Epic study provides crucial women’s health insight

Professor Cassandra Szoeke

The fluctuating health priorities and concerns of Australian women throughout their lives is the subject of a landmark study completed by Flinders graduate Professor Cassandra Szoeke (BMBS Grad Entry ’90).

As principal investigator of the Women’s Healthy Ageing Project within the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at The University of Melbourne, Professor Szoeke  has driven the longest ongoing study of women’s health in Australia. She is also author of the book detailing the outcomes, called Secrets of Women’s Healthy Ageing – Living Better, Living Longer.

The women’s healthy ageing research engaged the same cohort of 400 Australian women through a 30-year duration (from 1990), making the results unique in a global context. They are now referenced as important evidence to recognise significant health differences between sexes. Professor Szoeke says that her research career was shaped by formative experiences as a Flinders medical student.

“My experiences working in Alice Springs and Darwin really informed my break with tradition to specialise my research into a tiny, specific area. First Nations’ models of health are holistic and not just patient-centred, but community-centred,” she says.

“Our Healthy Ageing Program collects stories and shares them alongside evidence-based longitudinal analysis, including clinical, biomarker and imaging datasets to find the components of healthy ageing.

“We have looked at issues that the community raises as relevant – like grandparenting – and we have seen that these factors do indeed influence our health as we get older. Our work in grandparenting was so novel it was rapidly translated into news media, not just locally but in CBS and China Daily news.”

“Since the original publications, a host of people around the world are examining the impact of grandparenting on health. Ageing is complex and multimorbidity is a hallmark feature, with most Australians over 50 having two or more diseases,” she adds.

“We now have clear data that environment, lifestyle and social  impacts are responsible for a lot of preventable disease. In fact, WHO published that 80% of the chronic diseases of ageing could be prevented by targeting these factors.”

The Healthy Ageing Program forms only part of Professor Szoeke’s busy workload, which includes being a consultant physician, neurologist, lecturer and board director. The international exposure gained through the longitudinal study has also drawn attention to Professor Szoeke’s other studies, including the global burden of dementia (especially pertaining to women), and studies showing that women are suffering more long-term side effects to COVID-19 than men.

She says research remains an important companion to her continuing work as a clinical practitioner. “They work hand-in-hand, because the intention in all forms of medicine is to keep improving.”

“There are only so many hours in each day, so if you can reach a position where you can change systems that need improvement, you ultimately help bring positive change to the health of the entire population.”

Secrets of Women’s Healthy Ageing – Living Better, Living Longer.

In Secrets of Women’s Healthy Ageing Cassandra Szoeke shares the wisdom revealed by this comprehensive longitudinal study, showing how to promote overall wellness and providing the key ingredients for living a long and healthy life. Find out more about the book and order copies via Melbourne University Press.


This article is from the 2022 College of Medicine and Public Health Alumni magazine: Read more

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