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Life expectancy dives for many women in U.S.

For the first time since the Spanish influenza of 1918, life expectancy is falling for a significant number of American women.

In nearly 1,000 counties that together are home to about 12 percent of the nation's women, life expectancy is now shorter than it was in the early 1980s, according to a study published today.

The downward trend is evident in places in the Deep South, Appalachia, the lower Midwest and in one county in Maine. It is not limited to one race or ethnicity, but it is more common in rural and low-income areas. The most dramatic change occurred in two areas in southwestern Virginia, where women's life expectancy has decreased by more than five years since 1983.

The trend appears to be driven by increases in death from diabetes, lung cancer, emphysema and kidney failure. It reflects the long-term consequences of smoking, a habit that women took up in large numbers decades after men did, and the slowing of the historic decline in heart disease deaths.

It may also represent the leading edge of the obesity epidemic. If so, women's life expectancy could decline broadly across the United States in coming years, ending a nearly unbroken rise that dates to the mid 1800s.

"I think this is a harbinger. This is not going to be isolated to this set of counties, is my guess," said Christopher Murray, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington who led the study. It is being published in PLoS Medicine, an open-access journal of the Public Library of Science.

Said Elizabeth Nabel, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health, "The data demonstrate a very alarming and deeply concerning increase in health disparities in the United States."

The study found a smaller decline, in far fewer places, in the life expectancy of U.S. men. Longevity is declining for about 4 percent of males.

The phenomenon appears to be not only new but distinctly American. "If you look in Western Europe, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, we don't see this," Murray said.

About half of all deaths in the United States are attributable to a small number of "modifiable" behaviors and exposures, such as smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise.

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Tracking the decline

1961 to 1983: Life expectancy rises everywhere for both sexes, largely because the heart attack death rate falls due to health advances.

1983-1999: Gains ebb; rise in longevity begins to stagnate in places with the least-healthy people. There, life expectancy increases by only one year (from 74.5 to 75.5) during this time, while in the healthiest places the life expectancy of women reaches 83. It is during this interval that women's life expectancy falls in nearly 1,000 counties. If one adds counties where it rises only insignificantly, nearly 1 in 5 are now experiencing stagnating or falling life expectancy.

Life expectancy dives for many women in U.S. 04/21/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 10:40am]
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