FIGO supports World Health Day, 2012

The topic for World Health Day 2012 is ‘Ageing and health’, promoting the theme ‘Good health adds life to years’.

In 1948, the First World Health Assembly called for the creation of a ‘World Health Day’ to mark the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO). Since 1950, it has been celebrated on 7 April each year, with a different annual theme that highlights a priority area of concern. It is an important global opportunity to highlight major public health issues, and it can act as a springboard for longer-term advocacy programmes.

This year focuses on how good health throughout life can help ageing men and women lead productive lives, so that they can be valuable members of their families and communities. FIGO’s commitment to the physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health of women worldwide naturally extends to the special challenges facing women in their later years.

Ageing affects every human being, regardless of their particular circumstances, and the world’s elderly population - people 60 years of age and older - is the fastest growing age group. Population ageing should be seen as a sign of success in modern society, reflecting greatly improved global health. However, an ageing population does present an underside of unique and complex challenges.

  • Differences in life expectancy: eg Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world at 82.2 years - however, in several countries in Africa the figure is 40 years lower
  • Health inequalities: eg in the USA higher socioeconomic groups can expect to live up to 20 years longer than people from lower socioeconomic groups
  • Rising healthcare costs: by 2050, nearly 80 per cent of all deaths are expected to occur in people aged over 60. As people live longer lives, it is vital that these later years are kept as healthy as possible, so healthcare costs can be kept manageable

Women and ageing: the general challenges

Women tend to live longer than men, and suffer from higher rates of disability at older ages. Chronic conditions - eg mainly cardiovascular disease and chronic obstructive lung disease - account for 45 per cent of deaths in women over 60 years of age worldwide, while 15 per cent of deaths are caused by cancer of the breast, lung and colon.

Over the years, the long-term effects of smoking, lack of exercise and unhealthy diets can all cause, or exacerbate existing, health problems, and they may also have to contend with poor vision and hearing, arthritis, depression and dementia.

Women and ageing: the continuing need for maintaining good sexual and reproductive health

One specific health challenge for women is the menopause, a woman’s experience of which is often a reflection of the health she enjoyed prior to it. Some societies view menopause as a positive transition in a woman’s life; others may see it purely as a medical problem requiring intervention.

A woman approaching the menopause can still become pregnant, so there is still a need for effective contraception. Additionally women who are sexually active after the menopause may continue to need the protection that condoms provide against STIs. Changes to hormone levels may also cause difficulty - eg decreased libido, vaginal atrophy - and need to be addressed.

FIGO’s commitment to the older woman

FIGO has a vision that women of the world achieve the highest possible standards of physical, mental, reproductive and sexual health and well-being throughout their lives - this naturally includes the special life phase that is ageing. It believes that investing in healthcare throughout life benefits societies, and that good community level care can help women to prevent disease and effectively manage specific problems. This can only be achieved through the provision of accessible, efficient, affordable, sustainable and comprehensive reproductive healthcare services.

FIGO believes that it is important to remember that many ageing women also suffer from the effects of low status, particularly in low-resource countries, in addition to which they may also bear, as family care givers, heavy emotional and economic burdens eg looking after grandchildren or older husbands.

In its role as the only organisation bringing together professional societies of obstetricians and gynecologists on a global basis, FIGO works closely with its member societies in 124 countries/territories to help promote women’s health issues worldwide. It urges all healthcare providers to benefit from training to enable them to treat women’s immediate health problems effectively and to help improve their quality of life as they age.

The work of two FIGO Committees in particular - for Gynecologic Oncology and for Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Rights - encompasses areas that can directly impact on the older woman. For example, there is a need for effective screening and treatment for gynecological cancers (eg of the cervix, ovaries etc), and a need to emphasise the important role of providers - alone, and in collaboration with others - with respect to the protection and implementation of human rights related to women's sexual and reproductive health.

Looking ahead FIGO fully supports the World Health Organization in its worthwhile efforts to help advocate for healthy futures for the world’s ageing population, while recognising that there are innumerable barriers to overcome, particularly in low-resource countries, where healthcare structures may not be particularly sophisticated or robust.

In essence, in order to cope with the future challenges of people living longer, governments, international organisations and civil society organisations must work collaboratively to ensure the implementation of effective policies and programmes. This will help to give older people the tools they need to move into their later years with confidence.