Women Live Longer, But With More Disability

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Although women live about five to ten years longer than men, they appear to experience a greater prevalence of disability in old age, according to a study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Women’s Health.

The study is based on health surveys conducted by the Public Health Agency in Barcelona since 1982. The data includes interviews from 4,244 non-institutionalized people older than 64. The prevalence of disability was 30% among men and 53% in women.

"The double burden of work that women experience throughout their lives (domestic work and work outside the home) is a key factor in explaining this difference in different studies," says lead author Albert Espelt. Domestic work is less rewarding than working outside the home, and leads to a greater prevalence of non-fatal diseases such as musculoskeletal problems and depression.

Overall life expectancy in the US was 77.7 in 2006, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Men live on average to age 75.1, while women live to age 80.2. Tom Perls, founder of the New England Centenarian Study at Boston University, says one very important reason for the difference is that women develop cardiovascular problems, such as heart attack and stroke, about 10 years later than men.

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According to the CDC, as many as one in five women in the US are living with disabilities, a broad term that encompasses a wide range of conditions and diseases. The agency estimates that well over half of all American women older than 65 are living with a disability. The most common chronic conditions associated with disability in the US are back disorders, arthritis, heart disease, respiratory problems, and high blood pressure.

Although women may have certain biological advantages over men, ladies shouldn't take their longer life expectancy for granted. The 2004 gender gap in U.S. life expectancy was the smallest it's been since 1946. If women continue to adopt unhealthy habits, such as poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and smoking, the gap may narrow further.

Both men and women can influence both life expectancy and risk of developing a disabling condition with simple behavioral and lifestyle changes.

1. Manage your weight. A recent Oxford University study found that even moderate obesity can reduce life expectancy by about 3 years. Severe obesity has been shown to reduce life expectancy by 10 years, an effect equal to that of lifelong smoking.
2. Nutritional status is a key factor to prevent or delay disability in elderly patients, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Vitamin and mineral status, as well as body weight, can be influenced by a healthful, balanced diet of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean protein sources.
3. Optimal levels of physical activity over the course of the life span can potentially contribute to the prevention of functional disability in old age. These include the direct effects of exercise to delay the onset of disability-related conditions, provide weight management, and reduce stress.
4. Quitting smoking can have a huge impact on life expectancy. The “Action on Smoking and Health” conducted in 2004 found that a 30-year-old smoker can expect to live about 35 more years, while a 30-year-old nonsmoker will likely live about 53 more years.

Journal Reference:
1. Espelt et al. Disability Among Older People in a Southern European City in 2006: Trends in Gender and Socioeconomic Inequalities. Journal of Women s Health, 2010; 19 (5): 927 DOI: 10.1089/jwh.2009.1608

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