A ground-breaking Australian study is overcoming sexism and ageism to produce the data women need to age well.
Women live, on average, four years longer than men and Professor Cassandra Szoeke is urging them to ensure they are good years.
‘Ageing is great; it’s illness and degeneration that are not,’ Professor Szoeke says.
Professor Szoeke is the Director of the Healthy Ageing Program at The University of Melbourne and is the principal investigator of the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project. She has utilised the project’s data to date to write Secrets of Women’s Healthy Ageing; a practical guide for women who want to maximise their health and wellbeing into their later years.
The on-going project is the world’s longest study of female health, following a group of Australian women for the past 30 years from their mid to late lives. But, as Professor Szoeke points out, that’s not the only reason it is ground-breaking. The project has overcome the ageism that has historically prevented any meaningful research into health and wellbeing in older years of either gender – and the sexism that has typically seen only male subjects used in clinical trials.
‘No one's done research on postmenopause and the impacts. Studies on menopause often end once women reach the postmenopause. Yet in the lucky country, Australia, women live more than a third of our lives in the post menopause,’ Professor Szoeke says.
‘It wasn't until the turn of the 19th century that people lived to 50. That’s not so long ago in terms of medical teaching. So, I think, to some extent, people are considered lucky to be living over 80 because the mean age of death has only for the last few decades been 86,’ Professor Szoeke says.
‘There’s this guy who's 97 years old. He has a sore right knee so he goes to his GP and his doctor looks at his knees and says, “Well Bob, you’re 97, what do you expect?”, and Bob says, “Yeah, but doc my left knee is also 97 and it's fine”.
Ageism has also ensured medical research has focused on diseases that impact people at 50 and younger, with little attention paid to the ‘chronic diseases of ageing’ that are now the leading cause of death in Australia; heart disease, airways disease, diabetes, dementia and stroke.
Lack of knowledge about how to age well can have dire consequences. An example in Professor Szoeke’s book tells of a woman who was devastated to learn she had osteoporosis. ‘I swim each and every day. The pool was one of the main reasons I chose my apartment, to keep active in my ageing. Now I know that buoyancy doesn’t help building bone strength.’
How to maintain good bone health is one of the key messages from the book, as is the good news that you don’t necessarily need to be in great shape by your mid to late 40s to have a chance of ageing well.
‘In our study we looked from 45 through to 80 and we presumed, as everyone thought, that midlife would be the most important time. So, if your exercise, cholesterol and blood pressure and healthy diet wasn't there in midlife, then you wouldn't do as well. But, we found that it was what you did each and every day that was what was important. Be it at 40 or 80. But here's the trick. It's cumulative. So, if you do nothing at 40, you've got to do double at 50. So, you can make up for lost time, but if you don't do it today, you have to do twice as much tomorrow.’
Luckily the data shows there is no need for that daily exercise to be intense.
‘When you look over 30 years, it was the women who did an hour of exercise each and every day that exceeded the people who were intense exercisers on and off.’
Which means incorporating a walk into your day will do the trick – as long as it’s every day.
Top tips for ageing well:
- Dementia is the number one killer of women; look after your brain with good food, adequate sleep and by continuing to learn and challenge yourself.
- Keep moving; exercise every day.
- Eat well; raw and unprocessed foods are best, and drink ample water.
- Half of women over 50 have bone loss; keep your Vitamin D levels up and do strengthening exercises.
Reviewed 08 March 2023