Aging, Women and Health

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“When it comes to research and knowledge development, older women face double jeopardy — exclusion related to both sexism and ageism.”

- Women, Ageing and Health: A Framework for Action (World Health Organization)

Sex and gender definitely matter as we age. Older women and men tend to suffer similar illnesses, but in different forms and at different rates.  Sadly, there remain huge gaps in our knowledge of why these differences exist. This is, in part, because clinical studies in some areas still tend to focus on men only. Also, there is still little research being done on how important social determinants of health affect older women and men differently. And finally, researchers often simply ignore older people in general when gathering data. For example, most international studies on issues such as violence and HIV/AIDS do not gather statistics on people over 50. For these reasons and others, aging women’s health is still emerging as an area of knowledge. In that light, we offer here the best of what we have found.

Aging: An Overview

Contesting Aging and Loss
Edited by Janice Graham and Peter Stephenson, University
of Toronto Press, 2010
Discusses how the stereotyping of older people as being “in decline” is a more serious problem than many other problems. Advocates for programs that address the social determinants of healthy aging and social inclusion throughout our lives.

Women, Ageing and Health: A Framework for Action
World Health Organization, 2007

Examines in detail the factors that affect the health of older women.

Healthy Aging in Canada: A New Vision, a Vital Investment, From Evidence to Action - A Background Paper
Public Health Agency of Canada, 2006

Describes a new vision for healthy aging in Canada and suggests five key focus areas for action.

Gender, Health and Ageing
World Health Organization, 2003

Brief introduction to the health differences between older women and men. 

Women’s Life Expectancy: Not so HALE and hearty?  

Women live longer than men, but are less healthy, as a whole, in their later years. When we look at “healthy life expectancy” or HALE – expected years of life “in full health” – we find that women suffer more serious chronic disease and disability near the end of their lives.

Mortality, Life and Healthy Expectancy of Canadian Women
By Marie DesMeules, Douglas Manuel and Robert Cho, from: Women's Health Surveillance Report, Canadian Institute for Health Information, 2003

Examines the causes of death in Canada for women compared with men, and the differences in life expectancies.

Health-Adjusted Life Expectancy (HALE)
Our Lens on the Sex, Gender, and Diversity Issues on This Topic
, The Source
Discusses briefly why older Canadian women are not as healthy as older men.

Social and Economic Costs of Aging

Health in older age, as when we are younger, is deeply interconnected with social and economic issues. This is a particular issue for women, who experience poverty in larger numbers than men do. Women with disabilities and women who are victims of abuse or racism face added health stresses as they age.  Women abuse substances less often than men, but have more accidents as a result of their abuse. And finally, caregiving is also a gendered health issue, and not only for those on the receiving end of care. Women worldwide tend to be the caregivers, even while elderly and themselves in poor health.


Integrating Poverty and Gender into Health Programmes: A Sourcebook for Health Professionals (Module on Ageing)
World Health Organization, 2006

Intended for health professionals, this sourcebook also serves as a good primer for others seeking to understand the complex links between poverty, gender and aging.

Poverty and Aging
Gender and Health Collaborative Curriculum

Training module for health professionals that looks at the issues facing older people in poverty in Canada, as seen through a gender lens.

Elder Abuse

Exposure to Abuse Linked to Poorer Mental Health in Older, Functionally Independent Women
Medscape, 2010

Examines how abuse in older, functionally independent women is associated with poor mental health, and explains why clinicians should consider that older female patients who have depressive symptoms may be victims of abuse. Free membership in Medscape is required to view.

Abuse of Older Women
Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, 2004

Primer on the abuse of older women, comparing the higher incidence of abuse against older women than against older men, and discussing the different forms of abuse they experience.

Alcoholism and Addictions

Best Practices: Treatment and Rehabilitation for Seniors with Substance Use Problems – Gender Differences
Health Canada, 2002

Examines sex and gender as it relates to seniors’ substance use. Finds that older men have more substance use problems but older women are more prone to accidents as a result of substance use.

Alcohol and the Elderly
Center for Alcohol Policies
One of a series of online resources discussing alcohol research, offering a gendered look at alcohol use among the elderly.

Vulnerable Communities

Ageways 75: Focus on Older Women
Help Age International
, Issue 75, July 2010
Discusses the poor health and other impacts of discrimination on older women in the developing world, while highlighting their abilities and contributions; for example, their caregiving for family members with AIDS and for their orphaned children. Scroll down the page to find the resource.

Health Status and Health Needs of Older Immigrant Women: Individual, Community, and Societal and Policy Links
Ontario Women’s Health Network, 2007

Examines the impact of social policy on the health status of older immigrant women and the health and social service seeking patterns of older immigrant women.

Successful Aging of Women with Intellectual Disabilities: The Toronto Experience
By Maaike Canrinus and Yona Lunsky, Journal on Developmental Disabilities, Volume 10, Number 1, 2003

Identifies some key issues in aging for older women with intellectual disabilities from the perspectives of the women themselves.

The Challenges of Change: The Midlife Health Needs of Women with Disabilities
By Marina Morrow with the Midlife Health Needs of Women with Disabilities Advisory Committee, British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health and DAWN Canada, 2000

Discusses the interconnections between menopause, disability and aging through interviews with women with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and their caregivers.

Caregivers and Caregiving

Women, Gender and Unpaid Care‑giving
By Jennifer Bernier and Barbara Clow, in Rising to the Challenge: Sex‑ and gender‑based analysis for health planning, policy and research in Canada, pp. 80-85 , Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, 2009
Shows, through an examination of the gendered dimensions of unpaid care‑giving, that gender stereotypes, roles, and expectations play a large part in who provides care, the type of care that is provided as well as the economic and health implications of providing care.

A Place to Call Home
Edited by Pat Armstrong, Madeline Boscoe, Barbara Clow, Karen Grant, Margaret Haworth-Brockman, Beth Jackson, Ann Pederson, Morgan Seeley, and Jane Springer, Fernwood Publishing, 2009
Envisions alternative forms of long-term, residential care that account for the fact that the overwhelming majority of both residents and providers are women.

Long-term Care Homes Legislation: Lessons from Ontario
By Bev Baines, Network, Fall/Winter 2007 Volume 10, Number 1

Argues that provincial governments across Canada have legislated LTC homes policies without examining their implications for women, and outlines the serious consequences of this gender-neutral legislation.

Health and Housing Needs of Aging Lesbians
Sherbourne Health Centre and Older Lesbians in Valued Environments (OLIVE), 2003

The results of a 2003 environmental scan on the health and housing concerns of older lesbians.

Women and Home Care: Why Does Home Care Matter to Women?
National Coordinating Group on Health Care Reform and Women, 2002

Examines the range of issues that face unpaid caregivers in Canada, most of whom are women, and the consequences for their health.

Gender-Sensitive Home and Community Care and Caregiving Research: A Synthesis Paper
By Marika Morris, Health Canada, 2001

Research that finds female caregivers tend to be older than male caregivers and that seniors should be viewed both as caregivers and care recipients. 

Missing Voices in Long-term Care Policy Making: Elderly Women and Women with Disabilities Receiving Home Care
By Jane Aronson, Centres of Excellence for Women’s Health Research Bulletin, Fall 2000, Volume 1, Number 1

Explores the perspectives and aspirations of frail elderly women and younger women with disabilities who rely on care in Ontario.

Long-term Care
Women and Health Care Reform

Research on long-term caregiving and policy recommendations to create gender-sensitive long-term care.

Medication Use among the Elderly

Medication is a gendered health issue. Older women tend to take more medication than men of any age, and the risk of being prescribed the wrong drug is twice as high among older women as older men. Also, older women also may be more likely than men to experience adverse drug reactions.

Medication Use among Senior Canadians
By Pamela L. Ramage-Morin
, Statistics Canada, 2009
Examines medication use among the elderly using both sex and age disaggregated data, finding that older women are more likely than older men to use medication.

Manufacturing Addiction: The Over-Prescription of Benzodiazepines and Sleeping Pills to Women in Canada
By Janet C. Currie, British Columbia Centre for Excellence in Women’s Health, 2003
Describes the serious problem of over-prescribing Benzodiazepines (or tranquilizers) to women, a practice especially common among elderly women and Aboriginal women.

Health Conditions: Some Case Studies

Older women and older men tend to suffer from the same types of illnesses but these illnesses can present differently. The most common diseases include cardiovascular diseases, cancers, arthritis and other musculoskeletal problems, diabetes, mental illnesses, sensory impairments, and incontinence. We also look at some of these topics in Chronic Disease: What Do Sex and Gender Have To Do with It?  and Women, Gender and Mental Health and Addictions.

Bone Health

Better Science with Sex and Gender: A Primer for Health Research
By Joy Johnson, Lorraine Greaves, and Robin Repta, Women’s Health Research Network, 2009
See section on Women and Bone Health on p. 22

Shows how sex and gender relate can relate to the development of health conditions, by using osteoporosis as an example.

National Women’s Health Network, 2008

Looks critically at the evidence about osteoporosis and at the pressure exerted on older women to take medication to prevent osteoporosis.

Memory Loss and Dementia

Dementia among Seniors
By Gerry Hill, William Forbes, Joan Lindsay and Ian McDowell, Statistics Canada, 1996

Study that finds the total expectation of life for women is 26% greater than that for men, but women's expectations of life with dementia and of life in institutions are more than twice the corresponding expectations for men.

Mental Health

Social Isolation among Seniors: An Emerging Issue
Children’s, Women’s and Seniors Health Branch, British Columbia Ministry of Health, 2004
Study that says it may be misleading to view gender as a risk factor for social isolation among older people, and suggests that the stigma associated with loneliness is stronger for men and may result in them being less likely to report feeling lonely than women.

The Effect of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Health of Older Women 
By Madelyn Hall and Betty Havens, Prairie Women's Health Centre of Excellence, 1999

Shows that older women are more vulnerable to higher levels of loneliness, and suggests various ways to alleviate social isolation, such as more services for seniors and better housing options.