developing countries compared to richer ones, the study's authors found.

"The fact that non-communicable 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," said study co-author Dr. John Beard, director of the World Health Organization's Department of Ageing and Life Course.

Preventing, detecting and treating such diseases as high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol and cancer must be improved, he added. Convincing women to avoid smoking and alcohol abuse is also key.

"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," Beard said. "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 study, published this week in the Bulletin of the World Health Organization, is one of the first to analyze the causes of death of women 50 and older from a range of countries.

Today, there are about 280 million women 50 years and older in developed regions and about 550 million of them in developing countries. But, by 2050, nearly one-fifth of the world's population will be older women, with 379 million of these women living in developed regions and 1.5 billion of them in less developed regions, the study found.

In developed countries, changes made over the last 20 to 30 years are showing results, according to the study.

Fewer women 50 and older in these countries are dying from heart disease, stroke and diabetes than 30 years ago, an improvement that contributed most to increasing their life expectancy.

Between 1970 and 2010, deaths from heart disease and diabetes fell on average by 66 percent in 11 affluent countries: Chile, France, Germany, Greece, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, Poland, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, the study found.

In Japan and Germany, 50-year-old women added 3.5 years in life expectancy, and today can expect to live to 88 and 84, respectively.

France, the United Kingdom and Chile also saw gains, of about 2.5 years, while in Mexico and the Russian Federation, the life expectancy increased more slowly, by a little less than 2.5 years and a little more than a year.

The incidence of breast cancer increased during the same 30-year period, but early diagnosis and treatment meant that there were fewer deaths among older women from breast and cervical cancer, the study found.

The study is included in a special issue of the Bulletin devoted to women's health beyond reproduction. Other topics addressed include: the environmental causes of breast cancer, the sexual health of older women, universal coverage of health services for older women and breast and cervical cancer in poor countries.