work-poorArticles about how women are forging ahead of men have been proliferating in recent years, some even talking about “the end of men”. But a new study highlights a trend that goes back three decades and has seen women in some strata of American society losing some of their advantage over men in a very fundamental way. It shows that women aged 75 and younger have declining life expectancy in nearly half of the counties of the United States. It’s thought that about 12 percent of women are affected. For men, however, life expectancy has held steady or improved in nearly all counties.

Researchers who have been following the trend admit that they do not really understand it. Some likely factors have been suggested. Disadvantaged white women are more affected than others and some regions, notably the South of the US. Smoking rates, obesity are likely suspects in reducing life spans and these often go together with less education. Drug abuse has also been mentioned. And so has the effect of migration — the idea that healthier women have moved out of rural areas leaving behind others who are too poor and unhealthy to relocate. The only trouble with the latter theory is that migration doesn’t seem to affect male death rates.

This paragraph of an AP report suggests something else to me, though:

Some other studies that focused on national data have highlighted steep declines in life expectancy for white women who never earned a high school diploma. Meanwhile, life expectancy seems to be growing for more educated and affluent women. Some experts also have suggested smokers or obese women are dragging down life expectancy.

My idea is this: other research has shown a correlation between educational/social status and marriage. Downscale Americans are not marrying as much as they once were but upscale Americans are. And we know that marriage provides, among more important things, health and financial benefits for the spouses, no matter where they start out on the socio-economic scale.

When you think of all the single mothers trying to look after children and hold down a job it doesn’t take much imagination to see how that could shorten some lives.

It would be very interesting to know whether researchers have taken marriage into account in their analysis of female premature mortality data, or whether they will in the future. 

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet