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Life Expectancy Declines for American Women

Study Finds Longevity is Worse or No Better for Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. Women

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Life expectancy for American women is declining for the first time since the Spanish influenza epidemic in 1918, according to study [pdf] published today [April 22, 2008] by the Harvard School of Public Health and reported in the Washington Post.

Life Expectancy Decline for US Women is Widespread
The drop in life expectancy for American women was noted in nearly 1,000 counties—home to roughly 12 percent of U.S. women—mostly in low-income and rural areas in the Deep South, Appalachia and parts of the Midwest, but the downward trend also was apparent in one county in Maine.

Worse, the study shows that life expectancy for 19 percent of American women—nearly 1 in 5—is either going down or remaining stagnant. Researchers found no link between declining life expectancy and race or ethnicity.

Why is Life Expectancy Dropping for U.S. Women?
Lowered life expectancy in the affected counties appears to be related to the increasing number of female deaths from diabetes, lung cancer, emphysema and kidney failure. All of those health problems are long-term consequences of smoking. Because women started smoking in large numbers much later than men did, the deadly effects of smoking took longer to show up in women.

Researchers speculated that the recent drop in life expectancy among American women may also be an early warning about increasing obesity. If so, then life expectancy for U.S. women most likely would continue to decline for a much larger percentage of women in the years ahead.

That would be quite a reversal. Except for rare blips, such as the 1918 flu epidemic, the life expectancy of American women has been rising steadily since the mid-1800s.

American Women Alone in Facing Lower Longevity
The study found declining longevity in a much smaller percentage of American men—only about 4 percent. And it’s not just women vs men, it is American women vs the world. Researchers involved in the study said that no similar trends could be found in other countries, so declining life expectancy among women seems to be a uniquely American experience—at least for now.

About half of all deaths in the United States can be attributed to a small number of lifestyle choices or environmental causes that can be modified or avoided through personal action, such as smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Majid Ezzati of the Harvard Initiative for Global Health, a co-author of the study, said: "This is a story about smoking, blood pressure and obesity."

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