Managed Care Outlook

Men are catching up with women in the life expectancy game

When it comes to life expectancy, it’s all good news from now until 2040, but the news is a little better for men than it is for women, according to a study published in July in Population Health Metrics.

American men, as a group, are expected to benefit from an earlier dip in their smoking rates while the gains of women in years of life expectancy without disability will be hindered by obesity rates, according to the study by Bochen Cao, a graduate student in demography at the University of Pennsylvania.

Whatever you might believe about the relative standing of the genders, one thing is clear: When it comes to life expectancy, women have been ahead of men. In 2010, there was a 4.8-year difference in life expectancy between American men and women (76.2 years for men and 81 years for women). Women will still be ahead of men in 2040, but the difference will shrink to 0.5 years, according to Cao’s calculations.

Projected life expectancy gains between the ages of 55 and 85 for men and women

The trend is positive for both genders, but less so for women because of the health-related effects of obesity.

Source: Cao B, Population Health Metrics, July 12, 2016.

One reason men are catching up is because of falling smoking rates. To give an idea of the powerful effect of smoking rates on mortality, Cao shares a calculation that’s pretty stunning: 800,000 American deaths from lung cancer have been avoided because of the decline in smoking rates between 1975 and 2000.

Longer life is one thing. Longer life without disability is another—and better—thing. Cao reports that American men are projected to have a 3.2-year increase in life expectancy without disability between 2010 and 2040, which is almost twice the gain for women. Here’s another way that Cao puts it: By 2040, American men are expected to spend 80% of their remaining life expectancy between ages 55 and 85 free of disability whereas women will spend 75% of those later-life years free of disability.

Why the gender difference? Some of it can be chalked up to the earlier decrease in smoking rates among men, but there’s another factor, Cao explains. The American obesity epidemic has a greater effect on the disability rates for the country’s women, as a group, than it does for its men. So much so that obesity’s health-depriving effect winds up canceling out some of the gains from fewer smokers.

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