The Effects of Gender and Age on Health Related Behaviors

Amanda Deeks; Catherine Lombard; Janet Michelmore; Helena Teede


BMC Public Health. 2009;9:213 

In This Article


The present study found that health behavior, and beliefs relating to responsibility for health and future health requirements, are associated with both gender and age. This is important data, informing on health related behavior which will contribute to educating and supporting the preventative fight against lifestyle related and chronic disease as we age.

In this study, differences between gender and age groups were reported across a range of health related behaviors including (1) screening behaviors (2) health beliefs and disease prevention strategies, influences and perceived responsibility and, (3) future needs for wellbeing. Those surveyed were aware of the need for change, reported readiness and acceptance of responsibility to change, yet did not translate this through optimal health related behavior. Important observations made in the current study are that participants believe their lifestyle and health are a top priority and they fear ill health more than financial problems, yet they plan more carefully for financial security than for continued health. It is clear that further understanding and research into preventative health, incorporating gender and age differences, is required.

It was disturbing to find that 40% of women under the age of 30 years did not present regularly for pap screening. In terms of population-based screening, data from the Australian Cervical Cytology Registry reflects that more than one third of women under the age of 30 do not present for pap smears, and since 1996 the percent of younger women being screened is decreasing.[19] American data from 1976 through to 2000 also confirm that the rate of cervical adenocarcinoma increased in young women during that period.[20] Herbert et al 2008 found delaying the age of cervical screening increases the risk of cervical cancer becoming more extensive.[21] Their recommendation was for the English health service to reverse the decision not to routinely screen women aged 20–24 years and that early pap tests provide an excellent opportunity for education on healthy lifestyles and safe sex practices. This finding is potentially related to the observation that younger participants are less likely to have annual health checks, seek advice or attend education sessions. Younger women in particular nominated that they were prepared to attend regular health checks, however the present study and one past study confirm they do not always act on this.[20] It would seem prudent for regular screening to begin at an earlier age. If preventative health care is to be effective it may be enhanced by opportunistic screening. Provision of support for medical professionals to accomplish this could be an important focus in formulating health policy. Perhaps a government-subsidised early adult health check (such as the Australian 45–49 year old health check) would also improve knowledge and screening behavior. This may in fact also be cost effective as a preventative measure against the potential expenses associated with chronic disease such as diabetes and CVD.

Obesity and adverse lifestyle are the primary risk factors for metabolic disorders and cardiovascular disease (CVD). The incidence of these conditions is increasing, yet they are preventable with sufficient lifestyle changes, as found with polycystic ovary syndrome for example.[22] Women are at an equal or greater risk of CVD than men, yet women incorrectly perceive they are more likely to die of breast cancer.[23–25] Education and communication of more accurate risk and of preventable risk factors, at both a community and individual level, is important. The knowledge that women in the present study would seek reading material, and would prefer to attend interactive education sessions is supportive of this as a preventative health measure. Further work is needed in this area.

Lifestyle was nominated as the most important factor in contributing to healthy ageing, followed by family history, a stable home life, environmental factors and having a disease prevention strategy in place. Different age groups nominated different factors as important across the life span. Education and preventative programs need to take account of these differences and priorities across life stages when targeting health related behaviors. For example, older participants nominated relationships as important to health and past research confirms that social support is important to emotional and physical wellbeing.[26,27] Armed with this knowledge, it may be prudent to develop age specific programs in the promotion of health; for example, offering social support programs for people in their sixties as a contribution to prevention of chronic disease.

Many participants in the present study reported that they would prefer to seek advice from their GP instead of from other sources. However, only 11% attended for preventative health screening. Previous research has shown that those adults who consult a GP on a regular basis were more likely to be satisfied with the preventative information and support given.[9,15] These and other factors need to be considered. Barriers to attendance need to be addressed, and initiatives and strategies to increase screening and prevention practices implemented.

Participants reported that their health was their own responsibility, a top priority in their lives, and that they feared ill health as they aged. However, few acted to improve their future health as they aged. Potentially, more needs to be done to move people on from the preparedness to take responsibility and the contemplation stage of change, into active participation in prevention strategies.[28] Learning and adapting from other successful ageing strategies (e.g. financial planning) could be applied to the health sector. Many governments mandate financial plans associated with retirement, and perhaps we must also start thinking about mandating certain health checks as an investment in future prevention. Providing free or low cost, regular interactive education seminars, may also promote more active participation in health behaviors.

Gender significantly influenced information seeking. Men were not as interested as women in diabetes, osteoporosis, eye conditions, obesity or mood disorders such as anxiety or depression. This is of particular concern given the growing number of diagnosed diabetes and CVD cases in the community. Women reported taking more responsibility for their health, potentially related to risk perception and the gender bias that women are socialized to be more concerned about health issues than men.[10,12] Targeted education, encouraging men to be engaged and to take more responsibility for their health will be vital to disease prevention.

There are some limitations with regard to the present study. This was a random sample representative of the Australian population, and as such may be expected to be representative of a broad cross-section of incomes and education levels. It would be beneficial for future research to more fully correct and evaluate the influence of socioeconomic factors on health behaviors in this population. Some participants had previously participated in health surveys in unrelated areas, which may or may not have influenced answers. There is also the possibility that response bias was present due to the method used to obtain data, including having a telephone and being available at the time of contact. The design of the present study was cross-sectional. It would also be useful to examine these health related beliefs and behaviors in a longitudinal study using standardized measures. The survey included closed questions and further information would be obtained by also providing participants in future studies with open-ended questions. As with all surveys, definitions and items can be open to interpretation.


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