Women's Life Expectancy Not Making Gains You'd Expect. Inequality to Blame?

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Life expectancy in the U.S. isn't doing so good. Specifically, it isn't doing so well among women. During a recent webcast between Huffington Post and Harvard School of Public Health, Professor Lisa Berkman pointed out that life expectancy in the United States now lags behind other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an organization comprised of other highly developed nations. Once, she points out, the U.S. ranked in the middle of those countries, but life expectancy has increased slowly here, most especially among women.

Women's life expectancy in this country, Berkman says, "has virtually stagnated." Though women's life expectancy is currently five years greater than men's – 81 as opposed to 76 – the increase in women's life expectancy has been much smaller. Since 1989, women's life expectancy has increased by about 2.7 years; men's have increased 4.6 years. So are men just closing the gap? Or is something more problematic going on?

Well, as Berkman points out, the absolutely most disturbing thing about life expectancy in the U.S. is just how unequal it is. While wealthy, well-educated people really have seen large gains in life expectancy, lower income people have, in some cases, seen life expectancy go down. Surprisingly, life expectancy for poor white women actually declined four years between 1990 and 2008. To put that in context, even during the Great Depression, life expectancy continued to rise. In fact it rose more between 1929 and 1932 than between 2000 and 2013.

And, of course, life expectancy among people of color often continues to lag behind that of white people.

It's hard to look at this data and not be appalled. This literally means that inequality in the United States is killing people. It means people die sooner than they should. It means that though we have made great advances in health and medicine, capable of giving people longer and fuller lives, some people are simply not seeing the benefit of that at all.

So what's being done about this? Well, some remain hopeful that Obamacare will help even things out. But in a world where 85 people control as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion, inequality is hard to shake, especially if you aren't white and male. So what is going to happen to women's life expectancy? Will we continue to stagnate? Only time will tell.

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