Many women in North Carolina are dying younger than their mothers did. That’s a shocker considering that life expectancy in the U.S. is at an all time high. Americans live, on average, to almost 79. And a girl born today can expect to live to 81.
But that’s not the full story. For many women the story is bad and getting worse.
- Life expectancy for women is getting worse in more than half of North Carolina counties — while it’s getting better for men in 99 out of 100 counties. And this isn’t just true in NC, but across the country.
- Women live longer than men but the gap is falling. In 1985, women lived 7 years longer than men; today it’s less than 5 years.
- White women who drop out of high school now die 5 years earlier than their mothers.
- Where you live makes a big difference. Women who live in Rocky Mount can expect to die 7 years earlier than women in Raleigh.
So what’s going on? Several possible factors have been identified:
- Smoking. Women really took up smoking in the 1940’s and it’s catching up with us. White, low-income, and less educated women smoke more. Low income women say they smoke to relieve the stress of their lives and because they feel lonely and depressed. The good news is that if you quit smoking in your 40’s you can cut the negative effects by 90% and if you quit in your 30’s it’s like you never smoked at all.
- Jobs. Women who drop out of high school are much less likely to work outside the home than men who drop out and their better-educated sisters. When they do work they work in the worst paying jobs like child care, food service, and housecleaning. They don’t have health insurance or paid days off. And researchers say not working impacts their self esteem, social interactions, “sense of purpose”, and mental and physical activity levels.
- Education. Women’s education levels are linked to their exercise habits, rates of smoking, healthy body weight, having more access to health information, and moderate use of alcohol.
- Prescription painkillers. Women, especially white women, are dying from prescription pill overdoses at epidemic rates. Since 1990, the increase in deaths among women has increased by 400%. Women are more likely to be prescribed painkillers, have a harder time overcoming addiction and receive treatment less frequently than men. And, because our body mass is smaller, we are more susceptible to overdose.
The root cause of all this might just be despair. Many women are caught in a cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity that leads to school dropout, substance abuse and smoking and ultimately ends in premature death. In fact, a recent study at the University of California found that women who suffer from chronic stress have significantly lower levels of Klotho, a hormone that regulates aging.
There are things we can do. We need to address the high school dropout problem among young women and reduce obstacles that keep low income women from working. That includes providing decent day care, ensuring living wages, and making sure that single parents have the flexibility and paid time off they need to take care of themselves and their families.
Women in the US have the 36th highest life expectancy in the world. That’s bad enough. But in parts of North Carolina women have the life expectancy of women in Cambodia and Azerbaijan. That’s disgraceful! Let’s get to work.