New study: Life expectancy for women has decreased in parts of U.S.

Change in life expectancy for women in U.S. counties from 1987 to 2007
map showing the change in life expectancy for women in US counties from 1987 to 2007
Go here for a larger version of the map. Red areas indicate counties where life expectancy has decreased. (Source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington)

That right there is an astounding map. Since basically forever, life expectancy in the U.S. has increased with each passing generation. But a new study found that while that trend has held steady nationally over the last two decades, for women in 313 U.S. counties, life expectancy has actually declined during that time.

That–like so many other health disparities in the U.S.–should be a national embarrassment. According to the study, the U.S. now ranks 37th in the world in average life expectancy. Since 2000, more than 80% of U.S. counties fell in standing against the “international frontier” (which is the average of the 10 nations with the best life expectancies). The researchers describe this as the “biggest decline in life expectancy since the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.” Except there’s no deadly virus to blame it on–it’s just your regular, run-of-the-mill American inequality.

Unsurprisingly, the numbers show significant racial and economic disparities. In some counties, life expectancy for black men and women is nearly 50 years behind the international frontier. But it’s the regional and gender disparities that are perhaps most striking. As the map above shows, the decline in life expectancy for women is heavily concentrated in the Southeast, the Southern Midwest, and Appalachia.

Remapping Debate talked to several public health officials from those areas to get a better idea of what’s happening at the local level. Some of them found the decline expected, others found it “puzzling,” and all had some explanations to offer–such as poor access to health services in rural areas, budget cuts to local health departments, lack of availability of healthy food and green spaces, and crushing poverty. Teasing apart the possible factors–not to mention investing in the public health programs needed to address them–is, of course, a whole other challenge.

But it’s a challenge that is long past time to take up. It’s not news that the U.S. has horrendous health disparities–it’s just that, unlike other wealthy nations, we don’t seem particularly bothered by it. David Kindig, a professor of population health sciences, hopes this may finally be a call to action:

We’ve known about the disparities in the health care system for a long time, but we’ve tolerated them because, on the whole, we were getting better. Until recently, we didn’t know that a lot of the country was actually getting worse.

That is such a typically American sentiment. We’ve “tolerated” health disparities that have long left marginalized groups lagging behind simply because “on the whole” health outcomes are improving. Just like we tolerate unbelievable, immoral, ever-increasing levels of economic inequality, as long as “on the whole” our GDP keeps growing.

We’ve seriously gotta stop averaging away these deep injustices. It shouldn’t take the reversal of a decades-long demographic trend to get us to quit tolerating this shit–but I hope it finally does.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Summer

    I’m not usually one to scream “What about teh Menz!” but this is an issue where men geniunely have it worse. Men’s life expectancies are not falling as fast as women’s, but they are falling, and overall men do not live as long as women.

    Honestly, this kind of like men complaining about the “he-cession”. Yeah, men lost out. But it’s inappropriate to complain about men losing when women already have it worse. Check your privilege.

    • dark_morgaine_le_fey

      I don’t think that Maya is trying to say that men don’t have it bad. Most of us are aware that women in industrialized countries like the U.S. generally have a longer life expectancy than their male counterparts. This is a matter of intersectionality, since many of the women (and men) facing these challenges belong to racial minorities and/or live in more rural, poorer communities with less access to health care. This article is NOT basing its assumptions on the idea that women ought to live longer because it’s our place to do so in the natural order of things, unlike champions of the “he-cession” mentality, who hold too such tired tropes as the idea that men need to work more than women because men are usually the breadwinners and must take care of their families. Life expectancy decreasing for any people in the United States should draw attention to the failures of our health care system, and I believe this was Maya’s intent in writing about these findings.

    • Jessica “Jess” Victoria Carillo

      We are all fucked….also, birth control saves lives. Trust from a sister who’s grandmother knows how difficult it is to have over 5 children

  • Critter

    Disgusting. Welcome to capitalism, people!

  • Erin

    Queue fat shaming in 3… 2… 1…

    I figure, by the time this report hits the local news level, all discussion will be relegated to claiming that this is caused by “the obesity epidemic”.

    Never mind that in some (definitely NOT all) cases, a high body weight might be being caused by lack of access to healthier foods, safer places to exercise, and medical care that is more than just fat blaming.

    • unequivocal

      Yes, I too was disturbed at the fat shaming going on both in the feministing post, the linked article, and the comments so far.

      Then I realized that it was possible that I might need to wait until there was some evidence of fat shaming before I railed against it.

      • Erin

        Not sure why you think I was saying there was fat shaming in THIS article, in the study, or in the comments on them.

        I was saying that by the time it gets down to local news level (as in, not only being reported on feminist sites and science sites that the average citizen doesn’t read) that it would be distilled down to “the obesity epidemic” like everything else.

  • Dina

    It is in no way uniquely American to be unaware of disparities in health outcomes across the country. It’s pretty common in Australia, especially looking at remote Indigenous populations.

  • jillian

    looking regionally for me, i was shocked to see oklahoma (particularly the entire southern border) in red. oklahoma city and tulsa seem to have some protection.

    i wonder if health disparities in native americans has something to do with it or the rural-ness of the area with little industry or jobs other than the huge casinos just over the border from texas. is it policies of a very conservative state?