Improving women’s health is an investment in families, communities and the economy

This Women’s Health Week, Professor Cassandra Szoeke was in conversation with Professor Anne-Maree Kelly, Professor of Emergency Medicine at Western Health at an event supported by Melbourne University Publishing to share her research findings from The Women’s Healthy Ageing Project (WHAP), the longest running women's health study in Australia.

The WHAP commenced in 1990 to examine the health of Australian women from midlife (then aged 45-55 years) before the menopausal transition and into ageing.

The study has almost 30 years of data on mood, dietary intake, risky behaviours, physical activity and social connectedness among other factors.

The WHAP continues to follow up these women, who are now all aged over 70 years. The children of the original participants have now joined the study as of 2021, commencing the WHAP generations study.

Their conversation touched on a range of topics in women’s health including the differences in how women age, new data on what walking speed tells us about health, the prevalence of intimate partner violence experienced by women and how businesses are keen to retain women as valuable employees.

Professor Cassandra Szoeke’s research fills a gap in medical research, as women have traditionally been excluded from pre-clinical and clinical trials.

In 2000, the National Institutes of Health mandated equal representation of women and men in trials, and in 2014 they mandated use of both female and male animals in drug development. The international consortia in The Precision Medicine Institute that Professor Szoeke is on  are now advocating for mandates that sex differences need to be reported in trials.

Women's Health Week event “We don’t know enough about women’s healthy aging,” said Professor Szoeke.

Professor Szoeke explained that an accumulating body of research data and knowledge shows that women are different from men and present differently for many conditions and diseases including heart attack, many chronic diseases and dementia.

“The three biggest killers of women are dementia, heart disease and stroke, which is different for men. But for me, women’s health is brain and heart health,” she said.

“Women’s heart attacks are silent, as they are more likely to stem from small vessel disease and shockingly, women over 50 are four times more likely to live with disability than men of the same age.”

New collaboration with the Melbourne Business School with Professor Phillip Dolan, Executive Director, Institute for the Future of Business

Professor Szoeke  was excited to share news of a new collaboration with the Melbourne Business School to identify the reasons why industries are losing women after the age of 50 and how to better support them.

WHO reports evidence that when you improve the health of women, you improve the health of families and communities as a whole.

Women over the age of 50 are considered to be the most valuable employees and employers wish to retain them, due to their accumulated knowledge, experience and networks.

“Forty-five per cent of women tell employers  that they are leaving for health reasons, which include anxiety, depression and bullying. This is supported by recent ABS 6238.0 Retirement and Retirement Intentions dataset 5.1 showing that 61 per cent of women who left their job cited the reason as “own sickness, injury or disability".

“Coupled with menopausal symptoms and caring responsibilities, we’re seeing a significant departure of women from the workforce at this stage in their life, when they are at the peak of their experience and abilities,” said Professor Szoeke.

“I’m looking forward to learning more about how we can help retain women in the workforce, when they have the most to contribute,” she said.

Professor Phillip Dolan, Executive Director, Institute for the Future of Business spoke about why business is interested in women’s healthy aging.

“Women are an investment and businesses need to be accommodating,” Professor Dolan said.

New research: Walking speed

Professor Szoeke shared new findings from a recently published study that show that walking speed from your 40s, predicts falls and lifespan. The research also showed that better cognition in mid-life prevented falls . These findings support lifestyle changes that women can make as they age, to improve their chances of ageing well.

“So, maintain your brain’s memory, planning, motor function and artistic abilities,” said Professor Szoeke.

“Social activities, particularly hanging out with grandchildren; it really makes your brain work,” she said.

New research: Intimate partner violence

Professor Szoeke also shared some insights on data collected on the WHAP in the early 90s, that she presented at the STOP domestic violence conference .

“We know that intimate partner violence is a serious issue that has whole of life impacts, particularly in correlation to an increase in prevalence of chronic disease,” said Professor Szoeke.

“It’s a neglected area that we aim to pursue further.”