Women today are not living as long as their mothers. That was the jaw-dropping truth I learned at the Women in the World Summit last month. My first reaction was outrage. How could this happen in the 21st century and in the greatest country in the world?
If you'd asked me before the conference, I would have said women overall are healthier than previous generations. Thanks to a recent study that tracked death rates, I now know that in some counties in the United States my assessment would be wrong.
The study compared mortality rates for women from 1992-96 and 2002-06. It revealed that women in almost 43 percent of counties in the U.S. are dying younger than before. The number is less than 3.5 percent for men.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referenced the study when she spoke at the Women in the World Summit. “I am proud of my own daughter and the young women I have met through Chelsea – and the young women I work with,” Clinton said. “It’s hard to imagine turning the clock back on them, and yet in places in America, the clock is turning back.”
The study lists some possible reasons why women are not living as long – such as smoking rates, education levels, and where in the U.S. the women live. But the bottom line is no one really knows why it's happening.
That made me wonder why this isn't a bigger deal. As a women’s health advocate, I'm tuned in to a wealth of sources for health news, but I didn't hear a word about it. Why wasn't it blasted all over the news when this horrifying study was released? I think it’s another symptom of the state of women’s health care in this country.
And if we didn't hear about it, how can we keep it from happening to our daughters and granddaughters?
That brings me to National Women's Health Week which is May 12 – 18. It’s a week set aside to encourage women to improve their health by taking action. But how can we succeed when our health and wellness continue to receive a lower priority compared to men?
Women are programmed to suffer in silence. We keep our mouths shut rather than being the squeaky wheels that will get noticed. That has to change.
For example, we know that heart disease is the number one killer of women. But we also know that women are often diagnosed with heart disease later than men.
We know that ovarian cancer kills women. But there is no accurate or reliable test to provide early detection. If this was a condition affecting men, odds are good that better resources would have been developed by now.
We know that as few as 37 percent of all clinical trials include women in testing. That means most of the drugs and treatments we use were developed based on male physiology and don't take into account the lower muscle mass, hormonal fluctuations, and other differences between men’s and women's bodies.
We know we have a problem. So what do we do now? In this case I think we need to first identify the real problem. What is causing women not to live as long? It might not even be the same thing from county to county. Once we figure out the causes, we need to take action to fix each individual issue.
I believe awareness equals action. As individuals and as a country, we need to know what issues we face and then take steps to improve or eliminate them. We in the United States like to think that we're "all that,” but when we rank 49th in the world in women's health, we give up all our bragging rights.
I celebrate women every day, but there is no celebrating this kind of news. I believe we need to use National Women's Health Week to refocus on how we as a community of women can solve problems in our own health care.
We are in crisis. We need to stand together to fix this. Please share this with every woman you know. If we women don't know what’s going on, we can't do anything to change the outcome.
Michelle King Robson (pronounced robe-son) is one of the nation's leading women's health and wellness advocates. She is the Founder, Chairperson and CEO of EmpowHER, one of the fastest-growing and largest social health companies dedicated exclusively to women's health and wellness. In 2011 EmpowHER reached more than 60 million women onsite and through syndication expects to reach more than 250 million in 2012.