New lifespan data: Many U.S. girls 'will live shorter lives than their mothers'

April 24, 2012, 8:09 a.m.

New data about U.S. lifespans reveals that women in hundreds of U.S. counties could live shorter lives than their mothers. (Credit: Molly/Flickr Creative Commons)

Women's lifespans are getting worse in hundreds of counties and improving at a much slower place than men's, according to a new study.

Data released by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), an independent global health research center based at the University of Washington, shows that gaps in health outcomes are growing. In 661 U.S. counties, life expectancy for women plateaued or worsened since 1999. Compare that to 166 counties where life expectancy did the same for men.

"It's tragic that in a country as wealthy as the United States and with all the medical expertise we have that so many girls will live shorter lives than their mothers," said Ali Mokdad, head of IHME's U.S. County Performance research team, in a statement.

Some of the disparities illuminated by the study were startling. The gap between women living the longest lives and women living the shortest is growing – in Collier, Fla., women live an average of 85.8 years; in McDowell, W. Va., it's 74.1 for a gap of 11.7 years. That was an 8.7-year gap in 1989. The gap is larger for men (15.5 years) but it's grown smaller since 1989.

In its statement, IMHE also noted that there are counties where lifespans rival countries where people live the longest, like Japan (where the life expectancy is 83.91 years), Hong Kong (82.12 years) and France (81.46 years).

There are also counties that have lower life expectancies than countries that spend far less on health care: Colombia (74.79 years), Egypt (72.93 years) and Indonesia (71.62 years).

For Los Angeles County, life expectancy for both men and women increased every year between 1989 and 2009, although sometimes minimally. Men saw their expected average lifespan go from 71.2 years in 1989 to 78 years in 2009, for a gain of 6.8 years of life; women saw a shift from 78.2 years to 83.1 in the same timeframe, for a gain of 4.9.

So despite the fact that female Angelenos are living longer on average, they still saw a smaller gain than their male counterparts, a trend that's reflective of lifespan patterns nationwide.

IMHE points to a slew of potential reasons and factors for the disparity, which is far worse in other parts of the nation. It said an estimated 54,000 women die every year because of excess salt intake, while an estimated 248,000 men die every year due to smoking.

It also found that the biggest drivers of those disparities are preventable causes of death: tobacco, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and alcohol. Those problems, obesity in particular, are all present in South Los Angeles, and are all exacerbated by the area's lack of access to affordable primary and specialty health care.

A 2011 report on county lifespans by the L.A. County Department of Public Health indicated as much. Out of 103 areas of the county that were ranked, City Councilwoman Jan Perry's ninth district ranked a dismal 96, with an average life expectancy at birth of 77 years. Hers is the second-worst council district, only trailing Councilman Bernard Parks' eighth district, which ranks at 102 with a life expectancy of 75.2.

Ranking at number one was La Cañada Flintridge, located near the junction of Highway 2 and the Interstate 210, which had an average expected lifespan of 87.8 years.

One positive overall trend revealed by the study: The life expectancy gap between black and white Americans is closing. The gap between white and black men in 1989 was 8.7 years; in 2009, it was 5.5. The gap between black and white women is narrower than that: 3.6 years.

Photo by Molly via Flickr Creative Commons.

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