NSW women need to make small changes to drastically improve their health

Women's health in NSW is improving overall, but there are still many communities and age groups suffering disproportionately.

The Health and Wellbeing report released by the NSW government provides a snapshot of the physical and mental health of women across the state.

The report also included a summary of government policy being implemented in response to the state's health issues.

"We need more of a focus on how we can change the conditions to make it easier for people to eat healthy food and be active," said Jo Mitchell, the executive director at the NSW government's Centre for Population Health.

Dr Mitchell said being overweight was a particularly important risk factor that required a community conversation.

"A small weight loss can make a big difference so it's worth pursuing those small changes. But if we're able to work with people to prevent unhealthy weight gain in the first place, that's going to be an easier approach."

Top causes of death for women in NSW:

  1. Cancer
  2. Cardiovascular diseases
  3. Respiratory diseases
  4. Mental and behaviour disorders
  5. Injury and poisoning

The leading cause of death differed depending on age. For women aged 25 to 44, the leading cause of death was injury and poisoning while for women between 45 and 74, cancer was the most common cause of death. For women 75 and older, cardiovascular disease was the biggest killer.

Most common cancers among women in NSW:

  1. Breast cancer
  2. Melanoma
  3. Colon cancer
  4. Lung cancer
  5. Uterine cancer

Cancer accounted for one quarter of deaths among women. The most common form of cancer was breast cancer which made up 29 per cent of new cancer diagnoses.

Smoking affects the health of 12 per cent of NSW women.

Smoking affects the health of 12 per cent of NSW women. Photo: Tamara Voninski

The rate of cancer among women rose by 12 per cent between 2000 and 2013, but the death rate declined slightly over the same period.

Young women and mental health

The report also highlighted the endemic nature of mental illness among young women. More than one in five women aged 16 to 24 reported experiencing high or very high psychological distress.

This was even more common for young women outside metropolitan areas or those from non-English-speaking backgrounds.

Aboriginal women being left behind

  • Intentional self-harm hospitalisations (3 times more per capita than non-Aboriginal women)
  • Coronary heart disease hospitalisations (1.7 times more per capita than non-Aboriginal women)
  • Smoking during pregnancy (6 times more per capita than non-Aboriginal women)
  • Failing to have a prenatal visit in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy (44 per cent vs 36 per cent for non-Aboriginal women)

"We know that the disparity between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people is greater today than in the past," said Pauline DeWeerd, director of Aboriginal Health for the St Vincent's Health Network.

Ms DeWeerd said historical factors and geographical isolation prevent Aboriginal people from accessing health services and information.

"Hospitals were a place of dying for Aboriginal people in the past. They said goodbyes at the hospital doors.

"We still have a high number of Aboriginal people going to metropolitan hospitals for their major surgeries. It's a cost and a burden on them and their family."

Ms DeWeerd said health professionals needed to be given Aboriginal-specific sensitivity training. At St Vincent's, around 85 per cent of staff have undertaken Aboriginal cultural awareness training.

"There's a long way to go in training Australia's doctors to provide a culturally safe service to Aboriginal patients."

This story NSW women need to make small changes to drastically improve their health first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.