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Senior Women Suffer More Disability than Men

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Duke University researchers find that though women live longer than men do, they also suffer more from disability that decreases quality of life. The most prevalent cause of suffering and disability in senior women is arthritis and obesity, leading to two and a half times more suffering compared to men in the same age group.

Heather Whitson, M.D., assistant professor of medicine and lead investigator of the study says, "While women tend to live longer than men, this study shows that they are at greater risk of living with disability and much of the excess disability is attributable to higher rates of obesity and arthritis. This is important because it suggests that women's tendency to pack on extra pounds in their child-bearing and peri-menopausal years translates into loss of independence in their old age."

The types of disability seen among senior women may explain the gap in overall disability and quality of life among senior women, compared to men. With the rising incidence of obesity, the researchers see a potential for an increasing burden on nursing homes with our aging population.

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The authors write, "Women have a natural tendency to gain more weight than men over the lifespan, but may be more motivated to maintain a healthy weight if they realize that those extra pounds make it more likely that they will be disabled in later years – potentially becoming a burden to their children or requiring a nursing home."

In addition, emphysema and heart disease is becoming more prevalent among women, but that was not always the case. Women experience health problems related to smoking, including lung and heart disease. Heart disease is improving more rapidly in men than women, leading to another potential for greater disability among senior women.

The message from the researchers is that it is important for women to make good health choices to reduce the disability gap between men and women later in life.

Preventing arthritis and obesity in younger women could lead to less suffering among women who live longer than men do, yet suffer more disability than men, primarily from obesity and arthritis.