Women and Aging

Aging can be defined as the process of getting older. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), women represent a growing percentage of all older people, as they tend to live longer than men. Women accounted for 55 percent of adults aged over 60 years worldwide in 2007, a proportion that increased to 58 percent at the age of above 70. The developing world is the home to the majority of older women. By 2050, 84 percent of the population over 60 years of age is estimated to be living in low and middle-income countries.

Regardless of the fact that women's life expectancy is greater than that of men, the age at which women get old is usually defined as about five years younger than a man. The common age to denote older women is 55 or 60 years, while for men this number stands at 60 or 65 years. Many geriatric studies use the menopause as the cut-off point, noting the great significance this process has in the life of a woman. The menopause is a universal event that women experience at about 50 years of age in both developed and developing countries. It is a process lasting from five to seven years on average which is characterized by lower levels of the hormone estrogen.

As a result of the menopause process, menstrual cycles gradually come to a halt. Symptoms that normally accompany the menopause are hot flushes, insomnia, irritability and sudden mood changes. The menopause also leads to physiological changes, due to the alterations in the hormonal balance. These include vaginal dryness, breast tenderness, urinary changes and heart palpitations. In some cases women suffer from prolonged bleeding, as their menstrual cycles begin to change moving into the menopause.

The menopause can sometimes be accompanied by mental health problems, which researchers associate with the drop in estrogen levels. These include disorientation, concentration problems and memory loss. Although many women experience mild forms of depression during the menopause, scientific studies have found no direct link between the two. The most common mental health problems from which older women suffer are depression and dementia. Although depression can be treated with psychological and medical methods, dementia presents a real challenge not only to the patient but also for their families. The prevalence of dementia increases sharply with age, from less than 3 percent for the population aged 65 to 70 years to over 25 percent at age 85 and over.

A treatment often used to control some of the symptoms of menopause is hormone replacement therapy (HRT). The goal of HRT is to replace estrogen, easing symptoms such as hot flushes and protecting women from health problems stemming from low hormone levels like heart disease and osteoporosis. Some physicians have expressed concern that HRT may lead to breast cancer. One of the other health problems that older women experience is osteoporosis, which is characterized by a reduction of the mass of the bones. Factors related to the developments of osteoporosis are prolonged deficiency of calcium in the diet and smoking. The leading causes of death and disability among older women are heart disease, stroke and chronic lung disease. These conditions account for 45 percent of deaths in women over 60 globally. A further 15 percent of deaths in women are caused by cancers - mostly of the breast, lung and colon.

Women adopt different attitudes towards aging. Some aim to live healthier lives, while many seek to rejuvenate themselves with the help of anti-aging products, known as cosmeceuticals, or ask plastic surgeons for assistance in fighting the aging process. Apart from health problems, older women often suffer from age discrimination and abuse. Women are defined as old at an earlier age than men and once they are considered old, they are sometimes perceived as dependent, vulnerable and lacking in sexuality.

According to Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, author of The Power of Women (2010), aging could be good for women as general life satisfaction increases with age. In a study of more than 1,300 women from San Francisco Bay, Nolen-Hoeksema reports signs of the benefits of aging, with feelings of loneliness lower for women aged 45 to 55 and 65 to 75 compared to younger people aged 25 to 35. Nolen-Hoeksema argues: "Women use their mental strengths to tackle the new problems that arise as they age, such as navigating the health care system, or living on less income in retirement."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Revisioning Aging: Empowerment of Older Women
Jenny Onyx; Rosemary Leonard; Rosslyn Reed.
Peter Lang, 1999
The Other within Us: Feminist Explorations of Women and Aging
Marilyn Pearsall.
Westview Press, 1997
Handbook on Women and Aging
Jean M. Coyle.
Greenwood Press, 1997
Behavior, Health, and Aging
Stephen B. Manuck; Richard Jennings; Bruce S. Rabin; Andrew Baum.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Aging Women, Getting Older, Getting Better?"
Being An Older Woman: A Study in the Social Production of Identity
Isabella Paoletti.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998
Aging and Identity: A Humanities Perspective
Sara Munson Deats; Lagretta Tallent Lenker.
Praeger Publishers, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Part II "The Aging Female in Literature"
The Labor Force Participation of Older Women: Retired? Working? Both?
Hill, Elizabeth T.
Monthly Labor Review, Vol. 125, No. 9, September 2002
The Information World of Retired Women
Elfreda A. Chatman.
Greenwood Press, 1992
Gender, Aging, and Subjective Well-Being
Inglehart, Ronald.
International Journal of Comparative Sociology, December 2002
The Meaning of Mental Health from Elderly Women's Perspectives: A Basis for Health Promotion
Hedelin, Birgitta; Strandmark, Margaretha.
Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, Vol. 37, No. 1, January-March 2001
Women Ageing: Changing Identities, Challenging Myths
Miriam Bernard; Judith Phillips; Linda Machin; Val Harding Davies.
Routledge, 2000
Women at Midlife
McQuaide, Sharon.
Social Work, Vol. 43, No. 1, January 1998
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