A historic reversal: poor women are living shorter lives

I’ve been chewing over lots of longevity-related statistics lately. Almost all chart seemingly inexorable progress: Americans have gained 30 additional years of life in the 20th century; 17% percent of that increase is above the age of 65; the old old (aged 85+) make up the fastest growing subset of that group. 

So two groundbreaking studies reported earlier this week and headlining this Sunday’s New York Times’ Week in Review section caught my eye. Life spans are leveling off or declining for 4 percent of men and 19 percent of women. Most of the counties with declines are in the Deep South, along the Mississippi River, and in Appalachia, as well as in the southern Plains and Texas. 

Many complex factors affect longevity, including unique events like the Spanish flu epidemic (which caused life expectancy to drop seven years in 1918, though it quickly rebounded) and the emergence of new medical treatments (like the AIDS “cocktail”). But the counties that reported the lousy numbers are poorer than those where lifespans continue to increase. Smoking, high blood pressure and obesity, and related chronic health problems are more common among low-income Americans, and diseases are managed less well. Women are poorer, heavier, and suffer more chronic illness. Connect the dots. 

The studies describe a society in which socioeconomic status is destiny. In counties with higher income and education levels, life spans rose. Thus, even as the gap in life expectancy narrows between men and women and between blacks and whites, it widens between the haves and the have-nots. The icing on the cake? This new phenomenon appears to be distinctly American; it’s not occurring in other industrialized countries. Seems like our politicians have been paying less attention to the writing on the wall about the importance of preventive health care than to Red Foxx: “All them crazy health freaks! When they’re 80 years old they’ll be sittin’ around dyin’ of nothin!”

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