Extensive research brings new information on the health and sexual well-being of Finnish women

An exceptionally extensive study on the factors affecting women’s well-being and reproductive health has been under way in Oulu and Helsinki for almost a year. More than 4,500 women born in Northern Finland in 1986, whose health has been monitored since their foetal period, have been invited to the study. The study is part of the Northern Finland Birth Cohorts research programme of the University of Oulu. 

“Such a comprehensive survey of women’s health has never been carried out in Finland before. Some of the women belonging to the cohort have subsequently moved around Finland, mainly to the capital region. This is why we have set up research centres at the Oulu University Hospital and the Women’s Hospital in Helsinki,” says Terhi Piltonen, head researcher of the women’s health research project and professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Oulu.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought challenges to the research. Amid exceptional circumstances, the significance of research work is emphasised. At the same time, it provides a rare opportunity to gather information on women’s health and life during the pandemic. So far, more than 750 women have participated in the study. “Participants have been very satisfied with the arrangements, and we have taken into account the COVID-19 recommendations. We have minimised contact with those visiting the hospital,” says the nurse coordinating the study, midwife Lotta Vuokila from Oulu University Hospital.

Women’s health problems often go unnoticed

Participants are pleased with the scope of the health information they have received from the survey. There have been some surprises too. “For example, the diagnosis of endometriosis or PCOS has come as a surprise to many women, even though they have had clear symptoms for several years. This shows that women’s health problems, even as common as these, often go unnoticed,” laments Piltonen. Specialist examinations have also revealed several cases of separated abdominal muscles and the fatty degeneration of the liver that is harmful to health. “In difficult cases, we have provided referrals for further assessment to specialised health care,” says Piltonen.

A preliminary analysis of the current results has already been carried out. The results offer an interesting perspective on the lives of Finnish women. According to the results, 97% of women feel that their health is good. However, more than half of the subjects have abdominal obesity (waist circumference > 80 cm), and 10% have a higher blood pressure than recommended.

Women’s awareness of reproductive health is good on average, but few know that fertility deteriorates significantly even before reaching menopausal age. That said, more than half of the 35-year-old women participants still hoped to be able to get pregnant. In the future, this may be reflected in a smaller-than-planned family size.

The COVID-19 pandemic has no significant impact on women’s sex life

Preliminary results reveal that 75% of women are satisfied with their sex life. One in two women has sex at least once a week, but one in five frequently experiences an unwillingness to have sex. The most common causes for the unwillingness are stress, lack of time, children and work. The COVID-19 pandemic has not had a significant impact on women’s sex life. The most common contraceptive used by 35-year-old Finnish women is a condom, followed by a hormonal coil (IUS). 60% of women have used emergency contraception at some point in their lives.

The study has revealed that gynaecological disorders are common in women. For example, according to a specialist examination, 14% of the women met the criteria for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), but only 6% reported having a previous PCOS diagnosis. Approximately 10% have been diagnosed with endometriosis, and 2.5% with vulvodynia. One out of every four 35-year-old women suffers from urinary incontinence. One out of every five suffers from frequent vaginitis.

“Our research team is working hard to ensure that the final research results find their way to widespread public awareness, promoting the health of all women,” says Piltonen.

The Helsinki research centre will be closed in early summer, and the research project will be completed next year. The results will be published in national and international publication series.

Women’s health survey website (in Finnish)

The Northern Finland Birth Cohorts website contains up-to-date information on the research programme and, subsequently, the survey results.

Last updated: 22.3.2021