Why Are We Dying Younger Than Our Mothers?

That's the question The Atlantic asked today in its story on the effects The Affordable Care Act will have on our healthcare.

The reality is that this earlier death rate may be affecting all of us, to some degree, but mostly women in the South and West without a high school diploma.  These women often do not have access to good healthcare, if any at all.

The Atlantic reports, "In March, a study published by the University of Wisconsin researchers David Kindig and Erika Cheng found that in nearly half of U.S. counties, female mortality rates actually increased between 1992 and 2006, compared to just 3 percent of counties that saw male mortality increase over the same period."

Various studies have put this earlier death rate down to "growing health disadvantages," which have disproportionately had an impact on women over the past three decades. Another study in July found "that inequality in women’s health outcomes steadily increased between 1985 and 2010, with female life expectancy stagnating or declining in 45 percent of U.S. counties."

Says The Atlantic, "While advancements in medicine and technology have prolonged U.S. life expectancy and decreased premature deaths overall, women in parts of the country have been left behind, and in some cases, they are dying younger than they were a generation before. The worst part is no one knows why."

The income gap, once again? There are, of course, relationships between county mortality rates and several cultural and socioeconomic indicators, as one study notes.  You're probably not going to see a woman in Orange County or Beverly Hills skipping a mammogram because of cost.  But in the interior sections of our country, where jobs are few and maybe meals, too, it's a whole different story.

Counties with rising female mortality rates "paint a broad stroke across Appalachia and the Cotton Belt, moving across to the Ozarks and the Great Plains. The Northeast and the Southwest, on the other hand, have been largely untouched," the Web site says.

But why isn't this happening to men?  No one knows.  Studies have for some time pointed out the relationship between educational attainment and health outcomes.  Is it because these women with less education can't read, or don't have TVs telling them the importance of quitting smoking or having a yearly mammogram?  Probably my ignorance is showing, but something is keeping these women from living a full, good life.

“It's unprecedented in American history to see a drop in life expectancy of such magnitude over such a short time period,” The Atlantic quotes Jay Olshansky, the lead author of the study. “I don't know why it happened so rapidly among this subgroup. Something is different for the lives of poor people today that is worse than it was before.”

In fact, the only other country where this drop-off has been seen is in Russia, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Experts say education alone can't be completely responsible for the poor health of women who never graduated from high school. But maybe they're just not around all the information about obesity and smoking and diabetes the rest of us are. And even though they most likely don't have health insurance, studies have shown that's not the reason, either.

But The Atlantic credits Jennifer Karas Montez for possibly some of the answer.  “Women without a high-school degree have not made inroads in the labor force, especially in post-recession America,” said the demographer who studies health inequalities, and co-authored a study that was the first to investigate how quality of life might be playing a role in the early deaths of female high-school dropouts.

 Montez said in an interview with The Atlantic that only one-third of women without a high-school diploma are employed, compared to half of their male counterparts, and nearly three-quarters of better-educated women. When they are employed, Montez told The Atlantic, it is usually in "low-wage jobs that offer no benefits or flexibility."

Smoking and other destructive behaviors often attributed to these women may just be "symptoms of the heightened stress and loneliness experienced by women who don’t graduate from high school," Montez told The Atlantic.  “Life is different for women without a high-school degree than it was a few decades ago, and in most cases it’s a lot worse,” she said in the interview. “It’s really just a perfect storm.”


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