Women's study – a healthy connection
Across Australia, more than 40,000 women – who have never met or even know each others’ names – belong to a sisterhood bound together by the nation’s leading longitudinal health study.
Ranging in age from 30 to 87 years, the women have invited researchers into their lives and, in so doing, provided them with a treasure trove of holistic information on women’s health across the course of life.
A key activity of the University’s Priority Research Centre for Gender, Health and Ageing, the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health was designed to identify biological, psychosocial and environmental factors affecting the health of women from all walks of life.
Conducted in collaboration with the University of Queensland, the research provides an evidence base to the Australian Department of Health and Ageing for the development and evaluation of policy and practice.
It is also gaining an international reputation for its multidisciplinary approach. Widely known as Women’s Health Australia (WHA), the study was initiated in 1996 when random samples of women were selected from the Medicare database and invited to participate in the 20-year project. Three age groups were targeted in life stages considered critical to women’s health: 18-23; 45-50; and 70-75. Women from rural and remote areas were over sampled to allow statistical comparisons of the circumstances and health of city and country women.
Surveys are sent to each woman every three years, with the study designed to assess and clarify the effects of health policy and practice changes. In addition to the main study, women are invited to participate in smaller sub-studies targeting particular health issues such as diabetes, sleep difficulties and menopause.
Aiming to broaden existing approaches to women’s health as an equation of reproductive and sexual health, the study takes a comprehensive view of wellbeing throughout a woman’s lifespan and assesses:
- physical and emotional health (including wellbeing, major diagnoses, symptoms)
- use of health services (GP, specialist and other visits, access, satisfaction)
- health behaviours and risk factors (diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol, other drugs)
- time use (including paid and unpaid work, family roles and leisure)
- socio-demographic factors (location, education, employment, family composition)
- life stages and key events (such as childbirth, divorce, widowhood)
Study Co-Director, Professor Julie Byles, said the work provided an invaluable opportunity to track women’s lives across the cohorts.
"The women in our youngest age group are now in their 30s. At the start of the study, some women were young mothers and already had children.
"But then we had a long lag because others in this cohort, particularly those in urban areas, chose to have children at a later life stage. So our latest survey includes a series of questions on motherhood issues such as breastfeeding and post-natal depression.
"After our next survey, we will gain invaluable insight into what it is like to be a mother at a later stage of life."
In the middle age group, one of the major issues has been health and work life, as these women re-establish a foothold in the workplace and increase their work hours while still juggling other responsibilities. Over time, the researchers observed that there was an increase in the amount of work hours associated with optimal health, although the trend was still for part-time work to be best. The study revealed that women who work more than 40 hours each week are more likely to suffer health repercussions, impacting negatively on vitality, physical performance and mental health.
When it came to the older cohort, Byles said the research provided a great deal of information about the health and lifestyle changes that were occurring as the women moved into their late 80s.
"In the first decade of the study, the women portrayed very positive aspects of ageing – women were mostly in excellent health and making significant contributions to society through volunteering and caring for others," she said.
"In fact, even up to our last survey, these women were twice as likely to be caring for others, at varying levels, than being cared for themselves. The majority were still in very good health.
"But now, while many women still present a picture of healthy ageing, we are starting to see some of the older women rely more on others for their day-to-day care and to report greater health needs as they age. As a result, the importance of prevention of illness, healthy lifestyles and the good management of chronic illness in maintaining optimal health is clear."
Other important issues for the older cohort, particularly in rural and remote areas, included transport and access to services, especially as women find they are no longer able to drive themselves.
The study has proved so comprehensive and valuable that it has become a nationally and internationally sought after resource for people looking at the broader aspect of women's health.
Valuable international links have now been established to broaden the scope of knowledge on women's health. Comparisons are being drawn between Australian women and those in different countries, including the menopause experiences of English women; patterns of work and leisure of Canadian women; and the use of complementary and alternative medical services of women in Norway.
Researchers in the Priority Research Centre for Gender, Health and Ageing work in collaboration with the Hunter Medical Research Institute.