What’s to celebrate in women's health in 2023?

Close-up image of Jules Walters

Jules Walters • First published: Mar 8, 2023

Woman out of focus blowing multi-colored confetti from her hands

Each year on March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day and the achievements that are helping to create a more possible world for women. 

So how have we done in the past year? Is the world a fairer and more equal place when it comes to women’s health?

Good news: we’re living longer

Well, let’s start with the good news. Overall, we’re living longer. If you’re born in the United States, women can now expect to live to just over 80 years. Australian women get 85 years on average and British women 83 years. 

That’s a huge increase over a century ago, when most of us lived for just 53 years.

But healthspan has got worse

The bad news is that the pandemic has NOT helped our healthspan – which is how long we live without significant health issues. 

A survey of more than 14,000 women in Australia showed that, thanks to the pandemic, 32% of women had missed a dental appointment, 18% had missed a GP health check, and 8% had missed breast cancer screening.

Women are not just smaller men

Thanks in part to initiatives like International Women’s Day, supported by the latest science, health policy leaders are increasingly recognizing that women are not just smaller men. 

Yes, women are different biologically, AND have different family responsibilities and different access to care.

Shockingly, between 1997 and 2001, 10 prescription drugs were withdrawn in the US, eight of which were more dangerous for women than men. 

Finally recognizing this biological difference, the European Commission recently published its Gender Equality Plan making it compulsory for funded research to include an analysis of the differences between men and women.

In the past year, the UK Government also published its first health strategy for women in England. 

Women tend to live longer than men but, as the UK government noted, more female years are spent with ill health and disability.

So what's to be done?

Prevention is key, and the creation of women’s health hubs that offer a range of services in one place will help.

That’s great, but while we wait for nirvana, we need to build and strengthen our healthspan every day.

I have heard over and over again women having to figure out their own way to stay healthy. 

Over 97,000 women input into the UK Government strategy. They reported their main source of health information as family and friends (74%), then Google (71%), followed by online search engines and blogs (69%); all ahead of their GP or healthcare professionals (59%).

Going beyond Jane Fonda

Informal networks are key. Most of us can remember the Jane Fonda aerobic workout videos of the 1980s. In 1984, the World Almanac listed Jane as the fourth most influential woman in the world, behind Mother Teresa, Margaret Thatcher and Nancy Reagan.

Jane Fonda made fitness a feminist cause. Forty years on, we’ve realized that lycra and leggings can only get us so far. Regular exercise IS a really important ingredient of health.

But there are other ingredients, and we can measure the difference they make. Staying healthy is a daily habit: it’s what exercise we take, what food we eat and how many hours of good sleep we get. There are 101 small things we can do every day to get a little stronger.

And we can measure the difference these small steps make.

Five tests to shine a light on your health

I’m not a healthcare professional, but I do have a degree in the science of DNA, molecular genetics to be precise, and have worked in the pharmaceutical industry for the past 20 years. 

So, here are the five main tests I take regularly to measure my health.

  • Blood panel – this is usually done as part of an annual well-woman check up. Ask your doctor to give you the numerical results in a report so you can track changes over time. Pay attention to measures of vitamin D (a lot of us don’t get enough), HbA1c (sugar in our blood over time), cholesterol and fats.
  • Bone scan – Most countries offer what’s called a DEXA bone scan, which shows our bone density. If you can, have one bone scan a year so you can track changes over time and top up your calcium intake if needed for bone health.
  • BMI or body mass index – It’s an oldie but a goodie. How much we weigh affects our metabolism. Here’s a handy calculator.
  • Mammogram – Yes it’s uncomfortable, but it’s still the most widely available way to detect breast cancer early.
  • Colonoscopy – Another key cancer detector. Most countries start scanning around the age of 50. Again, it can be uncomfortable but it’s worth it. 

There is now so much science around how and why we age that we’ve gone beyond Jane Fonda’s era of let’s get physical to let’s get biological. 

It is now increasingly possible to read, understand and act on your own biology, and that alone is a great reason to celebrate International Women’s Day.