“While women tend to live longer than men, this study shows that they are at greater risk of living with disability and much of the excess disability is attributable to higher rates of obesity and arthritis,” said Dr. Heather Whitson of the Duke University Medical Center in a public statement. “This is important because it suggests that women’s tendency to pack on extra pounds in their child-bearing and peri-menopausal years translates into loss of independence in their old age.”
Perhaps women will take better care to lose excess weight if they are aware of how detrimental it can be to their health; “extra pounds” put them at risk for becoming dependent on loved ones or requiring assisted living, Whitson added.
“The findings of our study are more troubling when you consider the increasing rates of obesity among women and the higher rates of other conditions that are currently over-represented among men,” said team member Dr. Harvey Jay Cohen of Duke publicly. “We need to help women make better decisions earlier in life.”
The researchers also cite previous research which found that hormone-related maladies increase their pain levels, thereby contributing to a more difficult aging process.
What other factors may make this life stage more challenging for women than men? Dr. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women and Families www.center4research.org says that social factors also contribute to the gap.
“Women are always in the caretaker role,” she explains. “When they are younger they are taking care of somebody else, and when they are older, there is no one to take care of them.”
Older men are more likely to have people around to take care of them, Zuckerman adds. “Older men have older women who are taking care of them. While women live alone and are lonely, men have either a wife or some interested single woman, or a daughter, or somebody,” she maintains.
That loneliness can be debilitating in its own way, says NY-based wellness expert Debbie Mandel http://www.turnonyourinnerlight.com/index.html .“The mind and body are very related; women have a very hard time aging in a youth-oriented society,” she explains. “They get brainwashed into thinking that with menopause it is all over, and that they will gain weight and have this dowager appearance. Women retreat in this youth-oriented society.”
As women age some go to weight extremes, Mandel adds. Some diet too much to avoid that notorious age-related weight gain, while others become obese. “I see women who get too thin because they are so afraid of gaining weight, and they look bad. It is either face or fanny,” Mandel says. “They are frail and suffer from osteoporosis. You also have the other side, with obesity and too much weight taxing the knees. Many women are also yo-yo dieters, and that is taxing to the liver. They get a whole host of issues.”
Zuckerman says that female obesity may be result of life changes such as childbirth and menopause, but emotional and social issues contribute here as well.
“It is certainly true that women gain weight from having children and that menopause causes women to gain weight, but it could also be because they are the ones that cook,” she says. “A woman living alone is making more food than a man living alone, and a woman might be more likely to snack around the house.”
Emotional eating may also play a role, Zuckerman notes. When someone is lonely and alone, they may overeat and fail to hold herself accountable. “There is nobody there to tell her ‘don’t do that,’” she adds.
Another reason obesity may affect women more than men is due to natural size differences. “Women tend to be shorter, on average, and so if they eat a hundred calories too much that contributes more to obesity than for a man, because she is 5’4” versus he at 5’10,”” Zuckerman explains. “Every extra pound shows up on a shorter person.”
Zuckerman is curious as to how the Duke researchers measure participants’ happiness levels. “Did the study measure quality of life? Can women just have more pain, still be happier than the men?” The issue, she notes, is how the term “miserable” is defined in the study.
Social support varies in form between men and women, Zuckerman says. “If you take a 75 year old woman and 75 year old man the man is more likely to be married, while the woman will have friends and relatives—other than a spouse,” she explains. “He will have a spouse and maybe also children because daughters will take care of their fathers, although women are not assumed to not be able to take care of themselves.”
Women are thought to be more independent than men, and as a result, fewer people reach out to them. “Because a woman is assumed to be able to cook for herself, she is less likely to be invited to dinner, as opposed to a man, who people may invite because they think he can’t cook for himself,” Zuckerman contends..
“What is new and interesting is that women are more miserable but we don’t really know how they define ‘miserable,’” she adds. “What is missing is that there are other issues going on and that older women are not being taken care of by anybody but men are.”
Mandel says that the mind-body connection may provide clues as to why there are such glaring differences between the sexes. “From a mind-body perspective, lung issues indicate a lack of assertiveness,” she explains. “Many women have not asserted their needs. They are older and look back on life, and say to themselves, ‘What do I do now?’”
What can women do now?
“No matter what age a woman is, it is never too late to reap the benefits of physical fitness, but you need to be gradual, get into it carefully, combine aerobics with strength training, and stretch,” Mandel advises. “Exercise creates empowerment, and makes you independent; how many women will be burdens due to hip replacements or knee replacements?”
Women also need to connect with themselves and others. “As a woman, you have to find that timeless quality about yourself, to know what you do and how you can keep growing. Find that point of greatness within you. I like to see a grown up as a ‘growing up,’” Mandel says. “Women need that emotional component. They need to tend and befriend, to get into that social network for stimulation and empowerment to feel better about themselves and get strength in numbers. They don’t have to go this route, to spiral down.”
“Women have a biological age and chronological age,” Mandel concludes. “We do have the power to change this disheartening prognosis.”