01.12.2016 Health News

Asthma risk greatest for older women

Melbourne’s extraordinary “thunderstorm asthma” crisis in late November gives new urgency to figures showing the risk the disease poses, particularly to older women.

New data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) shows that women aged over 55 continue to be most at risk of dying from asthma and need to take extra care in managing their condition.

Two and a half million Australians have asthma, which affects one in 10 children and adults. It is one of this country's most common and costly diseases, imposing an economic burden of $27.9 billion in 2015.

While overall asthma deaths have dropped significantly from a peak of 964 deaths in 1989 to 421 (278 females and 143 males in 2015), the threat to women continues to baffle the experts.

Over half of the 421 deaths recorded in Australia (59%) in 2015 were women over 55 years, with women aged 75 years and older recording nearly three times (2.7) the number of deaths than men of the same age.(1) This is despite the prevalence of asthma sitting at around 9% for men and 13% for women.

The National Asthma Council Australia says the data highlights the need for mid-life and older women not to let asthma take a backseat to other conditions as asthma deaths are largely preventable.

According to a recent study, older women with asthma have a 17% higher risk of death compared with other women of the same age. (2) This increased risk remains after age, demographic factors, comorbidities, risk factors, residential area and social support have been considered.

“Many women do not realise the potential seriousness of the condition because it is so common," said Council chair and respiratory physician Dr Jonathan Burdon.

“They may not make asthma care a priority, even though older women with asthma often have worse health outcomes. This is a concern, especially given Australia’s ageing population, as there are growing numbers of older people developing asthma which can be more severe and harder to treat in the elderly. “By getting their asthma under control, older women are more likely to be able to enjoy a full and active life".

Dr Burdon said that there was no definitive answer as to why older women were more affected by asthma, but various studies suggest there are likely a combination of factors – diagnostic, biological, lifestyle, societal and environmental.

“We know that women have slightly higher prevalence rates for asthma, but we don’t have conclusive evidence as to why women are dying from asthma at two to three times the rates of men. This general trend is seen throughout the world.

“Every death is a tragedy. Asthma can be controlled with asthma preventer and reliever medication and by following an up-to-date asthma action plan, prepared with your doctor,” Dr Burdon advised.

Action steps for asthma control are:

Don’t ignore or dismiss breathing problems

See your doctor for regular asthma check-ups

Follow an up-to-date asthma action plan

Ask your pharmacist to show you exactly how to use your inhaler correctly

Tell your doctor and pharmacist about other medicines you are taking

Quit smoking and avoid other people’s tobacco smoke

Each winter get your flu shot (it’s free for people over 65)


Full report of asthma-related deaths by age, sex and state: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/publication/asthma-mortality-statistics

1. Australian Bureau of Statistics Report on Causes of Death, Australia, 2015 (asthma-related deaths).

2. Eftekhari et al. Impact of asthma on mortality in older women: An Australian cohort study of 10,413 women. Respir Med 2016; 119: 102–108. E-pub 30 Aug 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27692129