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High-earning women need to manage health risks

Contrary to popular conception, wealthy women are often in worse health than lower income women.

(Photo: Ariel Skelley/Getty)

Wealth doesn’t always equal health, according to survey results released by the Executive Health Centre and published in the November 19 edition of Maclean’s Magazine. The ‘2012 How Healthy Are You?’ survey points out women earning high incomes (>$150K) are less healthy than women in lower income brackets.

Those findings conflict with public health studies that show high income earners have better access to high quality food, shelter and medical care and, therefore, will have better health outcomes. So why did our study show an improving health trend for both men and women as their incomes grew, but then indicated a sudden shift to more symptoms in high income females?

My experience tells me there are two causes:

  • The Second Shift Effect
  • Stubborn biology – The Menopause Effect

Data collected during the past decade shows that women are working longer hours and taking on almost all the household responsibilities (grocery shopping, preparing meals) and children support/planning (helping with homework, and other kid activities).  The National Parenting Association statistics support these observations.  There is no work-life balance but rather a three-way directional juggle of career, home and life. When time runs out, ‘self’ takes a back seat.  This is the “Second Shift Effect.”

In my executive health practice, I consider all of my female executives to be at high health risk because they more often than men delay their medical appointments and diagnostic tests. Personal time for exercise and de-stressing activities such as yoga and spa treatments are not prioritized. (Contrast this with my male clients who stick to appointment schedules as planned—including golf rounds, hockey games and early-morning gym routines.) This is a set-up for poor health. Medical studies show heart disease, diabetes and cancer are on the rise among women, especially those in senior roles. 

The Menopause Effect

The survey for Maclean’s showed that the stress-related issues topping the list include weight gain due to food cravings, musculoskeletal and menopausal symptoms. The average age of the female high earners with these symptoms is 47, which is when perimenopause (irregular menstrual cycles, symptoms due to hormonal imbalance) begins.

In my view, menopausal symptoms must be managed proactively. Otherwise they can contribute to the ‘glass ceiling’—the difficulty in breaking into the ranks of senior management. Hot flashes and night sweats lead to poor and insufficient sleep which in turn causes mood swings, irritability, impaired memory and decreased mental acuity. This is a set up for poor performance. While this may be tolerated at home, few businesses are as sympathetic. 

Make your peak earning years your best years

Stubborn symptoms can affect performance but they can be overcome.  Women must be proactive about their health by seeking out professionals who not only specialize in their unique health needs, but who also understand the female executive persona. Women can prevent health problems before their peak earning years so they can crash through that glass ceiling.

Dr. Elaine Chin is founder of the Executive Health Centre.