Obesity and poverty may be cutting about a year off the average life expectancy of 65-year-old U.S. women.[@@]

Researchers at the Boston College Center for Retirement Research reach that conclusion in a new study on trends in life expectancy in developed countries at age 65.

Alicia Munnell, Robert Hatch and James Lee, the researchers, note that U.S. men have had mediocre life expectancies at age 65 for decades. Older men in countries such as Japan and France have been able to look forward to more years of life since at least the 1960s, the researchers write.

Average life expectancies for older men have been improving throughout the developed world, but 65-year-old U.S. men continue to rank near the middle of the pack, with an average life expectancy of about 16 years, the researchers write.

In 1975, 65-year-old U.S. women enjoyed some of the longest life expectancies in the developed world. They could look forward to an average of 18 years of additional life, compared with an average of about 17 years for 65-year-old women in other developed countries. Since then, life expectancies for 65-year-old women in most developed countries have risen to more than 20 years, but the average for 65-year-old U.S. women has risen only 1 year, to about 19 years.

When the Boston College researchers ranked life expectancy figures for 65-year-old women in 30 developed countries, they found that the U.S. slipped to 18th in 1999, from 2nd in 1980.

The slump in U.S. women’s mortality performance could help reduce future Social Security costs, but promoting increases in longevity improves the welfare of the population, the researchers argue.

“Living a long life allows parents to see their children and grandchildren grow to adulthood,” the researchers write. “It allows people to look forward to a period of leisure after a lifetime of work, to enjoy recreational pursuits, and to spend more time with family and friends.”

The researchers developed a mathematical model to calculate the effects of various factors on 65-year-olds’ longevity.

Smoking and giving up work play some role in reducing longevity, but obesity and poverty appear to have a much bigger effect, the researchers write.

Model equations suggest that increasing the average annual income of older, low-income U.S. women by $3,000 would lead to a 7-month increase in the average life expectancy of 65-year-old U.S. women and that cutting the obesity rate to 4%, from the current level of 34%, would lead to a 14-month increase, the researchers predict.