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Women's Health

Australia’s health compares well with that of other developed countries, ranking highly on most health indicators. However, every year many Australian women miss the chance to better manage their health by not knowing some key information about important areas of health affecting them.

Following is some information on health areas and common risks women should be aware of and some helpful tips on how to help manage these risks.

Heart disease  

Coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death in Australian women, and around four times more women die from heart disease than breast cancer.

People with coronary heart disease have thickened, hardened artery walls due to a build-up of cholesterol and other substances that form plaques. If the blood vessels get too clogged with plaques, the blood supply to the heart muscle is reduced, leading to chest pain (angina) and heart attacks.

Modifiable risk factors for heart disease which are within your control can include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • being overweight
  • smoking
  • being physically inactive
  • poor nutrition
  • type 2 diabetes risk.

You can reduce your risk of coronary artery disease by making changes to your lifestyle, including:

  • staying smoke-free
  • exercising regularly - at least 30 mins moderate intensity most days of the week
  • eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • drinking responsibly - no more than 2 standard drinks a day
  • maintaining a healthy weight for you
  • getting enough sleep
  • managing your stress levels.

These lifestyle changes can also help reduce the risk of many other health conditions including stroke, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and some cancers.

Control your blood pressure and cholesterol levels

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a major risk factor for heart disease. If you have high blood pressure over a long period of time, you are more likely to suffer a heart attack, stroke or kidney failure. Your GP can monitor your blood pressure. If it is high on several separate occasions despite your attempts to improve your diet and exercise, your doctor may recommend medication to bring it back to normal.

Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers, for example, 120 over 80 (120/80). The first number describes the pressure in the arteries as the heart pumps blood out during the beat (known as systolic blood pressure). The second number relates to the pressure as the heart relaxes before the next beat (diastolic blood pressure). Blood pressure is measured in millimetres of mercury (mmHg).

Blood pressure is usually considered high if it measures more than 120/80 mmHg while 140/90 mmHg or above is considered to be clearly high blood pressure. If you are taking medication to control your blood pressure, it should be checked regularly by your GP.

High blood levels of cholesterol contribute to your risk of developing heart disease. Factors including smoking and a diet high in unhealthy saturated and trans-fats can raise your cholesterol levels. A total cholesterol level under 4.0 mmol/L is ideal. Your GP can organise for you to have regular blood cholesterol tests.

Breast health  

Breast cancer accounts for over 25 percent of all cancer diagnoses affecting women in Australia.

Be aware of how your breasts normally look and feel. Self-check your breasts regularly as part of your everyday so you can spot any changes quickly. See your GP if you are worried or notice any unusual changes in shape, size, feel or if you experience new or persistent pain.

If you have a family history of breast cancer discuss with your GP when you need breast cancer screening. Breast Screen Australia, the national breast cancer screening program, offers free breast screening (mammograms) every two years to women aged 50-65. Women aged 40-49 and 70 years and older are also able to be screened through the Breast Screen Australia program.

Read more about breast cancer

Cervical cancer  

In Australia, cervical cancer ranks as the fifth most frequent cancer among women aged between 15 and 44 years of age.

Cervical cancer is almost always caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV) and is largely preventable through screening (Pap test) and HPV vaccination. Women aged 18-69 who have ever had sex need to have regular pap tests every 2 years. This test detects changes to cells in the cervix before they develop into cervical cancer. Ideally you have your Pap test on days 13-18 of your cycle (where day 1 is the first day of your period). If you are going through menopause, or you have an irregular cycle, then your Pap test is best done 1-2 weeks after a bleed.

The cervical cancer vaccine does not replace the need for a Pap test because the vaccine does not protect you against all cancer-causing types of the HPV.

Read more about the HPV vaccination

Other gynaecological cancers

Other types of cancers affecting female reproductive organs include cancers of the ovaries, vagina, uterus and vulva. Speak to your doctor if you notice any symptoms including:

  • abnormal or persistent vaginal bleeding e.g. bleeding after menopause or that is not part of the menstrual periods, bleeding after sex
  • unusual vaginal discharge
  • pain, pressure or discomfort in the abdomen
  • pain during sex
  • lumps, sores or wart-like growths.

Sexual health  

Most sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are bacterial or viral infections passed from one person to another. While some people with an STI don't have any symptoms at all, common signs and symptoms can include:

  • an unusual discharge from your genitals or anus
  • bleeding after sex or between periods
  • sores, blisters, warts, or rashes near your genitals or anus
  • pain on passing urine or during sex.

If you think you're at risk of STIs, use safer sex methods such as condoms and consider check-ups at a sexual health clinic every few months.

Get tested if you think you may have an STI. If untreated, some STIs can lead to serious health problems including infertility.

Read more about sexually transmitted infections

Menopause  

Menopause is a natural part of ageing for women, when ovaries stop releasing eggs leading to a drop in oestrogen levels. This change in hormone levels leads to symptoms usually associated with menopause, which can include:

  • Feeling hot and sweaty (‘hot flushes’)
  • Changes in mood such as irritability, depression or anxiety
  • Breast soreness
  • Vaginal changes such as dryness and loss of tone.

You are considered to have gone through menopause if your periods stop for more than 2 years if you’re under 50, or for 1 year if you’re over 50.

Healthy living habits, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and some complementary medicines may help reduce symptoms in some women. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about which treatments are most appropriate for you.

Read more about menopause

Bone health  

Your bones require calcium and other minerals to give them the strength and thickness (bone mass or density) they need.

Osteoporosis is a health condition where your bones become brittle due to mineral loss. This means you more likely to break or fracture your bones.

Osteoporosis affects one in two women and one in three men over the age of 60.

Women over 45 can ask their doctor to assess their risk factors for osteoporosis. It’s also a good idea to talk to your doctor if you have:

  • lost more than 3cm in height
  • developed a distinct "hump" at the top of your spine
  • sudden severe unexplained back pain
  • a family history or other risk factors for osteoporosis.

Your doctor may refer you for a bone density scan if required. A bone density scan checks the bone mineral density of multiple bones in the body. Simple lifestyle measures at any age can help keep your bones strong:

  • Healthy, well-balanced diet with enough calcium
  • Healthy vitamin D levels
  • Regular weight-bearing exercise
  • Not smoking, and not drinking too much alcohol or caffeine-containing drinks
Read more about osteoporosis

Further information  

National Heart Foundation
www.heartfoundation.org.au

Cancer Australia
http://canceraustralia.gov.au/

Sources  

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). Australia’s health 2012.

AIHW. Women and heart disease: cardiovascular profile of women in Australia. Cardiovascular disease series no. 33. 2010.

BreastScreen Australia Program. [online] 2009. [last updated Feb 3 2013] Available from: http://www.cancerscreening.gov.au

Cancer Australia. Gynaecological cancers. [online] [last updated Jun 29 2012] Available from: http://canceraustralia.gov.au/

National STI Prevention Program: Sexual Health Campaign. [online] Available from: http://www.sti.health.gov.au/

National Vascular Disease Prevention Alliance. Guidelines for the management of absolute cardiovascular disease risk. 2012.

Osteoporosis Australia. About osteoporosis [online]. [Last updated Feb 12 2013] Available from: http://www.osteoporosis.org.au/

The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG). Management of menopause. [online] 2008. Available from: http://www.ranzcog.edu.au

Last Updated: 30 May 2013

Tags: sexual health, heart health, breast cancer, menopause, skin cancer,

Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.