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Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum Headshot

Life Expectancy for Women Declines: It's Our Wakeup Call

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A few days ago, a startling story came out in the news media. One network reported it this way: "Female Life Span Decreasing: Some Possible Reasons for the Bizarre Trend." The statistics: Women 75 and under are dying at higher rates than in previous years, in the United States.
This surprised the researchers, but it doesn't surprise me. It does, however ignite urgency in my mission. As a doctor who specializes in preventing heart disease in women, and knowing that heart disease is the number-one killer of all American women, these statistics are jarring. The statistics tell an even more specific story: The areas experiencing this trend most dramatically are rural areas and the southern and western regions of the country.

Researchers say the reasons are "unknown." They say it's "confusing" and "bizarre." I spent years researching and writing my book, only to see an increase in unhealthy lifestyle issues, especially for women under the age of 55. The notion that unhealthy behavior and poor lifestyle choices lead to early death isn't new. A study published in 2005 called the INTER-HEART trial determined that nine factors were responsible for 90 percent of heart disease. These included: high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, abdominal obesity, smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol consumption, and psychosocial risk factors such as stress and depression. Analyze any one of these risks and you'll see that they are all due to the lifestyle choices we make. So let's break this down. If the lifestyle choices we make are responsible for the number-one cause of death, and more young women are dying, then how hard is it to connect the dots? I would hardly call it "bizarre," although I would call it frustrating.

Saying that women are dying younger is a mystery does women a great disservice. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and the increasing stress women experience in the modern world that exacerbates all these conditions are the reasons, and we already know these are all more prevalent in the areas that report the highest incidence of this increasing death rate. We are missing an opportunity. We can change those statistics, if we pull our collective heads out of the sand and admit that we know exactly why women aren't living as long.

I use the phrase "live from the heart" often. What it means is to empower yourself to take charge of your health, to not join the statistics. As a country, we are too lax, and too easily accept what is happening. Instead, we can change ourselves, one heart at a time, if we step back and look at the big picture of women in the world today. So, what is the big picture? What are the bigger issues? Women are the jugglers, playing all roles for everyone and trying to make it all work. With the economic realities as they are, the pressure to earn a living, the need to provide, and the ability to take care of everyone and everything take their toll. The stress itself can contribute to high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (blockages in the arteries), and obesity. It can also lead to destructive health behaviors such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol, not sleeping or sleeping too much, and overeating. Heart rates are increasing. Death rates are increasing. We can accept this fate, or we can commit to living from the heart and start taking care of ourselves first. Otherwise, I'm concerned that the death rate will continue to rise.

"Living from the Heart" isn't an "initiative." It's not a national health plan. This is not a public health policy, because it is a uniquely individual approach. It's a "you policy." It's a way you can live to step out of the system and get healthy despite the trends. It's about changing your behavior. Living from the heart means making choices that nurture you instead of hurt you.

Our hearts crave health. When we move, we feel better. When we make food choices that nourish us, we feel energetic. When we do things that make us laugh, or spend time with the ones we love, we flourish. When we manage our stress -- not by giving up our power or position, but by balancing exertion with relaxation -- then is living from the heart.

Nothing will change what women can do and what they have already done in this world. Nothing will remove all your stress, either. There is a reality to life -- a reality to the economy, to working, to keeping schedules, doing laundry, shopping for food, cleaning, paying the bills. But what can change is how we nurture ourselves. Make today the day you decide to listen to, to really hear, what your heart is telling you. Stop one unhealthy behavior and see how you feel. Quit the diet soda, or stop the sugar-sweetened beverages. Get rid of the potato chips. Completely rid your home of anything whose labels are uninterpretable and unreadable. Go for a walk. Put down your smartphone and spend some focused time with your child, a friend, even your pet. Then breathe, and just listen. Listen to your heart. How does it feel when you take care of yourself and give yourself what you need?

I believe that we need to change the paradigm so women start living longer again, but the only way to do this is one individual at a time. We will never go back to the way things "used to be," whatever that means. We need to look forward and decide where we are headed and who we really want to be in this future of strong women doing it all. We need to embrace our strengths and strengthen our weaknesses, too, in a self-nurturing way.

So don't worry when you hear these frightening statistics, but let them be a wakeup call. They are a manifestation of us forgetting what it means to be healthy. Of forgetting our very selves. Then, make small changes, minute by minute, breath by breath, bite by bite, step by step. Let's take back our health, our wellness, and our longevity with this simple prescription: Listen to your heart.

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