Despite technological advances in healthcare and expanding health education, it appears women are actually dying younger than their mothers did. And, experts don't really know why. What is clear is that life expectancy is related to a complex set of factors, including geographic region and income level.
Women in Appalachia and across the Cotton Belt (from Maryland to eastern Texas) most highly contribute to this trend of reduced female life expectancy. Education levels also figure in heavily, with the trend appearing most strongly in white women who didn't complete high school. This is likely true for a number of reasons, both economic and social: Women with limited education might actually not have been exposed to the level of health education as those who go on to college, and they're probably also less likely to find work in professional settings where they have access to comprehensive health insurance coverage.
An interesting experiment might be to take similar women in the U.S. — those who didn't finish high school — and compare their health to similar women in countries where universal health care is offered to all citizens. If access to health care is the issue, perhaps the recently enacted (though still fiercely debated) Affordable Care Act might help reduce some of the disparity.
The Atlantic reports that "inequality in women’s health outcomes steadily increased between 1985 and 2010, with female life expectancy stagnating or declining in 45 percent of U.S. counties." This is staggering. We often (blindly) believe that health care is simply getting better — that technology, pharma research, and all the innovations we read about on a daily basis are adding up to one thing: living longer. It's difficult and perplexing to look at the startling fact that perhaps all our innovations aren't really making us any better off.
Of course, it's possible that behavioral patterns are at the root of diminishing female life expectancy. Things like smoking, drinking, and bad eating habits have a huge effect on health and longevity. And, we can't create better drugs for diabetes faster than sugar consumption rates increase. We can't expect doctors and drugs to reverse our health problems.
But, what about men? Are they dying sooner, too? Not really — that's the truly perplexing part of the story. University of Wisconsin researchers David Kindig and Erika Cheng found that "in nearly half of U.S. counties, female mortality rates actually increased between 1992 and 2006, compared to just 3% of counties that saw male mortality increase over the same period." This is a huge, disturbing difference.
Researchers also question whether stress and loneliness in women leads to the adoption of unhealthy habits (smoking, drinking) that may decrease life expectancy. But, it's men that traditionally drink and smoke at higher rates than women, so unless smoking and drinking affect women's bodies in profoundly different ways than men's, this must only be part of the puzzle. (The Atlantic)