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Low-income women face greater burden of illness: study

Women with less education and lower incomes are more likely to suffer from more chronic illnesses, greater disabilities and shorter life expectancies compared to women in high-income groups, according to a new women’s health study led by St. Michael’s Hospital researcher Dr. Arlene Bierman.

Toronto, June 24, 2009

Dr. Arlene Bierman Dr. Arlene Bierman

Women with less education and lower incomes are more likely to suffer from more chronic illnesses, greater disabilities and shorter life expectancies compared to women in high-income groups, according to a new women’s health study led by St. Michael’s Hospital researcher Dr. Arlene Bierman.

The findings strongly suggest that the inequities among women are larger than the differences between men and women. “While we already knew these inequities exist, we are quite startled by just how large the gap is among different groups of women,” stated Dr. Bierman.

The Project for an Ontario Women’s Health Evidence-Based Report, or POWER study, is the first in Ontario to provide a comprehensive overview of women’s health in relation to gender, income, education, ethnicity and geography. The POWER Study is a partnership between St. Michael’s Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES). The POWER Study was funded by Echo: Improving Women’s Health in Ontario, an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.

Among the findings:

  • Thirty-nine per cent of low income women suffer from two or more chronic health conditions compared to 28 per cent of women in the highest income group and 21 per cent of higher income men.
  • Thirty-five per cent of low income women age 65 and older say their activities are limited by pain compared to 18 per cent of higher income women in this age group.
  • Thirty-five per cent of low income women age 65 and older say their activities are limited by pain compared to 18 per cent of higher income women in this age group.

The study also showed that a majority are more likely to suffer from disability and chronic conditions in comparison to men.

Lifestyle factors such as smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise are largely to blame for chronic illnesses present in both men and women.

“The good news is that there is much that can be done to close this gap,” said Dr. Bierman. “The inequities we found are associated with chronic disease, so by focusing on chronic disease prevention and management, and improving the living and working conditions that increase the risk of chronic disease, we can improve health outcomes for all women and men.”

For more information on the POWER Study and to access the burden of illness report, visit www.powerstudy.ca. Other findings from the study will be released later this year.

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