Both nationally and globally, women’s health needs have long been overlooked, underfunded, and under-researched. This is even truer for older women.
To create health systems that meet women’s needs, we must consider the lived experiences of women of all ages when designing these systems.
Advancing women’s rights in every facet of life requires a multi-generational approach to policy advocacy and development.
When it comes to the right to age well, women still face stark disadvantages. Whether it’s pay inequity or taking time off for caregiving, the impact of these challenges tends to compound over time, making women more likely to age into poverty. This has implications for their health as well.
I had the honor of partaking in thoughtful discussions on these issues at the recent World Women Foundation Health Equality Moonshot panel in Davos and the NGO Committee on Ageing Older Women Subcommittee virtual session, “The Generations: More in Common Than Not.” Below are some key insights and perspectives from both events.
Women’s health issues demand—and deserve—more of the spotlight
At NCOA, we like to say aging well means living well. This requires having as many opportunities as possible. Family planning and reproductive prerogative (access to contraception, for example) is essential to a woman’s lifelong health and financial security. Health problems and lack of access to proper care at any age impact a woman’s quality of life, hurt their ability to save for retirement, and make it harder for them to be contributing members of society. That’s why women need options available to them at all ages and life stages.
Unfortunately, women’s health needs continue to lack both attention and research. Over the last few decades, very few new drugs were developed and approved in America that were targeted at women’s health. Women were excluded from clinical trials for years to protect them from side effects.1 Medical schools and medical research consider a 154-pound, white male the average patient. This means that a white man’s biology has been informing medicine and treatment options for a long time.2
Reproductive health is important across the lifespan, not just during childbearing years
In matters of sexual and reproductive health, older women are largely ignored or “put out to pasture” after a certain age. But these topics are important in all seasons of life, not just when we're young. It’s time to think more holistically about women’s reproductive health needs. We’d like to see the same attention given to contraception applied to women's entire life course. How often do women talk to their girlfriends about menopause? Why aren’t all doctors (not just gynecologists) comfortable talking about it with their patients? Let’s work to erase the stigma around these critical issues that significantly impact women’s lives as we age.
Not feeling OK is not a normal part of aging for women
We must stop normalizing a decline in physical, mental, and emotional health as we age. As women, we’re often told to ignore the issues we’re experiencing, or just “live with it.” And when women do speak up to their doctors, they’re often not taken seriously. One in five women said that a health care provider ignored or dismissed their symptoms, compared with 14% of men.1
All of us can help promote education and awareness around menopause, chronic disease, mental health and wellness, and other women’s health issues for which there are safe and effective treatments. At NCOA, we’re aiming to educate our network of aging professionals on how they can help older women navigate changes in their health.
Having more women “at the table” is critical
Seventy percent of our global workforce is comprised of women, yet only 25% go into leadership where they can impact policy and decision-making.3 If we're not at the table and involved in these critical conversations, nothing will change. We need more women in leadership roles, in elected office, and as trustees and investors. We also need women with lived experiences at that table—young, middle-aged, and older. This is especially true for health care. When women are not the ones designing health systems, it shouldn’t be a surprise that those systems do not take their needs into consideration. We can’t make decisions for people without involving them in shaping that decision.
We must push for the inclusion of older women in all advocacy discussions
The hard truth is that older women are perpetually excluded from global policy and advocacy discussions because of the insidious nature of ageism and sexism. We need to push for the inclusion of women in all advocacy talks, at all ages and life stages. This doesn’t just mean discussions about women’s rights, but also human rights in general.
There’s no reason to separate the conversation by age group; we’re all family, friends, and community members. We have interconnected relationships that are not arbitrarily compartmentalized by generation or biological age. Issues pertaining to one generation affect the others (and our future selves), so it makes sense to work together and shore each other up. Applying a life course perspective to social policy development can help protect the rights of women from youth through older age.
NCOA is proud to be a fierce advocate for women's right to age well. Last year alone, we improved the lives of nearly 6 million people through services, support, and advocacy—70% of which were women. But there’s more work to be done. Ensuring all women can age with dignity and purpose means confronting the ageism and gender discrimination that still stand in our way. When women's needs are prioritized, it benefits families, communities, and society. So what are we waiting for?
1. Emily Paulsen. Recognizing, Addressing Unintended Gender Bias in Patient Care. Duke Health. Jan. 14, 2020. Found on the internet at https://physicians.dukehealth.org/articles/recognizing-addressing-unintended-gender-bias-patient-care
2. Candy Sagon. The Gender Bias of Medicine. AARP Bulletin. January/February 2017. Found on the internet at https://www.aarp.org/health/conditions-treatments/info-2016/womens-health-gender-bias-cs.html
3. Amie Baston, et al. More Women Must Lead in Global Health: A Focus on Strategies to Empower Women Leaders and Advance Gender Equality. Annals of Global Health. July 12, 2021. Found on the internet at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8284502/