Women’s health altered dramatically in the second half of the 20th century. Maternal mortality was no longer a major concern, and contraception and safe abortion became available. Cancer became a major cause of death; at times its treatment was the subject of controversy. Violence and sexual abuse surfaced, and their immediate and ongoing effects were identified as a women’s health issue.
Some things didn’t change. The health of New Zealand women remained high by international standards. Many of the issues women faced in the 2000s were also faced by men of similar ethnic and socio-economic status. The most advantaged were generally in very good health, while the most deprived continued to suffer high rates of preventable disease and disability, and die at relatively early ages.
Levels of wellness
Many women enjoyed good or reasonable health, but wellness was not usually studied or recorded. A focus on mortality and its causes has also meant that rates of ill health not directly related to death were not gathered until the 1990s.
Major causes of death
The major causes of death among women in the 2000s were:
- cancer (particularly breast, lung and colorectal cancer)
- cardiovascular diseases (particularly heart attacks and strokes)
- respiratory diseases (particularly chronic bronchitis and emphysema).
Cancer mortality rates were highest for breast (16.2%), colorectal (17.2%) and lung cancer (16.8%) in 2007. Different cancers tend to kill women at different ages. Most women who die of breast cancer, for example, are under the age of 64.
Heart disease (which causes angina, heart attacks and heart failure), resulted in more deaths among New Zealand women than any other single cause. In the 2000s the rate of heart disease among New Zealand women was higher than that among women in Australia, the United States, and Canada.
Respiratory diseases that irreversibly decrease air flow to the lungs were collectively known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In the 2000s women were more likely to have COPD than men. Those living in the most deprived areas were affected at three times the rate of those living in the least deprived. Most of those affected were aged over 50.
Use of tobacco, hazardous drinking, obesity, lack of physical activity, and low fruit and vegetable consumption all increased likelihood of disease. In 2008 fewer women smoked than men – 22% compared to 26% – and they drank less alcohol. Women were more likely to be of normal weight or extremely obese than men (more of whom were overweight or obese). Women under 35 and over 65 were significantly less likely than men to be physically active. They were more likely to eat recommended levels of fruit and vegetables.