Five advances in women’s health that are worth celebrating

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  • The medical industry has largely neglected women's health in the past.
  • It's taken a while, but women's healthcare has seen important advances over the years.
  • From a reduction in heart disease in women to the growing FemTech industry, we take a look at a few changes worth celebrating.

Women have spent decades fighting the good fight for equal healthcare. 

While there are still mountains to climb before we can reach a world where women and girls have full equality, there have been some noteworthy milestones and advances that have brought women's healthcare to the forefront of the health industry.

In a Perspective piece published in The New England Journal of Medicine last year, two female medical experts wrote: "The past half-century has been marked by important advances in reproductive health, improvement in women's well-being throughout the life course, and reductions in cardiovascular and cancer mortality in women."

We take a look at five noteworthy improvements in women's health that's worth celebrating this Women's Day.

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Breast cancer is being detected much earlier

Breast cancer, which is far more common in women than men, has overtaken lung cancer as the world's most commonly diagnosed cancer, and has claimed more than two million lives in 2020 alone. This makes early detection, diagnosis and treatment critical - research shows more than 90% of breast cancers found in the early stages can be cured.

Fortunately, the past decade has seen remarkable advances in breast cancer treatment and research. More than 40 years ago, around 33 out of every 100 000 women lost their lives to breast cancer. But, thanks to increased screening and early detection programmes in many countries, combined with their treatment options, improvements in survival began since the 1980s, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).

More women are included in clinical trials

It's hardly shocking that women's participation in clinical research and trials that focused on new drugs and treatments, and new ways to change behaviour and improve health, were limited until the 1930s. 

Of course, this had - and continues to have - serious repercussions on women's health today. A simple medication like aspirin has shown to affect men and women differently, so this underscores the need for the representation of women in medical research.

While there is still a lot of catching up to do, things are starting to look optimistic: a 2019 study found that women today make up 49% of participants in trials.

READ MORE | Would you screen yourself for cervical cancer at home?

Women's life expectancy has increased

Life expectancy, the average period that a person may expect to live, is on the increase. But a 2019 report by the WHO specifically showed women were outliving men worldwide.

"Women outlive men everywhere in the world, and the gap in life expectancy would be even wider if women in low-income countries had better access to healthcare," Jacqui Thornton wrote in the British Medical Journal.

Heart disease is becoming less of a threat

Heart disease is seven times deadlier than breast cancer and the number one killer of women - but it is also one of the most preventable diseases. 

In the US, this deadly disease was the cause of about one in every five female deaths in 2019. In South Africa, however, the proportion of these deaths in women aged 35 to 59 years was indicated to be one and a half times more likely than that of women in the US. 

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But it's not all doom and gloom: efforts centred on awareness, such as healthy lifestyle changes, and treatments over the years have resulted in fewer women losing their lives to heart disease. 

Research shows that in the past, physicians and cardiologists did not recognise heart disease in women, but things have evolved and sex-specific diagnostics and treatment have since meant women can optimised heart disease treatment.

The rise of FemTech 

The global FemTech market - software and technology used to address women's biological needs - is playing a significant role in transforming women's health and wellness. 

From tracking periods and fertility to offering advice for sexual health, contraception, pregnancy, breastfeeding and menopause, thousands of apps have it made so much easier to improve healthcare for women globally. 

"FemTech - and indeed, improved women’s healthcare overall - could help catalyse positive social changes across the healthcare ecosystem and beyond," says global consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Even better is that FemTech is largely powered by women: based on an analysis done by Mckinsey, more than 70% of FemTech companies had at least one female founder, compared with a 20% norm for new companies.

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