Women and Health | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Women and Health

If life expectancy is any indication of health, Canadian women are, on average, much healthier than they were 70 years ago. The life expectancy of female babies born in 1921 was 61 while female babies born today are expected to live to age 82.
Emily Howard Stowe
Emily Howard Stowe, from The Women's Suffrage Movement in Canada (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-9480).

Women and Health

Life Expectancy
If life expectancy is any indication of health, Canadian women are, on average, much healthier than they were 70 years ago. The life expectancy of female babies born in 1921 was 61 while female babies born today are expected to live to age 82. The life expectancy of Canadian women is similar to that of women in other industrialized countries.

Health Care Practices

In general women are less likely to be vigorously active than men, and almost half of Canadian women report that they are moderately active on a weekly basis. Women also contribute to their own health by not smoking cigarettes, or if they have smoked, quitting. Approximately one-third of Canadian women have never smoked. The prevalence of smoking by women in Canada has generally increased since 1978. Currently the number of teenage girls who smoke is higher than the number of teenage boys who smoke. Since smoking can produce a variety of health care problems, an increase in smoking rates is likely to lead to an increase in health care problems in the future (see Cancer; Heart Disease; Smoking).

The leading cause of death for Canadian women is cancer. Women between the ages of 40 and 69 more frequently die from cancer, while women over the age of 80 are more likely to die from heart disease. At present more women die from lung cancer than breast cancer every year.

To increase the likelihood of early detection of breast cancer, the Canadian Cancer Society recommends that women over 50 have a mammogram every 2 years and that women examine their breasts monthly to detect any changes or problems. Despite these recommendations, almost half of Canadian women between the ages 50 to 69 have never conducted breast self-examination. Currently only one-third of the women considered to be in a high risk group for breast cancer examine their breasts monthly.

Another important health-related issue for women is the amount of stress in their lives. Recent research suggests that more women perceive their lives to be more stressful than in the past. Some of that stress might be attributed to women's increasing involvement in work outside of the home, the number of employed women who also have small children, the difficulties associated with working and the need for women to take time off from work to deal with family matters. Compared to men, women employed outside the home spend more time per day on household activities and child care. On the whole women tend to be absent from the workplace more frequently than men, but women take 6 days a year off work on average to help take care of family members. In contrast men take less than one day off work per year for the same reason. Women who report the greatest amount of stress related to time pressures are those whose youngest child is under the age of 10. Men who have children report much less stress related to time-pressure (see Day Care; Stress; Women In The Labour Force).

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common Sexually Transmitted Infection in Canada. Approximately three-quarters of sexually active men and women in Canada are infected with HPV. HPV may lead to changes in cells that can cause cervical cancer. There are over 100 types of HPV, with only a few types being associated with cancer. Some women with a high-risk type of HPV develop cervical cancer. HPV also is the most frequent cause of genital warts. An HPV test has been developed for women but there is not one for men. It is associated with cervical, anal, penis and possibly mouth and throat cancers. HPV can be communicated during sexual intercourse and oral sex, and research is investigating whether HPV can be passed during kissing. An HPV infection frequently has no symptoms, and the length and origin of infection cannot be determined.

A vaccine has been developed to help prevent some forms of HPV in women before sexual activity, and vaccination is available at many schools. The HPV vaccine is the only one that is directed at one gender. The vaccine is the source of some controversy, because some groups in Canada interpret vaccinating girls against HPV as encouraging them to be sexually active at a young age.

Using the Health Care System

Almost all women visit at least one health care professional annually. This may in part be due to recommendations that women receive a Pap (Papanicolaou) test every year. Approximately one-third of the female population over age 15 visits their doctors between 3 and 9 times a year. This does not include the number of visits women make to health care professionals to accompany children or other family members.

Generally women are more likely than men to be hospitalized for physical health problems, but this difference is likely attributed to pregnancy-related needs and women's longer life span. Most of the residents of long-term health care institutions are women over the age of 65 and the vast majority of these women have been widowed. Women are more likely than men to be hospitalized for mental health reasons. Moreover, women are hospitalized one and a half times as frequently as men for attempted suicide.

The number of heterosexual women affected by HIV/Aids has increased significantly during the past two decades. Currently women represent almost 15 percent of the people with AIDS in Canada. The most common source of infection for adult women was through unprotected sex with men already infected with HIV.

Working in the Health Care System

Emily Stowe, the first Canadian woman with a medical degree (1867) to practise medicine in Canada, was forced to study at the New York Medical College for Women, because women were not allowed into medical schools in Canada. Emily Stowe's daughter Augusta was the first woman to graduate in medicine in Canada (1883), having been permitted to study at the Toronto School of Medicine in 1879.

In 1990, 79% of the Canadians employed in health-related occupations were women; while only 27% of the doctors and surgeons were women. The number of women entering and graduating from medical schools has risen dramatically over the past 20 years and over half of the first year medical students in Canada are now women. Currently over half of the graduating physicians in Canada are women.

Most informal health care is offered by women, such as caring for family members during illness. Because of the cutbacks in the funding and availability for formal health care services, such as home nursing care, the demands on women to provide this kind of care in the future may increase even further (see Social Security).

Historically, women have always played an important role in health care in Canada. Mothers were the primary health resources of families. Women healers who derived their knowledge from apprenticeship and oral tradition were essential to the development of native settlements. With their knowledge of medicinal plants, these women were the people consulted during medical emergencies (see Native People, Health). Midwives who assisted women during pregnancy and childbirth were very important members of most early Canadian communities (see Birthing Practices). Nuns of religious orders in Europe traveled to Canada and helped meet the physical and spiritual welfare of Canada's inhabitants. These nuns also played a significant role in early Canadian medical history. Canada's first hospital (1639), Hotel-Dieu in Québec City, was founded and run by nuns of the nursing order Augustines hospitalières (see Nursing).

In recent decades a great deal of change has occurred in birthing practices in Canada. Many of these changes increase the involvement of family members in childbirth, such as fathers attending the birth of a child. In addition, midwives are now covered under provincial healthcare plans in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Québec.

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