A new study has reported an alarming finding: women age 75 and younger are dying at higher rates than previous years in about 43% of United States’ counties; the majority of these women live in the South and West and many reside in rural counties. Surprisingly, the life expectancy for men has remained steady or improved in nearly all counties. The findings were published on March 4 in the journal Health Affairs by researchers affiliated with the University of Wisconsin
Several other recent studies have reported similar findings. It appears that decreased longevity is primarily affecting disadvantaged Caucasian women. The most common theories focus on higher smoking rates, obesity, and less education being causative factors; however, some healthcare analysts are baffled by the trend. In general, women outlive men; the latest statistics show the average life span for a baby girl born today is 81, and for a baby boy, it is 76. However, the gap has been narrowing and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reveals that women’s longevity is not growing at the same RATE as men’s. The trend appears to have begun in the late 1980s; however, it has become more apparent in the last few years.
It is currently unclear how many women are affected; however, it is estimated to be around 12%. The Wisconsin researchers, David Kindig and Erika Cheng, reviewed federal death data and other information for almost all 3,141 US counties over 10 years. They calculated mortality rates for women age 75 and younger, sometimes reported as “premature death rates,” because many of those deaths are considered preventable. Many counties have such small populations that even slight changes in the number of deaths produce dramatic swings in the death rate from year to year. To try to stabilize the numbers, the researchers computed some five-year averages. They also employed statistical analysis to provide for factors such as income and education.
The investigators found that nationwide, the rate of women dying younger than would be expected fell from 324 to 318 per 100,000; however, in 1,344 counties, the average premature death rate rose, from 317 to about 333 per 100,000. In comparison, deaths rates rose for men in only about 100 counties. Two years ago, a study by researchers at the University of Washington also reviewed county-level death rates. It too found that women were dying at a younger age, especially in the South. Both studies found regional differences in premature death among women. Some of the highest smoking rates are in Southern states, and the proportion of women who failed to finish high school is also highest in the South. Other studies that focused on national data reported large declines in life expectancy among Caucasian women who never earned a high school diploma. In contrast, life expectancy appears to be increasing for more educated and affluent women.
Take home message:
It is difficult to interpret the findings from these studies because they appear to primarily point to Caucasian women. Poor lifestyle choices such as smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise, as well as lack of education are associated with a decreased life expectancy. However, these factors apply to both genders and all ethnicities.