National Women's Health Policy

Women and ageing: changing demographics

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

The next few decades will see fundamental changes to the structure of the Australian population as a result of historic patterns of fertility, migration and changes in life expectancy. As a result, there is a significant predicted increase in the proportion of the population in the older age groups. For example, in 1971, under 1.1 million (8.3 per cent) of the Australian population were aged 65 years or older. In 2009, this has risen to over 2 million (13.3 per cent) of the population.

The ageing trend can be measured in terms of the increase in the median age of the population and by examining the age structure of the population. Figure 2 shows that the median age of men and women has increased steadily over time. Prior to 1927, the median age of men was higher than the median age of women. Since 1929, the median age of women has been higher than the median age of men. In 2005, the median age for women was 37.4 years and the median age for men was 35.9 years.10

graph showing trends in median ages of men and women between 1925 to 2005

A major reason for the ageing of the population has been declining fertility. At the beginning of the 20th century, the total fertility rate was approximately 3.5 babies per woman. Figure 3 shows that following a brief decline in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a large and sustained increase in Australia’s total fertility rate from the end of World War II to the mid-1960s. Australia’s total fertility rate peaked at 3.1 in 1947 and again in 1961 at 3.5.11 Fertility declined from the mid-1960s, with a sharp fall from 2.9 in 1971 to 1.9 in 1981, and then a gradual decrease to 1.7 in 2001. In 1977, Australia’s fertility rate fell below replacement level (2.1 babies per woman) and has remained there ever since.12 Since 2001, fertility has gradually increased and, in 2005, the total fertility rate was 1.81 babies per woman, which has been the highest rate since 1995.13

graph showing the trends in Australia's total fertility rate

One in two Australians is female, and the Australian female population is ageing, with important implications for Australia’s health care system. Over the last century, there has been an increase in life expectancy for both men and women. However, life expectancy has consistently been higher for women, although the gap between male and female longevity is closing (Figure 4). In 2005 the life expectancy at birth for women was 83.3 years compared to 78.5 years for men.14 This means that women, on average, live for 4.8 years longer than men. Projections indicate that women will make up an increasing proportion of the old and very old segment of the Australian population over time.

graph showing the trends in life expectancy at birth by sex from 1961 to 2001

The ageing of the female population will have a significant impact on the Australian health system. During 2008 to 2009, of the 171.6 million Medicare services accessed by women, the majority (on a per capita basis) were for women in the 55 years + age group. Increasing poor health and disability among older women translates into a stronger demand for Medicare services, with per capita usage peaking in the 75 to 84 year age group. Actual Medicare services usage peaks in the 55 to 64 year age group at a total of 25,709,943 services.

graph showing the Medicare services accessed (female) by age group between 2008-09

Not only do women increase their use of health services as they grow older, they also make up the majority of the health workforce and are in the majority of unpaid carer roles.