While common sense may tell you that the rate of chronic disease in our population increases with age, you might be surprised to learn, as I was, that more than a third of all American women have a chronic condition that requires ongoing medical attention, such as diabetes or hypertension. And that one in 10 women between the ages of 18 and 44 say they've been diagnosed with arthritis, hypertension or high cholesterol.

Those are among the eye-opening statistics in the Women's Health Care Chartbook, released this month by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The Chartbook provides a valuable overview of women's health status, insurance coverage, access to providers, use of preventive services, and work and family issues as they pertain to health care.

The data adds important details to our understanding of America's health care system as we struggle to get our arms around the enormous changes already taking place and the even more dramatic changes looming on the horizon. More usefully, perhaps, hospitals and physicians can use the Chartbook's format to dig deeper into women's needs in their own communities and adapt their local care delivery networks accordingly.

The Chartbook contains mixed news: eight in 10 women between 18 and 64 describe their health as good to excellent. However, one in five say they are in fair to poor health, and that proportion rises to nearly 25 percent among women 50 to 64. More than 83 percent of women say they see a provider on a regular basis. However, only 67 percent of Hispanic women have a regular provider, compared with 86 percent of whites and 84 percent of African Americans.

One hopeful sign: "There seems to be growing attention to underlying causes of chronic diseases, such as diet, exercise and high cholesterol," the Kaiser analysts say. With broader awareness of the nation's obesity and diabetes epidemics, nearly half of women said they had talked with a provider about diet and exercise in the past year, compared with just 39 percent in 2004. More than 60 percent said they received a recent cholesterol test in 2008, up from 56 percent in 2001.

The Chartbook is drawn from the Kaiser Women's Health Survey, taken in the first half of 2008, just as the economy was heading into recession. Even then, a quarter of women under 65 said they went without or delayed needed care because they couldn't afford it. Startlingly, many of those women had health care coverage: 14 percent had private insurance and 31 percent were covered under Medicaid. Moreover, 16 percent of respondents said they were forced to spend less in 2008 on other basic needs in order to cover their health care expenses, up from 8 percent in 2004. It's painful to speculate how those numbers might have worsened as the recession deepened.

Those of you who, like me, are interested in how the aging of the U.S. population impacts our health care system will want to check out the section on caregiving. More and more women are responsible for managing health care for both their kids and their aging relatives—not to mention themselves—and that has significant implications for providers and policymakers.

My column appears in this space every Tuesday. I enjoy hearing from readers. E-mail me at bsantamour@healthforum.com.