Women live longer but face years of disability
American women have had a long-standing pattern of living longer than men (81.2 years compared to 76.4 years for males), but a new study shows those additional years may be spent in poorer health.
“Just a few decades ago, older women used to live more years than men without needing help taking care of themselves or managing basic household activities,” said study author Vicki Freedman of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. “But that does not appear to be the case anymore.”
For the study, Freedman and her team used data from two large national health surveys of Americans aged 65 and older, conducted in 1982, 2004 and 2011, that examined disability trends in the United States among representative samples of Medicare enrollees. Participants were asked whether a disability (a health issue that prevented them from doing at least one of their normal activities, like eating, shopping for groceries, and getting out of bed) kept them from carrying out various daily activities.
During the 30-year study period, researchers found men’s active life expectancy at age 65 increased by more than four years. For that same period, women’s active life expectancy at age 65 increased by only 1.4 years. For both genders, between 1982 and 2004, trends in disabilities lowered, with physical limitation dropping from 25.8 percent to 20.2 percent for women and from 22.3 percent to 15.5 percent for men. But from 2004 to 2011, the percentage leveled off for men, while climbing for women to 24.2 percent.
“Older men have been living longer and experiencing disability at later ages than they used to, while older women have experienced smaller increases in life expectancy and even smaller postponements in disability,” Freedman said. “As a result, older women no longer can expect to live more active years than older men, despite their longer lives.”
Researchers said the reasons for these trends are unclear, but believe they could be attributed to the fact that women are living more years than men, making them more prone to experiencing disability at later ages. They also note that men and women experience different health conditions later in life, and suggest doctors have made more advances regarding conditions commonly plaguing men. For example, heart disease is the leading cause of death for men in this country, but the death rate from this condition has dropped 38 percent in a decade, spurred by better control of cholesterol and blood pressure, low smoking rates, and improved medical treatments.
The same is not true for women, researchers said. “Women are more likely than men to develop a number of debilitating conditions, including arthritis, depressive symptoms, fall-related fractures and Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias that have implications for active life,” Freedman said. And doctors tend to manage conditions in a less aggressive way for women than men.
To combat this and help older women, researchers suggest a greater focus on quality rather than quantity of life. And they advocate collaboration between assisted living facilities, nursing homes and home help programs to provide a better quality of life for seniors.
“Enhanced attention to these and other preventable causes of limitations among older women could extend active life,” Freedman said, “and help offset impending long-term care pressures related to population aging.”