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Women’s health: The overlooked story

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Esther Cepeda
March 6, 2011
— If you happened to come across any media coverage of the White House’s report “Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being,” the headline that probably grabbed you was about women making, on average, only 75 percent of what men earn with similar education levels.

Besides the dispiriting gender pay gap, the scarce media attention to the first comprehensive federal report on women since 1963 focused on the notable gains in women’s academic achievements. Yet the biggest story was completely overlooked: women’s health.


Sure, women still live longer than men—though that gap has been decreasing—but look at the kind of life it is.


Females of all age groups are almost 40 percent more likely than men to have difficulty walking, in part due to the fact that women have a higher prevalence of asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, cancer, arthritis and hypertension, an ailment that affects almost a quarter of all adult women.


Though women are giving birth at older ages because of advanced education and career opportunities, there are more pregnancy complications. Stunningly, the cesarean rate has gone up from 21 percent in 1996 to 32 percent in 2008—the highest rate ever reported in the United States—and the physical effects can last a lifetime.


As we move down the list of challenges, we find that more than one-third of all women age 20 and older are obese, a condition that amplifies other health problems. And even as we all recognize that the nation has difficulty eating well, inactivity is no less of an epidemic. The report notes that less than half of all women 25 and older met the federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic exercise in 2009, compared to 51 percent of men.


The reason, I believe, is simple: women aren’t getting enough exercise because they have too many responsibilities and not enough time.


Women continue to be more likely than men to live in poverty, even though during the past four recessions, the unemployment rate among women rose less than it did for men. And life is different for women when the “workday” is done. The number of households headed by single moms is more than twice the rate of those headed by single dads. But even in so-called “nuclear” families and in childless marriages, disparities appear.


In 2009, on an average workday, employed married women spent an hour more than men did performing household activities and caring for household members, including children and parents. Husbands also enjoyed half an hour more per workday engaged in leisure and sports than their wives.


Is it any wonder that at all ages, women experience higher rates of depression than males?


Aggravating this laundry list of hardships is the lack of resources available for women to address them. Since 1984, the number of women age 18-64 without health insurance has increased from 13 percent to 18 percent. And one out of seven of them has little or no access to consistent, preventive health care.


But even for those for whom poverty isn’t the biggest factor impeding stable health, it’s obvious that women are still too busy putting others first to take proper care of themselves. This has to change.


Women’s poor health is nothing short of a national crisis with generational implications. And while the White House has said this report will help guide policy, the people who need to take the most notice are women themselves.


A 2007 survey by the National Women’s Health Resource Center found that women’s attitudes toward health have changed to the point where a majority now consider taking care of themselves a top priority. But most women said they lacked time to lead a healthy lifestyle.


That just can’t be an excuse any longer. It’s time for women—from the richest to the poorest—to make the uncomfortable decision to put themselves above others and seek whatever help is necessary to make their own health their greatest concern, regardless of how busy they are.


After all, what good are women’s victories in education and career opportunities if they come at the price of a decent quality of life?


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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