WOMEN in Scotland are failing to improve their health at the same rate as men and may not continue to outlive them for much longer, according to Scotland’s leading doctor.
Men are giving up smoking in their thousands and exercising more, meaning they will live for seven more years, on average, compared with 1980.
But while women still have a greater life expectancy than men, the gap is narrowing, as many continue to smoke and lead less healthy lifestyles.
By the middle of the next decade, far more women than men will be suffering from lung cancer. Only 30 years ago, barely a quarter of lung cancer cases involved women.
And while more men suffer from obesity than women, that gap is closing, too, with the proportion of women classified as morbidly obese increasing, as it stays steady among men.
The findings were highlighted in the annual report of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Harry Burns, who blamed the narrowing of the gap squarely on the smoking habits of Scottish women.
In the 1960s and 70s, as many as 300 Scots died each week of lung cancer, mostly men who had started smoking during the First World War when cigarettes were offered free as part of their rations.
But rates of lung cancer among men, which hit a total of 16,000 over the five years between 1976 and 1980, are set to drop to just over 8,000 in the second half of the next decade. Among women, by contrast, the number of cases over the same time span is expected to rise from 5,000 to 10,000. Campaigners said ministers had to do more to help women stop smoking, and to prevent girls picking up the habit.
The life expectancy gap between men and women now stands at 4.9 years, down from 6.6 in 1980. Scottish men, on average, now die at the age of 75.3, compared with 80 years for women.
The narrowing of the gap was described as “surprising” by Dr Burns in his report. “In every country, women live longer than men and the same is true for Scotland,” he said. “However, current data suggests that men are narrowing the gap.
“An examination of health-related behaviours suggests that Scots men appear to be more likely than Scots women to adopt healthy behaviours. In particular, men in Scotland are less likely to be smokers than in the past, and this changing pattern of behaviour appears now to be accelerating gains in life expectancy.”
He added: “Women … do not appear to have reduced their smoking rates at the same time as men and they are now experiencing lung cancer rates similar to men. The expectation is that lung cancer will be commoner in women than in men by the end of this decade.”
Campaigners said the rates of lung cancer among women were increasing because of the way tobacco companies had targeted smokers over the last 40 to 50 years.
Sheila Duffy, chief executive of anti-tobacco group ASH Scotland, said: “In most western societies, women took up smoking in large numbers a few generations later than men. We are now 40 years on from the boom in women smokers, which is why lung cancer rates in women are still increasing as long-term tobacco use starts to take its toll.”
She added: “It’s vital that NHS stop-smoking services continue to attract women and support them to quit but, just as importantly, we need to reduce the numbers of girls taking up smoking.”
The case of women’s health was just one of the concerns highlighted by Dr Burns, who warned that any hopes Scotland could soon shake off its “sick man of Europe” image could be ruined by a new obesity crisis.
His report concluded that Scots were pursuing an “American” diet of high-calorie food which, if left unchecked, would lead to an increase in deaths from heart disease and strokes.
It noted how “conventional causes” of death – for example, from cancer and heart disease – were being “replaced” by other forms, such as alcohol-related deaths, addiction, injury and suicide. Scotland now has one of the highest rates of deaths from liver cirrhosis in Europe.
In a frank assessment, he said the frequent failure of health professionals to persuade people to improve their health had been caused by the fact that too many Scots simply did not care enough about themselves.
Dr Burns said the health service now had to focus more on how to address the psychological factors behind people’s lack of motivation, starting in childhood.
He added: “To make healthier choices, you need to feel life’s worth it, and mental health problems can make that very hard. This makes consistent, nurturing parenting even more important.”
Dr Brian Keighley, chairman of the British Medical Association in Scotland, said: “Behaviours adopted in childhood will carry through into adulthood. It is therefore important to give children a healthy start in life, teaching them life skills that will help them to make the right and healthy choices.”
17 December 2009
By Eddie Barnes