A recent study revealed that the life expectancy for some American women is falling, despite the fact that it had been found to be improving in previous years.
The study found women ages 75 and younger are dying at higher rates than prior years in half of the nation’s counties. Many of these counties are rural and in the South and West.
They also found that life expectancy for men has been steady or improving in most counties.
It is the most recent study to spot the pattern, which is greatly affecting disadvantaged white women.
Some blame higher smoking rates, obesity and less education for the decline in life expectancy, but other experts say they have no idea why it is happening.
Women have usually outlived men, and even the latest numbers show a baby girl can expect to live to be 81, while a baby boy can expect to see 76.
But according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the gap has narrowed and shown women’s longevity is not improving at the same rate as men’s.
The pattern seems to have started in the late 1980s, but recent studies say it only became noticeable in the last few years.
Jennifer Karas Montez, of Harvard School of Public Health, said they are trying to figure out what is going on. “It’s the hot topic right now,” she said.
Scientists do not know how many women are affected, but Montez said it’s safe to estimate about 12 percent of all women are living for fewer years.
The decline in life expectancy was found in 43 percent of the nation’s counties.
David Kindig and Erika Cheng, the study’s researchers, analyzed federal death data and other information for nearly all 3,141 U.S. counties over a decade.
They determined the mortality rates for women age 75 and under, often referred to as “premature death rates” as these deaths can often be prevented.
Nationwide, the rate of women dying prematurely was expected to fall from 324 to 318 per 100,000 women, but it actually rose from 317 to 333 per 100,000.
“We were surprised by how much worse women did in those counties, and by the geographic variations,” Kindig said.
But the good news is that life expectancy is growing for educated and affluent women. Those who did not earn a high school diploma saw a steep decline in life expectancy.
Cheng and Kindig also think a major influence is smoking rates, because these are often higher in Southern states.
“I think the most likely explanation for why mortality is getting worse is those factors are just stronger in those counties,” Kindig said.
“We shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that more people are getting sicker in these geographic areas than previously.”