- On average, women live six to eight years longer than men globally.
- In 2007, women's life expectancy at birth was more than 80 years in 35 countries, but only 54 years in the WHO African Region.
- Girls are far more likely than boys to suffer sexual abuse.
- Road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls in high- and middle-income countries.
- Essentially all (99%) of the half a million maternal deaths every year occur in developing countries.
- Breast cancer is the leading cancer killer among women aged 20–59 years in high-income countries.
- Globally, cardiovascular disease, often thought to be a "male" problem, is the leading killer of women.
Infancy and childhood (0-9 years)
Both death rates and the causes of death are similar for boys and girls during infancy and childhood. Pre-term births, birth asphyxia and infections are the main causes of death during the first month of life, which is also the time of life when mortality is the highest.
Pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria are the main causes of death during the first five years of life, with malnutrition being a major factor.
Globally, girls under five years are more likely to be overweight than boys, which – together with obesity – may lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, muculoskeletal disorders and some cancers later in life.
Girls are far more likely than boys to suffer sexual violence (any sexual abuse: 8.7% boys; 25.3% girls globally).
Adolescent girls (10-19 years)
Injuries from road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls (10–19 years) in high- and middle-income countries.
Suicide and mental health disorders contribute significantly to the burden of ill-health and death in all regions.
HIV infection is high in virtually all countries that have generalized HIV epidemics. Adolescent girls are at risk of unsafe and often unwanted and forced sexual activity that can lead to HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted infections, unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion.
Pregnancy-related complications are a leading cause of death among girls aged 15–19 years in developing countries; unsafe abortion – provided by unskilled persons in unhygienic conditions – contributes substantially to these deaths.
Adolescent girls are increasingly using tobacco and alcohol, which risks compromising their health, including in later life, as do poor diet and physical inactivity. For instance, there is evidence that tobacco advertising is increasingly targeting young girls and women.
Reproductive age (15-44 years) and adult women (20-59 years)
For women in their reproductive years (15–44), HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death and disease worldwide, while unsafe sex is the main risk factor in developing countries. Biological factors, lack of access to information and health services, economic vulnerability and unequal power in sexual relations expose young women particularly to HIV infection.
Every year, 99% of some half a million maternal deaths occur in developing countries. Despite the increase in contraceptive use over the past 30 years, significant unmet needs remain in all regions. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, one in four women who wish to delay or stop childbearing does not use any family planning method.
Tuberculosis is often linked to HIV infection and the third leading cause of death among women of reproductive age (15–44 years) in low-income countries and worldwide. It ranks fifth worldwide among women aged 20–59 years.
Injuries from road traffic accidents figure among the top 10 causes of death among adult women (20-59 years) globally. Furthermore, in the WHO South-East Asia Region, burns are a leading cause of death among women aged 15–44. Women suffer significantly more fire-related injuries and deaths than men. Many fire-related deaths are related to cooking accidents and many are a result of intimate partner and family violence.
Cervical cancer is the second most common type of cancer among women, with virtually all cases linked to genital infection with the human papillomavirus (HPV). Almost 80% of cases today and an even higher proportion of deaths from cervical cancer occur in low-income countries, where access to cervical cancer screening and treatment virtually does not exist.
Violence against women is widespread around the world. Women who have been physically or sexually abused have higher rates of mental ill-health, unintended pregnancies, abortions and miscarriages than non-abused women. Most violence against women is perpetrated by an intimate male partner. Increasingly in many conflicts sexual violence is also used as a tactic of war.
Depression and suicide
Women are more susceptible to depression and anxiety than men. An estimated 73 million adult women worldwide suffer a major depressive episode each year. Mental disorders following childbirth, including depression, are estimated to affect about 13% of women within a year of delivery. Suicide is the seventh top cause of death globally for women aged 20-59 years.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
Tobacco use and the burning of solid fuels for indoor heating and cooking are the primary risk factors for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – a lung ailment – in women. Women prepare most of the family food, hence, the burden of COPD caused by exposure to indoor smoke is over 50% higher among women than among men.
Older women (60 years and over)
Because they tend to live longer than men, women represent a growing proportion of all older people. Worldwide, in 2007, 55% of adults aged 60 years and over were women, a proportion that rises to 58% at age 70 and above. Chronic conditions – mainly cardiovascular disease and COPD – account for 45% of deaths in women over 60 years of age worldwide. A further 15% of deaths are caused by cancers, mainly of the breast, lung and colon. Many of the health problems faced by women in older age are the result of risk factors that arise in their adolescence and adulthood, such as smoking, sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets. Other debilitating health problems faced by older women are poor vision (including cataracts), hearing loss, arthritis, depression and dementia.
Cardiovascular disease: heart attacks and strokes
Globally, cardiovascular disease (mainly heart attacks/ischaemic heart disease and stroke), often thought to be a "male" problem, is the main killer of older women. Women often show different symptoms from men, which contributes to under diagnosis of heart disease in women. Women also tend to develop heart disease later in life than men. Tobacco is implicated in nearly 10% of cardiovascular disease in women.
Breast, lung and colon cancer
Cancers of the breast, lung and colon are among the top ten causes of death of older women globally. The incidence (new cases) of breast cancer is much higher in high-income countries compared to low- and middle-income countries, but mortality is similar. This is due to the availability of better treatment in the high-income countries. For lung and colon cancer, both incidence and mortality are currently higher in high-income countries. Globally, 71% of lung cancer deaths are caused by tobacco use.
Table: 10 leading causes of death in females by country income group, 2004
*Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
**Includes severe neonatal infections and other non-infectious causes arising in the perinatal period.
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