The life expectancy for women in Malaysia has increased in recent years, reaching 78.3 years in 2021. However, even though women can expect to live longer than men (whose life expectancy reached 73.2 years in 2021), this doesn’t necessarily mean that they enjoy healthier lives.
Women are at a higher risk of developing certain diseases than men, and also bear women-only health concerns such as postpartum depression and cervical cancer. To make things worse, most of these health conditions go undiagnosed, and are at times identified in the later stages, where treatments can be costly.
The good news is these diseases may be preventable by making healthy lifestyle changes. In this feature, we explore some of the biggest health concerns that Malaysian women face and some simple strategies for prevention.
Biggest health concerns
Osteoporosis leads to a loss of bone mass, making them brittle and liable to fracture. Although mostly preventable, one in three women over the age of 50 worldwide will experience osteoporotic fractures due to changes in the hormones in women after menopause.
Women who have osteoporosis will frequently have back pain and a stooped posture. The risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, and birth control pills. An early diagnosis of this disease before fractures occur and early treatment can prevent osteoporosis.
2. Heart disease
Heart disease is, in fact, the leading cause of death among Malaysian women. According to the Cardiovascular Disease Registry in Malaysia, female patients have higher unadjusted in-hospital, 30-day and 1-year mortality rates for acute coronary syndrome than male patients. Women are less likely to undergo angiography and percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) treatments despite this prevalence.
Symptoms of heart disease include chest pains, jaw pains, shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and shoulder aches. Risk factors include diabetes, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, smoking, and ageing.
As the third leading cause of death in Malaysia, strokes affect more women than men. According to an empirical study, women had a higher mortality from stroke (19.7% in 2016) than men (17.2% in 2016). Even more worrying, the study revealed a trend increase in stroke incidence among the younger population.
Symptoms of stroke include sudden disorientation, headaches, sudden loss of balance, numbness or weakness, and seizures. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking, and birth control pills are risk factors.
4. Ovarian and cervical cancer
Ovarian and cervical cancer are specific women’s diseases that affect 5.9 and 6.8 out of 100,000 Malaysian women. Although both cancers cause similar pain, ovarian cancer starts in the fallopian tubes, whereas cervical cancer originates in the lower uterus. Cervical cancer can be present with post-coital bleeding, intermenstrual bleeding, and an abnormal pap smear.
Ovarian cancer can be present with an ovarian cyst, abdominal distension, and irregular vaginal bleeding. Risk factors for cervical cancer include smoking, birth control pills, early pregnancy, and multiple sexual partners. Risk factors for ovarian cancer include family history, obesity, having children later or never having a full-term pregnancy, and age.
5. Breast cancer
Although breast cancer affects both women and men, women are definitely at a significantly higher risk of developing it. The two most common types of breast cancer are Invasive Ductal Carcinoma (IDC) and Invasive Lobular Carcinoma (ILC). It is also the most common form of cancer to hit Malaysian women, with one in 19 being at risk of diagnosis.
A study revealed that in 2003, nearly 40% of all new cases reported each year locally were already in the very advanced stages of the disease. What is even more pressing is that 64% of these new cases were women between 40 to 60 years old.
Symptoms of breast cancer include changes in the skin of the breast, lumps, and swelling. Risk factors include family history, high alcohol consumption, obesity, and age.
6. Post-partum depression
This debilitating mental illness is specific to new mothers who experience postpartum baby blues. It begins two or three days after childbirth and may last up to two weeks and sometimes even months.
Due to the prevalent stigma in Malaysia, many new mothers do not seek professional help to overcome this illness, making it difficult for them to cope with mood swings, crying spells, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping.
Obesity is a significant health concern affecting individuals of every age and gender in Malaysia. Unfortunately, Malaysian women are more likely to be overweight or obese than men. This is due to a combination of factors, including a lack of physical activity, poor diet choices, and hormonal changes associated with menopause.
To prevent obesity, women should strive to include exercise in their daily routine and choose healthier food options. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains can lower the chances of obesity and associated health problems.
8. Mental health
Mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, are rising in Malaysia, which is not surprising considering the mental load a modern woman carries. Due to the crazy demands of work, family, and societal expectations, women, unfortunately, are more susceptible to these issues. Speaking to a trusted loved one, seeking professional help, and practising self-care can all help improve mental health.
Strategies for better well-being
1. Conduct women screening tests frequently
Health screening tests are effective preventive measures. Especially for women, there are plenty of women’s packages across the country that cover far more than just the basic blood and urine tests. This includes specific women’s tests such as:
- A pap smear for cervical cancer
- An HPV test for HPV infection
- A clinical breast exam for breast cancer
- A mammogram for breast cancer
- A pelvic exam to spot signs of illness in a women’s reproductive organs
- A bone density test for osteoporosis
Except for special conditions, these tests should be scheduled frequently. The cost of women’s health screening packages varies depending on your clinic of choice, so make sure you do your homework.
2. Boost your insurance coverage with women-only health policies
If you didn’t know already, your primary insurance plan often partially covers or doesn’t include female-centric illnesses, so opting for a women’s rider policy will help boost coverage and ensure peace of mind. There is a wide range of women’s insurance plans in Malaysia for you to choose from.
They often cover many female-related illnesses such as osteoporosis, breast cancer, and even expectant mothers against pregnancy complications. Some of these insurance plans even cover maternity costs related to pregnancy and newborn healthcare. Some offer a lump-sum payout for life-changing events such as marriage, births, retirement, and bereavement.
The ladies-only policy will also allow claiming legal costs and expenses incurred for sexual harassment.
3. Give up smoking
Giving up smoking could drastically reduce your risk of developing many fatal diseases. For women, quitting smoking will increase the likelihood of having a healthy pregnancy and lower the risk of certain pregnancy complications that can harm you and your baby, like pre-eclampsia and placenta previa. This dentist in Leominster also adds that quitting smoking will reduce your risk of dental health issues and oral cancer.
4. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight, release stress, and prevent osteoporosis. Especially for women, these benefits expand by helping to counteract hormonally-driven mood swings by releasing endorphins, which may reduce the need for serotonin-raising medications known as anti-depressants.
Exercise also improves sleep and cognitive function. You do not need to start exercising self-punishingly — just get out there and perhaps begin with a 20-minute walk. Remember, it’s not about instant results or losing weight, but about long-term change that will bring you better health for a lifetime.
5. Eat a healthy diet
The food and drink choices you make every day affects your health now and in the future. As such, eating a healthy diet should be one of your priorities to maintain your overall wellness. Women need to prioritise fruit, vegetables, and lean meat while limiting processed foods. These choices can help prevent or manage many women-related illnesses.
More importantly, studies also show that when a woman eats healthy, everyone in her household is more likely to eat healthy, resulting in a trickle-down effect. Here’s to healthy living!