Why American women are dying younger

American women may be making strides in shattering the glass ceiling of the executive office and making it clear that sexual harassment is not OK. But in one very significant -- perhaps the most important -- aspect of their lives, they're falling short. 

According to  a report by the Center for Retirement Research (CRR) at Boston College, life expectancy for women in the U.S. has stalled, leaving American females at the bottom of the list of the wealthiest nations.

"While U.S. life expectancy is now the lowest among ... high-income nations, the discrepancy is especially stark for women," said the CRR. In 1960, American women were likely to be among the longest-living females in the world. But that trend reversed itself in the 1980s, and today their life expectancy lags two-and-a-half years behind women in other developed nations.

The CRR had another surprising finding. Even though women have had, and still do have, longer life spans than men, that gap is narrowing. It's now is only four to five years, compared to the nine or 10 years for previous generations.

U.S. lifespan overall is not thriving compared to countries such as Canada, France and Japan. Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a world trade group, shows that the U.S. has regressed from having the third-highest life expectancy in 1960 to the bottom of the list in 2016. But the CRR claimed the decline is "largely a women's story, although U.S. men have started to slip in recent years."

The CRR looked at retirement-age Americans and based its study on expected life span from age 65 on. But the factors that make both men and women -- but particularly women -- die younger than they should are already in place when they're in their 30s and 40s.

And despite the ongoing criticism of the U.S. health care system relative to socialized medicine in other developed countries, this nation's erratic health care doesn't seem to be a significant factor, according to the CRR. "These differences probably have had little impact," it said.

Instead, the study indicated that the fault lies within ourselves. The CRR said diseases associated with smoking and obesity, such as lung cancer and diabetes, have contributed to the decline in women's life spans relative to other countries. "If U.S. patterns had matched those of its peer countries, U.S. life expectancy would have exceeded the average until very recently."

The CRR said the life expectancy gap between the U.S. and other countries was "surprising" given that we spend more money on health care than any other nation in the world. And the U.S. is doing better than most other nations at "aggressive treatment" of cancer and heart disease. But where the U.S. fails is in obesity, which causes stroke, and lung cancer, which is often caused by smoking. U.S. women were found to have smoked a lot.

While death rates from respiratory diseases fell short of those in other countries for men, they actually increased for women. Smoking has recently decreased for both sexes, but residual effects for those who smoked in the past will be felt for years to come.

Each additional cigarette smoked by a woman per day reduced her life expectancy by almost four months 25 years later. In the 1980s, U.S. females smoked 2.4 more cigarettes per day than women in many other countries. And by 2005 their lives were shortened by eight months. In contrast, men's cigarette consumption almost equaled the norm for comparable nations, and so it shortened their lives by only six months.

Even though smoking in the U.S. is on the decline, obesity, or being overweight, is expanding with our waistlines. For obesity, each 1 percentage point increase in the percentage of women considered obese reduces life expectancy by slightly more than half a month. Obesity is defined as being "grossly overweight." A five-foot-four-inch obese woman would weigh in at about 175 pounds or more.

The U.S. is now a "plus-size" nation. In 2005 the gap between the U.S. and nine other developed countries, which includes Germany, Spain and Italy, was 21 percentage points, suggesting that obesity reduced women's lives by more than a year. A study done by the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults age 20 and older are now considered obese, with 41 percent being women and 38 percent men.

But the decline in life expectancy isn't necessarily across the board. Some studies show that low-income workers -- often women holding down more than one job and trying to raise a family -- may suffer higher rates of mortality that those who can afford leisure time, as well as a gym membership.

The CRR's conclusion: Today, being overweight is the greatest enemy, especially for women.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.