Life Spans May Be Shrinking for Some American Women

Of the 3,140 counties in the sample, 603 (19.2 percent) experienced substantial improvement in female mortality rates, and 1,193 counties (38 percent of the sample) experienced minimal improvement. The 28 counties that experienced no change in female mortality rates were grouped with the 1,316 counties that experienced worsening female mortality rates (42.8 percent). (Image credit: Maps courtesy of Health Affairs via the University of Wisconsin)

The life expectancy for some American women seems to be on the decline, especially in rural areas in the South and the West, new research suggests.

The mortality rates for women age 75 and younger in 42.8 percent of counties in the United States worsened between 1992 and 2006, while the same was true for men in just 3.4 percent of counties over the same period, the study shows.

"We decided to look at the change in health outcomes over time, and were actually shocked to see that female mortality rates were worsening in more than 42 percent of counties," study researcher David Kindig, professor emeritus of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin, said in a statement.

American women have generally enjoyed a longer life expectancy than men, but the gap has been narrowing since its peak in 1979. In 2011, the life expectancy for an American female was 81.1 years compared with 76.3 years for men, according to the most recent available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Of the 3,140 counties in the sample, 1,012 (32.3 percent) experienced substantial improvement in male mortality rates, and 2,020 counties (64.3 percent) experienced minimal improvement. The three counties that experienced no change in male mortality rates were grouped with the 105 counties that experienced worsening male mortality rates (3.4 percent). (Image credit: Maps courtesy of Health Affairs via the University of Wisconsin)

It's not entirely clear why some women might be facing a greater risk of premature death than others. Kindig's team found that mortality rates were not affected by access to primary care physicians. But there were links between higher female mortality and certain regional, behavioral and socioeconomic factors, such as living in the rural South or the West, higher smoking rates and lower education rates.

"Socioeconomic and behavioral factors are underappreciated for their effects on health, but with data like this, we see that those factors are important again and again," Kindig said.

The study is based on averages of the mortality rates in U.S. counties from 1992-1996 and 2002-2006. The researchers said they smoothed out any anomalies that may have been caused by big changes in sparsely populated counties.

Their results were detailed this week in the journal Health Affairs. The findings highlight "the complicated policy reality that there is no single silver bullet for population health improvement," the researchers wrote.

"Investments in all determinants of health — including health care, public health, health behaviors and residents’ social and physical environments — will be required."

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Megan has been writing for Live Science and since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.