Short of an epidemic or a war occurring, developed countries almost never experience a dramatic drop in life expectancy among a significant segment of its population. But that's happened in for women living in one-fifth of American counties between 1999 and 2009, according to a study published in the journal Health Affairs.
The trend is both alarming and, on some levels, unsurprising. It tells a terribly sad tale how uneven is the access to American health care, but also provides a visceral reminder of how important it is to implement the Affordable Care Act aka "Obamacare" so women can get the preventive care that could lengthen and save their lives.
The study showed that in the space of a decade between 1999-2009, many white women lacking a high school diploma saw a five-year decline in the number of years they can expect to live in certain counties, located mostly in the South, the lower Midwest, and Appalachia.
These areas include areas with some of the highest percentage of the population that are uninsured. In Connecticut, a far lower proportion of the population is uninsured. Women here didn't experience the same huge drop in life expectancy.
Researchers theorize that the women in these counties are losing years off their lives because of rising rates of obesity, high blood pressure and smoking. Yet there are other factors, too.
Women in this educational category have low-paying jobs that, far too often, come with no health insurance. More women in this population are also single mothers, a situation of high stress that challenges them financially and psychologically. And the United States, unlike most other developed countries, provides few supports for child care or paid maternity leave would lower the stress of child rearing.
Obamacare will help women starting in 2014 because it will provide to millions more women medical services they need to stay healthy, particularly during their reproductive years. Needed preventive care will include interventions for smoking and obesity, and testing for high blood pressure, which frequently has no symptoms and can result in disability and death.
The new law will probably not cover everyone who needs it and it remains to be seen whether states will continue to resist implementation for their citizens. But for many of the uninsured, including millions of women, it will be a step toward healthier lives, and perhaps even longer ones.