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By Stephanie Nebehay

Life expectancy for women at 50 has improved but the gap between poor and rich countries is growing and could worsen without better detection and treatment of cardiovascular disease and cancers, the World Health Organization (WHO) says in a new study.

The WHO study, one of the first to analyze the causes of death of older women, found that in wealthier countries deaths from noncommunicable diseases has fallen dramatically in recent decades, especially from cancers of the stomach, colon, breast and cervix.

Women over 50 in low and middle-income countries are also living longer, but chronic ailments, including diabetes, kill them at an earlier age than their counterparts, it said.

"The gap in life expectancy between such women in rich and poor countries is growing," the WHO researchers wrote.

"More women can expect to live longer and not just survive child birth and childhood. But what we found is that improvement is much stronger in the rich world than in the poor world. The disparity between the two is increasing," Dr. John Beard, director of WHO's department of aging and life course, said in an interview.

"What it also points to is that we need particularly in low and middle-income countries to start to think about how these emerging needs of women get addressed. The success in the rich world would suggest that is through better prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases," Beard added.

"In women over 50, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), particularly cancers, heart disease and strokes, are the most common causes of death, regardless of the level of economic development of their country," the report reads.

Health ministers from WHO's 194 member states agreed on a global action plan to prevent and control noncommunicable diseases at their annual ministerial meeting in May.

Developed countries have tackled cardiovascular diseases and cancers in women with tangible results, the study found.

Fewer women aged 50 and older in rich countries are dying from heart disease, stroke and diabetes than 30 years ago and the improvements contributed most to increasing women's life expectancy at the age of 50, it said. An older woman in Germany can now expect to live to 84, and in Japan to 88, against 73 in South Africa and 80 in Mexico.

"That reflects two things: better prevention, particularly clinical prevention around control of hypertension and screening of cervical cancer, but it also reflects better treatment," Beard said.

"I think that is particularly true for breast cancer where women with breast cancer are much better managed these days in the rich world. That also explains the disparity," he added.

Low-income countries, especially in Africa, offer community services to treat diseases like AIDS or offer maternal care but many lack services to detect or treat breast cancer.

In many developing countries, there is also limited access to high blood pressure medication to treat hypertension, one of the biggest risk factors for death, Beard said.

Women with cardiovascular disease and cancers need the kind of chronic treatment provided to those with the AIDS virus HIV, he said.