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How to Live Longer for Women

Avoid the Top Five Killers of Older Women


Updated April 20, 2012

If you could choose your gender in longevity roulette, you would definitely come up female. That's because in most countries in the world, women live longer than men. According to 2010 Census data, there are almost 23 million women over the age of 65 living in the United States, compared with 17 million men. Weighed against results from the year 2000, it's clear that the mortality gap between genders is closing, but for now, women are still the longevity winners.

Women probably have a few things, both physical and psychological, to thank for their longevity. Estrogen has been shown to protect the female body against heart disease, at least until menopause. Women may also be more likely to seek out a doctor's advice for health problems, which could lead to an earlier diagnosis and treatment. Still, women are vulnerable to several life-threatening conditions, like heart disease and cancer.

Here are the leading causes of death for older women, in order of prevalence, and what you can do to avoid them:

1. Heart Disease

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Blockages or narrowing of the arteries that carry blood to the heart are the most common causes of heart disease, and the main factor in heart attacks. A woman’s risk of heart disease increases after menopause.

What you can do to prevent it: There are definitely things you can do to lower your chances of having a heart attack, including:

  • Don’t smoke, and if you do, try to quit.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Get more exercise, especially aerobic exercise that elevates your heart rate. Aim for 30 minutes, 5 times per week.
  • Eat food that’s good for your heart: A plant-based plan like the Mediterranean diet that includes fruits and vegetables and whole grains that are high in fiber, as well as fish, legumes and nuts.
  • Find ways to reduce stress.

2. Cancer

Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in women, but breast and lung cancer rank as the deadliest. Lung cancer deaths are also on the rise. While some women have a genetic predisposition for breast cancer, most who get the disease do not.

What you can do to prevent it:

  • Don't smoke.
  • Limit yourself to 1 drink per day. Alcohol consumption has been linked to breast cancer.
  • Eat your fruits and vegetables. More research is demonstrating how a plant-based diet that includes foods like broccoli, cabbage, and nuts, can protect against cancer.
  • Exercise.
  • Watch for breast changes with a self-exam. Ask for a clinical breast exam done by your doctor, and have regular mammograms as prescribed.

3. Stroke

A stroke occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted, resulting in damage to brain cells. Most often, a blood clot causes a blockage in a blood vessel flowing to the brain, but sometimes a stroke results from a rupture of a blood vessel in the brain. High blood pressure or hypertension is a contributing factor. You're at greater risk of a stroke if you have a family history of coronary heart disease.

What you can do to prevent it:

  • Eat less salt, which can contribute to high blood pressure.
  • Control your diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes can damage blood vessels and increase your risk of stroke.
  • Get your blood pressure tested; if it's high, talk to your doctor about how to lower it.
  • Limit your use of alcohol to 1 drink per day; high alcohol intake can raise your risk of stroke.
  • Regular exercise and a healthy diet that's low in saturated fats can lower your risk.

4. Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases

These include chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and are often referred to together as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Cigarette smoking is the main cause of COPD, although other factors like air pollution and dust may play a role. A major cause of disability, COPD has no cure.

What you can do to prevent it:

  • The best way to avoid COPD is to not start smoking, or if you do smoke, quit.
  • Try and avoid second-hand smoke from other people lighting up.
  • Avoid exposure to air pollution like chemical fumes and dust.
  • If you already have COPD, quitting smoking is the best step towards slowing progression of the disease.

5. Alzheimer's Disease

A progressive and irreversible disease that gradually destroys brain function and memory, Alzheimer's is the most common form of dementia. It is the fifth leading cause of death in older women. What causes Alzheimer's is not fully understood but it is likely a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors.

What you can do to prevent it:

You cannot control your genetics, but you can do other things that may reduce your risk:

  • Eat a nutritious diet. Research is ongoing into the connection between stroke, diabetes, obesity and decline in brain function.
  • Keep physically active.
  • Maintain social interaction.
  • Keep your brain engaged.

Read more:

Life Expectancy in Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia


A Lifetime of Good Health. Public Information Sheet. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health. Accessed October 24, 2011. http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/lifetime-good-health/LifetimeGoodHealth-English.pdf

Cancer Among Women. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Public Information Sheet. Accessed October 24, 2011. http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/dcpc/data/women.htm

Census Snapshot of Canada: Population (Age and Sex). Public Information Sheet. Statistics Canada. Accessed October 24, 2011.http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-008-x/2007006/article/10379-eng.htm

Gender, Health and Ageing. Public Information Sheet. World Health Organization. Department of Gender and Women's Health. Accessed October 25, 2011. http://www.who.int/gender/documents/en/Gender_Ageing.pdf

Kenneth D. Kochanek, M.A.; Jiaquan Xu, M.D.; Sherry L. Murphy, B.S.; Arialdi M. Miniño M.P.H.; and Hsiang-Ching Kung, Ph.D., Division of Vital Statistics."Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2009." National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 59, No. 4, March 16, 20

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What is COPD? Public Information Sheet. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Accessed October 24, 2011. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/copd/

What You Need to Know about Stroke. Public Information Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Accessed October 24, 2011.http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/stroke/stroke_needtoknow.htm#PREVENTION

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