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Ear to the Ground

Why Are So Many American Women Dying?

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Posted on Oct 7, 2013

An alarming study reveals that female mortality rates have increased drastically in the past few decades, and no explanation has been discovered as to why. Almost half the counties in the country saw a rise in women’s deaths, despite the prolongation of life expectancy overall. Erika Cheng and David Kindig at the University of Wisconsin published a study this summer in which they revealed this terrible trend, which seems to especially affect women in the South and West of the U.S. The Atlantic reports on speculations regarding generations of women dying at a younger age than their mothers did:

The Kindig study does note strong relationships between county mortality rates and several cultural and socioeconomic indicators. In particular, location appears to have an outsized effect on mortality rates. Counties with rising female mortality rates, marked in red, 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.

But it’s not clear how these geographical differences play a role in mortality, or why the effect would be so much greater on women than on men. “Clearly something is going on,” Kindig said. “It could be cultural, political, or environmental, but the truth is we don’t really know the answer.”

Other researchers have pointed out the correlation between education rates and declining female health outcomes. The most shocking study, published in August 2012 by the journal Health Affairs, found that life expectancy for white female high-school dropouts has fallen dramatically over the past 18 years. These women are now expected to die five years earlier than the generation before them—a radical decline that is virtually unheard of in the world of modern medicine. In fact, the only parallel is the spike in Russian male mortality after the fall of the Soviet Union, which has primarily been attributed to rising alcohol consumption and accidental death rates.

“It’s unprecedented in American history to see a drop in life expectancy of such magnitude over such a short time period,” said 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.”

Education alone does not explain why female high-school dropouts are so much worse off than they were two decades ago. But researchers have used it as a proxy to determine more significant socioeconomic indicators, like access to health care and income opportunities, as well as health behaviors like smoking and obesity. Smoking in particular appears to have had a significant impact on female mortality rates, as the health consequences of previous decades of tobacco use set in. Olshansky points out that female obesity and drug abuse have risen dramatically over the past two decades, and may also play a role in mortality rates.

Researchers are hopeful that the expansion of health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act will help ameliorate some of the health risks for poor and uneducated women. But access to health insurance is only part of the puzzle—in fact, Kindig’s study found that medical care factors had no discernible impact on death rates at the county level. “Health care is far from the whole story,” Kindig told me. “More and more people are beginning to realize that the non-health-care factors are at least as important.”

Even so, surely it’s logical to believe that regardless of the unknown causes of this drop in female life expectancy, more affordable health care is at the very least a step in the right direction. And yet despite these frightening findings, the GOP is determined that Americans don’t need increased access to health care, not to mention the Republicans’ numerous attempts to defund public educations. Perhaps the reality is they simply don’t care that women in so many of their districts are dying every day.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

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