National Women's Health Policy

Life stages

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

Research has demonstrated that the health needs of women differ through stages of their lifecycle.

Physical and social circumstances, starting before birth and continuing through childhood, influence both physical health and the ability to maintain health. Key transition points in women’s lives are important in the development of good or poor health. These include pregnancy and childbirth, school entry, puberty, workforce entry, partnering, menopause, leaving the paid workforce, and widowhood.349

Different health issues may be more relevant to women’s lives at varying life stages. For example: young women and risky behaviour; mid age women and sexual and reproductive health; and older women and recognition of how social isolation, caring role and financial insecurity can impact on health.

This makes age-appropriate health information and health promotion material particularly important. Transition points are opportunities to target health promotion material.350 351

For young women, pressures to achieve academically and socially, and to conform to stereotypes about appearance, can push them into risky behaviour including high risk drinking352, unprotected sex and unhealthy body image.353 Young women are experiencing high rates of smoking and violence, as well as rates of obesity and overweight increasing amongst young women at a higher rate than past generations. The increasing rates of sexually transmitted infections, such as chlamydia, amongst young women has the potential to impact on fertility later in life.

Mental health issues are a particular concern for young women. In 2001, over 22 per cent of young women reported high to very high psychological distress, almost twice the rate of males.354 Nearly a third of the burden of disease for this age group is due to anxiety and depression.355 In the last 10 years self-harm requiring hospitalisation among young women increased by 51 per cent.356.
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For women in their reproductive years, pregnancy, managing fertility and having children are prominent issues.

The age of first birth is getting older in Australia. There is a need for greater education about fertility and the reproductive system to help Australian women to understand the factors which may impact on their fertility and the health of their baby during pregnancy (such as obesity, smoking, alcohol, STIs, maternal nutrition).

Women going through the life transition of becoming a mother can experience mental health issues. Support services are particularly important at this life stage, especially in relation to antenatal support to address issues such as postnatal depression.

Challenges in balancing work and family commitments can have a significant impact on women’s physical and mental health, particular since women still take on a higher proportion of caring responsibilities.

For women in mid-life, symptoms of menopause and other life stage factors can affect women’s mental and physical health. It is a time of transition physically, and can be in other ways, with children reaching adulthood and gaining independence357 and ageing parents requiring care.

There are a number of health issues of particular importance to mid-age women, including mental disorders, musculoskeletal diseases and breast cancer.358 Anxiety and depression is a leading burden of disease for adult women.359 360 Intimate partner violence is a leading burden for females up to 44 years of age.361

Older women are more likely than men to be widowed, live alone or in residential care, 362 experience financial insecurity363, more chronic illness, multiple disabilities 364 and greater health service use.365 Furthermore, older women are often marginalised or regarded as ‘socially invisible’ in Australian society. Violence against older women has been increasing but is still underreported.

Older women experience much higher rates of profound or severe disability than males of the same age.366 This is partially due to the high rates of dementia and musculoskeletal diseases in older women.

As health outcomes are influenced by the cumulative effects of these experiences, the policy seeks to address health throughout women’s lives. For each of the health priority issues, this policy considers their impacts on women at their different life stages in Chapter 3. The evidence of the last 20 years has confirmed the importance of taking a life course approach, preventing the accumulation of health risk factors and giving girls and women the age-appropriate health care they require.