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Health habits and psychological well-being among young, middle-aged and older Australian women

Christina Lee
University of Newcastle, Australia

Published in 'British Journal of Health Psychology', 4, 301-314, 1999

The aim of this study was to assess Australian women's health habits and how they are associated with psychological well-being.  Data was collected from a representative population sample of 612 women from three age groups.  212 women were aged 18-23, 272 were aged between 45 and 50, and 128 were aged 70-75 years.  Questionnaires were distributed through the mail and consisted of the General Health Questionnaire, Women's Health Questionnaire, and the Medical Outcomes Study.  Further assessments included self-reported measures of smoking, height and weight, alcohol consumption, and levels of physical exercise. 

The findings suggested developmental differences in well-being and health behaviours, as there were significant age group differences in relation to the association between psychological distress and potentially health-damaging behaviours.  The younger group tended to smoke and drink more alcohol and were more likely to be underweight compared with the middle age group and the older group.  However the researchers acknowledge that the reduced life expectancies associated with smoking and drinking alcohol may have resulted in a sample of biased survivors in the older groups.

The youngest respondents reported the highest levels of emotional distress and the oldest group reported the lowest levels of distress, suggesting that older people may cope better psychologically with ageing than widespread stereotypes would have us believe.  Although many participants in the older group reported physical health restrictions, their self-rated well-being scores remained consistently high.

The scores for over 44% of the youngest group also indicated serious potential for the development of psychiatric disorders.  The researchers suggest that anxiety levels may be due to academic achievement, employment prospects and an uncertain economic future, however they do emphasise that further research is needed to understand why levels of stress among young women are exceptionally high.

There were also strong relationships between high levels of emotional distress and unhealthy lifestyle.  Smokers and those with unhealthy body weight (both underweight and obese) reported significantly elevated scores for depression.  Alcohol consumption was also related to increased menstrual problems while sleep difficulties were more prevalent among those who were physically inactive.  

The researchers argue that future research and intervention strategies for improving long-term health and well-being should target young women, as health-related risks are associated with increased depression and this particular group appears to be especially vulnerable to higher psychological distress and increased levels of smoking and drinking alcohol

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