Old Age More Miserable for Women

Women live longer than men, on average, but its no secret that age takes its toll.

A new study finds that largely owing to obesity and arthritis, which take root during early and middle age, old age can be miserable for many women — even when comparing men and women of the same age.

A 2005 study that found that women suffer more pain than men, in part because of perceptions of pain related to differing hormone levels. But the new study flat-out finds that a higher percentage of women suffer painful conditions.

Among 5,888 people over 65, women suffered up to 2.5 times more disabilities than men of the same age.

Higher rates of obesity and arthritis among these women explained up to 48 percent of the gender gap in disability — above all other common chronic health conditions, researchers announced today.

"While women tend to live longer than men, this study shows that they are at greater risk of living with disability and much of the excess disability is attributable to higher rates of obesity and arthritis," said Dr. Heather Whitson of the Duke University Medical Center. "This is important because it suggests that women's tendency to pack on extra pounds in their child-bearing and peri-menopausal years translates into loss of independence in their old age."

Chronic pain can shrink the brain and besets about 75 million U.S. residents. Scientists still don't full understand how pain works. But health experts say exercise is one of the best ways to battle chronic pain, and it can also help sharpen the mind and even reduce the risk of cancer.

Researchers said the study is the first to isolate the impact of specific chronic health conditions on the difference in disability rates between older men and women.

"Women have a natural tendency to gain more weight than men over the lifespan, but may be more motivated to maintain a healthy weight if they realize that those extra pounds make it more likely that they will be disabled in later years – potentially becoming a burden to their children or requiring a nursing home," Whitson said.

Things may get worse.

"The findings of our study are more troubling when you consider the increasing rates of obesity among women and the higher rates of other conditions that are currently over-represented among men," said team member Dr. Harvey Jay Cohen of Duke. "We need to help women make better decisions earlier in life."

In addition to obesity and arthritis, the study found the women were more likely than men to experience fractures, vision problems and bronchitis. Men were more likely to have emphysema, coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, diabetes and hearing problems.

Live Science Staff
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