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Dr. Mary I. O'Connor Headshot

For Women, Living Longer Doesn't Always Mean Living Better

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Women live longer than men in the United States by almost five years. According to United Nations data, women in the U.S. have a life expectancy of 81.3 years versus 76.7 years for men. That is a significant difference. But are women living longer and still enjoying life? When you consider the major diseases that rob us of the women in our lives, heart disease and cancer spring to mind. However, there are those diseases, like arthritis, that slowly diminishes the quality of life for so many women. Eighty percent of Americans either have or know someone that has this crippling disease and 61 percent of all arthritis sufferers are women. Arthritic joint pain robs women of their mobility and takes them down a path of disability and illness.

Women affected by arthritis describe a harsh daily reality. Studies demonstrate that women 65 and over acquire up to two and half times more disabilities than men of the same age. A tortuous cycle, joint pain can interrupt work or make it harder to function in the workplace. Sufferers become inactive and can rapidly gain weight. It gets harder to perform basic tasks for themselves or their family. Soon, the debilitating pain and immobile joints causes loss of independence. Women don't get out of their homes and may become depressed.

But that's not all. Research shows that more than 10 percent of adult women, compared to seven percent of men, report activity limitation due to arthritis. Women also face significant health disparities in chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. In particular, obesity accelerates the onset of arthritis. According to 2007 Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates, more than 60 percent of U.S. adult women are overweight and alarmingly, one-third of them are obese. For many women, longer life does not equate to quality of life. Fortunately, these medical conditions can be improved with physical activity.

The road to a better quality of life for women living with arthritis can be within reach. A particular effective way to slow the progression of arthritis is for women to exercise! Movement is life! Exercise will positively impact co-morbid conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Women need to be made aware of community options that exist for exercising, encouraged to exercise and educated that exercise is not only important for a better quality of life but that it can also be fun. Furthermore, women patients need to be active partners in their own care and effective training needs to be developed for healthcare providers to discuss the need for exercise and weight loss.

Imagine the difference that a healthier society can make! We can't view this issue as just mere statistics and a faceless concept. A healthy and active woman is one that can also fully contribute to her family, community and nation. A 2003 CDC study demonstrated that the cost of arthritis and other rheumatic conditions in the United States was more than $128 billion. A shocking amount that continues to increase as the number of Americans living with arthritis also rises. The physical, psychological and economic toll of this health crisis requires immediate action and priority status on the national health agenda.

We understand that gender-based musculoskeletal disparities are rooted in many causes. And we also understand that there are solutions to stop the vicious cycle that is disabling our nation's women. Early intervention and identifying ways to make an impact now is key. Individuals, families, providers, communities, researchers and policymakers can all fulfill a role in reducing disparities and promoting musculoskeletal health. We cannot continue to be crippled by our inaction. Together we can move towards ensuring that women aren't just living longer but that they are also living better.

Mary I. O'Connor, MD, is Chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL. She is an Associate Professor of Orthopaedics at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and member of the Executive Operations Team at Mayo Clinic Florida. She serves as the co-chair for Movement is Life.